Thursday, 2 April 2015

Richard III: a horse, a hearse, a marketing opportunity

And so, two years since my last (major) posting on Richard III, the body recovered from beneath that (now very famous) Leicester car park is finally returned to the ground.

Whatever your view on the exhumation, examination and all-round media circus, the story of discovery, interpretation and reburial has really been quite something. To see the results of an archaeological excavation on the front page of pretty much every newspaper in the UK and see / hear animated (sometimes perhaps rather too animated) historical debate on both TV and radio is extremely unusual (not to say extremely welcome). Not since the glory days of 1982 with the raising of the Mary Rose (which in televisual terms was, it has to be admitted, slightly less dramatic than Lew Grade's 1980 'epic' Raise the Titanic), has so much broadcast airtime been given over to archaeology.

To (mis)use that popular quote from The Mummy, for Richard, it would appear, "death is only the beginning'

OK so some are still arguing over whether the mortal remains recovered are those of the deposed Plantagenet monarch (I doubt there will never be a definitive statement - archaeology is rarely ever that conclusive - but I think we can all agree that the remains are more likely to have been those of Richard III than of A.N. Other), whether or not he was a good king (two words which I thought were mutually exclusive in any case), whether or not we should be reburying him with such pomp (well everyone deserves a decent burial don't they? - they even gave "divisive Prime Minister" Margaret Thatcher one, although to be fair I'm not sure she was ever accused of murdering young boys in the Tower of London (unless I missed that particular story)) and it's not that often that you get to wave goodbye to a monarch, let alone one so important / famous / infamous / notorious as Richard III.


As I said, nice to get history and archaeology on prime time.

The trouble is that now everyone seems to expect archaeologists to do nothing but hunt for long deceased monarchs (extending the famous quote of Mortimer Wheeler that archaeology was all about 'digging up people' by adding 'but only if they're really famous'). There seems to be, as far as I can discern from the Press comment, radio phone-ins and the fallout of various meetings in my present line of work, that archaeology aint worth doing unless it's seen to be dragging a long dead celeb to the surface and prodding him / her with trowels. It's the prospect of successful advertising / marketing opportunities however, rather than the research potential, that really seems to have caught the PR collective mind (to the extent that The Independent newspaper yesterday could run a tongue-in-cheek April 1st news story that Leicester University was considering renaming itself 'King Richard University', its student bar being rebranded Carnage@Bosworth and no-one batted an eyelid).

Winchester Uni has, for example, already achieved acclaim (and some useful publicity) by finding King Alfred the Great (although it has proved tricky making a big TV 'event' from a single fragment of pelvis), whilst Bristol Uni is, I believe, about to make a decent stab at sorting the reformation-disturbed remains of pre Norman kings held in various caskets at Winchester cathedral (although isn't it cheating when their names are inscribed on the outside of the box?).

I have, in this respect, already been asked (I like to think 'humorously') which particular monarch I have my sights (and sites) on. "Wasn't the 10th century Saxon king Edward the Martyr buried just 'up the road' at Shaftesbury Abbey" someone helpfully asked at the conclusion of a recent meeting,

to which I replied "nothing to do with me" before running hurriedly from the building. Others have enquired (politely but not without enthusiasm) that there must be a whole list of 'lost' kings and saints out there waiting for the spade of truth to dig through their individual cranium of fact.
Well, yes, I'm sure there are, it's just I'm not convinced that digging them all up without a research objective is strictly ethical.....or is that just me.....?

It's just me (again) isn't it.

Saturday, 21 March 2015

There goes the Sun

Another year, another solar eclipse. 

Today all media outlets in the UK have been on eclipse overload with special TV and radio programmes, fold-out souvenir newspapers and even an eclipse-related Google doodle (other internet search engines are available). An eclipse is, without doubt, one of the most significant and undeniably dramatic of all celestial events, certainly for those on the surface of planet earth who are fortunate enough to witness it.

Most of the news programmes were keen to interview archaeologists, archaeo-historians, archaeo-astronomers, exo-archaeologists and representatives of various Druid orders at a dizzying array of prehistoric monuments (I saw Stonehenge, Callanish, Avebury, Long Meg and Her Daughters, Castlerigg, Stanton Drew, Ring of Brodgar and Stenness amongst others) 

to ask the big questions such as:

"What did our ancestors think about eclipses?"


"what happened in prehistory when people saw an eclipse?"

and (rather more bizarrely)

"was Stonehenge a giant clock with the Sun and Moon as its hands?"

The correct answer to all of which, of course (despite what the interviewees said on camera) is "er, we don't know" - the period before the Roman State arrived in Britain and started indiscriminately slaughtering its way across the country being called PRE history, there being no written documents (letters, diaries, blogs etc) to allow us to see into minds of our distant ancestors and understand their point of view. Yes they probably were 'blown away' / 'terrified' / 'gob-smacked' and so on by solar and lunar eclipses, but their precise reaction to these events is not only unknown but ultimately unknowable. Speculation, whilst hugely entertaining, is therefore fairly pointless. They may have understood that the moon was blotting out the sun (and everything would eventually return to normal) or they may well have thought that a giant squirrel was eating its way across the cosmos. Who knows (not me, that's for sure).

