thinking about archaeology


As became his birth

Whats on At the end of Shakespeare’s Richard III, the Earl of Richmond, now effectively king Henry VII, makes a short speech from the battlefield. Looking around at the dead, he says: “Inter their bodies as becomes their births.” Now, after 530 years, that has been done for his royal opponent at Bosworth. The whole thing was so extraordinary, and so rich and complex, perhaps time needs to pass before we can hope to understand what it meant. I’m writing about it now for the extended paperback version of my book, Digging for Richard III, which will be published later this year. I’ve been watching the Channel 4 programmes – all five and a half hours of them! Really well done, with a mix of new and archive film and much live broadcasting, with a stream of interviews with a wide range of people. Jon Snow and Krishnan Guru-Murthy, the main presenters, did their usual Channel 4 thing of efficiently putting the story first. You can see the programmes online until around April 20: Richard III: The Return of the King Richard III: The Burial of the King Richard III: The King Laid to Rest Many of the interviewees had barely a minute to say their part. But perhaps a clue to the way I am thinking comes from my conviction that the greatest insights came not from Ricardians, archaeologists, historians, craftsmen and women, people from the Church, the street, the king’s collateral descendants and all, but an actor, screenwriter and storyteller, and an experienced broadcast journalist – Julian Fellowes (famed for Gosford Park and Downton Abbey) and John Sergeant. I thought Fellowes was a star. I get to add a few pictures to the paperback, so I’ve been looking at my files. With other work commitments and a long flu-like illness – best laid plans and all that – I was unable to blog about the reburial week as I’d hoped. Here is one day, the day when Richard III’s remains left the university and were handed over to the cathedral: with my archaeological hat on, this was the most significant (and bizarre) in the week. Fielding Johnson building Early in the morning, press and public wait outside the University of Leicester, at the Fielding Johnson building where the announcement that Richard III’s grave had been found was made in 2013. Langley Philippa Langley. Ashdown-Hill Kennedy John Ashdown-Hill talks to the Guardian’s Maev Kennedy. coffin reveal And out it came, Michael Ibsen’s plain oak casket, weighted by the inner lead coffin, the first time the complete remains were to leave the university since the excavation. Beneath the temporary shelter – redundant in the fresh spring day – all the main parties were represented. Here were the Richard III Society, descendants of Richard’s sister (not – as the Reinterment Service had it and a dismissive John Ashdown-Hill showed Philippa Langley on live TV – direct descendants of Richard himself), the university archaeologists and scientists, the cathedral, the county council and the university. Speeches were made. The Revd Canon Dr Stephen Foster led a ceremony of reflection, with readings from Khalil Gibran, the Diamond Sutra, Soto Zen Buddhist scripture and Hindu ancient Sanskrit, and, later, from Robert Frost (“I took the one less travelled by…”), Hebrew Psalm 22, a Sikh Shabad and the Qur’an, and closing with Eid Mubarak, a Muslim festival greeting – all interpreted by a signer. In February, Philippa Langley, who had wanted Richard’s remains to be placed in a Catholic “holy place” pending their reburial, had complained that the university was treating the king “as a scientific specimen right up to and including the point at which he is laid in his coffin”. “Why can’t the university”, she asked, “put their secular narrative to one side?” The narrative was certainly now no longer entirely secular. But was Philippa – “If King Richard were a Jew or a Muslim the appropriate rites and ceremonies would be observed without question” – happy? It would be easy to parody this ceremony; it didn’t help that the handbook misspelt Qur’an. But unless you were nerdily studying the texts (who, me?) you’d hear only the words, and the words were good. And the presence of the coffin, and what it contained, was overwhelmingly powerful. Twenty people took it in turns to lay a white rose on the coffin. They approached in groups: three archaeologists, three scientists, two further groups from the university, two groups from the Richard III Society and three royal descendants. Apppleby rose Here is Jo Appleby, with Turi King just behind her, the two people who did most to recover and identify Richard’s remains. Langley rose Philippa Langley, with Annette Carson and Ashdown-Hill waiting on the left. Ibsen rose Michael Ibsen, his brother Jeff and Wendy Duldig. bearing coffin hearse Richard Buckley holds the roses as the coffin is carried off, and then places the cushion on top inside the hearse (did anyone notice this is happening at Leicester University?). St Nicholas Place The cortege headed off to Fenn Lane, following the route I’d mapped earlier. Meanwhile in the centre of old Leicester, people were out in the sun. There was a big screen in Jubilee Square, showing the university ceremony (on left). The spire on the right is the cathedral. statue flowersexpect delaysStreets were closed ahead of the parade arriving back in Leicester. This is where the statue had been moved from – it used to stand just behind the railings. no loading no parking You can’t park there. Grey Friars waitingBow Bridge People gathered around Bow Bridge, where the coffin would formally re-enter the city.road closed Augustines 1Holiday Innfirst aidbetter than Maccies“Better than Maccies!”Augustines 2 Tudor Rd Jewry Wall A reminder that Leicester’s story is not just about Richard III. You can see part of the Roman Jewry Wall in the background of this shot, where the important museum has to cope with council budgeting. Leicester Leicester Leicester

Pall north

Pall north

Pall south

Pall south

Inside the cathedral before the service, I photographed the coffin pall, a wonderful thing made by Jacquie Binns that captures the saga’s strange mix of religion, myth, science, drama and story-telling. John Ashdown-Hill’s crown sits on top. He’s on the pall, holding his book (the cheekiest plug ever?), second from right on the south-facing side, between Philippa Langley and Phil Stone. The pall is now exhibited in the cathedral. The service was a lovely, calming moment in the newly laid out cathedral – feeling so much larger inside – warmly lit as darkness fell outside; I used to enjoy Compline at school, which we sang in plainsong. Coming out, however, I thought the RIII crown logo projected onto the spire was tacky. Yet a surprisingly rare moment, at the start of a week that was all sorts of things, but not commercialised or exploitative. As Fellowes said, Leicester did it very well. cathedral RIII

Neil MacGregor

MacGregor at H Wall