Everyone was, of course, keen on repeating the mantra that no one should look directly at the sun, whilst reporters and members of the public expressed their concern that motorists caught up in rush hour would be dangerously distracted (or plunged into life-threatening darkness). It all sounded quite terrifying.

Anyway, cometh the moment (8.18 AM), cometh the audience and, rather sadly, cometh the clouds.

It occurred to me, as I gazed skywards desperately trying to work out where the sun was (let alone whether the big event had actually started) that I had never actually witnessed a solar or lunar eclipse. In none of my almost 50 years of sky-watching had the clouds ever parted sufficiently for me to see the Earth / Sun / Moon interface. 


I guess that, as anyone will happily tell you, part of the joy of living in the British Isles is the sheer unpredictability of the weather. While that is, in essence, completely true, there is one thing about the British weather that sadly we CAN predict with confidence: that clouds will always do their best to obscure anything dramatic happening above the surface of the planet. 

As the grey sky turned a little darker then, after 15 or so minutes, got a little bit lighter again, I realised that my experience of solar eclipses comes solely from popular culture when canny heroes, about to be stabbed, drowned, beheaded or burnt at the stake

employ the power of the disappearing sun to convince their would be executioners into releasing them (believing that their captives possess supreme control over nature).

Anyway, as I trudged back into work (past a cafe that was, with no little irony, playing the song 'Here Comes the Sun') I began to think that our prehistoric ancestors would certainly have been 'blown away', 'terrified' and gob-smacked' by solar eclipses, had they ever been able to witness one. Given that they would have been observing such an event from the relative safety of the British Isles, however, the likelihood is that, like myself, they wouldn't even have noticed the drama occurring in the sky above.     

Thursday, 12 March 2015

Signs of Life 2

It's that time of year again when lectures, meetings, seminars, more meetings, exam briefings and assignment marking join with even more meetings to create a perfect storm of timetable-related-brain-congestion from which it is difficult to come up for air (or even to be sure of where the air is). Occasionally the well-researched student assignment or well-argued question in the middle of a lecture provides a 'Eureka' moment that makes all the hours lost in mindless-meeting-related drudgery worthwhile. Sometimes the alternative point of view in a research publication makes you see something familiar in a totally new and exciting way. Sometimes a sign briefly glimpsed in the middle of a busy supermarket does the job of temporarily blowing the mindless tedium of a bureaucracy-led lifestyle away in a single exquisite hit.

This time it's the product on sale in my local branch of Tesco (other supermarkets are available) that does the trick:  

I'm not really sure who the target audience is for this particular item (and I'm not going to speculate here) but a degree of rebranding may help improve sales. At least, as a vegetarian, I can console myself that I will never be required to taste it...

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

10,000 BC - an exercise in terror

“Can 21st century humans live successfully in the Stone Age?” the press release asked. I admit that this is not a question that had troubled me much, probably because I knew the answer would be a resounding ‘no’. Having seen the first episode of the new Channel 5 reality TV / archaeo-docudrama / social experiment 10,000 BC, this view remains unchanged.

Let’s not beat around the Mesolithic bush here, 10,000 BC is brilliant TV - in fact I don’t think I’ve laughed so much in years. 10 minutes in and I was convulsing in fits upon the ground, tears streaming down my face, my sides aching. Why had I not seen this in the TV listings? – 10,000 BC is the Big Brother / Flintstones crossover that we never knew we were missing. It is pure comedy gold.

OK so I’m not sure about the audience demographic, being too The Only Way is Essex / Made in Chelsea for an archaeological audience and too archaeological for the TOWIE / MIC brigade. It also doesn’t really tell us much about the hunter gatherer past (other than people probably didn't defecate on their own feet and preferred to keep warm by using a fire), although it may help to explain why our ancestors made the switch to farming in the first place. It is about as much of a 'social experiment' as punching a bear on the nose is an 'exercise in health and safety management' - as entertainment, however, it works on every conceivable level.

From the very start, when the deadpan  narrator justifies the selection of contestants (sorry, participants) as representing ‘a cross section of British society’, before introducing a fire-fighter (who wants to start fires), a survivalist, a self-professed poacher and a man whose job description is ‘Archer’, leaving me wondering what particular period of society they were representative of (early Dark Ages?), it just keeps on getting better. 

When a hairdresser, a betting shop manager and a fencing contractor were also introduced, I couldn't help but think of the finale to the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy when [SPOILER ALERT] a space ship full of marketing executives and telephone sanitisers, the Golgafrinchan B Ark, crash-lands on prehistoric Earth, displacing the indigenous Neanderthal population in the process. 

Some of the contestants (sorry, participants) further announced, inexplicably, that they wanted "to live like Cavemen" whilst a lorry driver wearing what appeared to be leopard fur remarked that he was taking part because he had been “born in the 1970s, 10,000 years too late”.

Too late for what was never explained.

Selected, apparently with no idea as to what they were letting themselves in for, the 20 contestants (sorry, volunteers), some wearing high-heels, wrap-around shades and designer hoodies, were bundled into the back of a truck and driven into the depths of a Bulgarian forest where they were met by archaeologist and ex-navy Seal ‘Klint Janulis’ (I kid you not). 

After greeting them brusquely, Klint told them all to strip off, put on fur bikinis, leather pants and hiking boots, then follow him to a clearing where he had buried a deer that needed dismembering.

As chat up lines go, that takes some beating.

There then followed an extended scene of shocked disbelief (interspersed with the sound of dry-retching) which ended when a contestant (sorry, social experimentor) shrugged and, looking down at the deer carcass, said calmly “I've got to take the bum out, and tie a knot in it” at which point I suffered some kind of internal rupture.

Scene after scene of pure comic magnificence followed, such as: the one where they couldn't light a fire and, when they did, it immediately went out again; the one where they couldn't  find their clothes (because it got dark); the one where the meat got covered in flies (because it was left on trees); the one where their furs got infested with maggots (and had to be replaced with genuine Mesolithic tartan blankets); the one where they had to dig a poo pit and ended up eating worms instead.

“Left to their own devices,” said Janulis calmly, “people could die.”

I can’t wait to see episode 2

Monday, 2 February 2015


I confess that January is not my favourite month. I have nothing against the first four and a half weeks of the year per se, it's just that, for a variety of reasons, it's not there at the top of my monthly pick of the pops.

January seems extraordinarily (and at times unnecessarily) LONG especially with regard to cash-flow (being paid just before Christmas then nothing for a whole 6 weeks, in between which, of course, lies the most expensive holiday of the year, doesn't help). When it finally arrives, January 31st brings a (very) large overdraft statement outlining what appears to be a big slab of Eurozone-style debt. January also seems extraordinarily (and unnecessarily) grey, a fact increased because, once the excitement of Christmas itself is over, decorations and lights come down on January 6th (to be boxed back into the Russell archive) leaving nothing but harsh desolate winter...and the cold...and the wet....and that feeling that it's 'back to school'.

It's not January's fault of course, and it does try its best to be liked, with a big fanfare, party and firework display at the very start, but Februrary is leaner, shorter and gets (progressively) lighter and though it sometimes brings snow, ice and yet more rain, with February you feel that spring is on it's way and the world is trying its best to wake up.

When February arrives we know it's time to dust off the trowel and wipe clean the mattock for the urge to move soil is nearly upon us.

Februrary is further improved, at least for those of us living in this obscure little island in the nebulous outer seas of planet Earth, by the arrival the spring TV schedule, once the post Xmas listings manage to rise from sluggish stupor. New TV schedules bring new drama, new documentaries and, if all goes to plan, brand new archaeo-historic programming.

This February looks to be no different.

Hot off the TV 'press' this year is the BBC's new series of Digging for Britain, the televisual equivalent of Springwatch / Winterwatch / Autumnwatch, the magazine programme for wildlife enthusiasts (who clamour to see animal and plant life thriving and struggling in equal measure). Digging for Britain is the chance to see what is going on in British archaeological world - the opportunity to see people moving spoil and making discoveries back when the sun was out and the weather was altogether better.

It is the closest we will ever get to a fully fledged Digwatch (and why not Digwatch? Come to think of it, that's an excellent idea - one I happily surrender all copyright claim to in the hope it one day gets made).

I love Digging for Britain (and not just because series 3 will feature more of the Durotriges Project - episode 2 if you really want to know), but because it makes me feel that the excavation season is truly on it's way. Scheduling the programme in February will, I hope, help to put winter on hold, if only for just a few brief moments. It brings light. It brings finds. It brings hope.


OK so maybe I'm being somewhat overenthusiastic (it has been known to happen), but it's been a long winter - could we have spring now please?


Oh and confirmation that Digwatch has been commissioned too...?

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

The Archaeology of Christmas: 3

There is of course one further ongoing archaeological Christmas-related experiment which, as 12th night approaches, requires consideration: namely the fine layer of pine needles which, like a deposit of volcanic ash descending upon an ancient Mediterranean city, annually threatens to engulf the living space, forever sealing occupation levels with a painful spikey green-ness.

If kept, of course, this organic deposit can be of some use, sealing and providing a terminus post quem for those layers of activity containing discarded TV listing magazines, lost toys and scattered food debris - although the merits of retaining such an ongoing experiment in relative dating do require some serious consideration, especially with regard to the threat of semi-continuous foot-based agony.
Perhaps this is one aspect of the experimental archaeological project which, as 2015 progresses, will be carefully trowelled back, recorded, sifted for finds and then removed to the spoil heap.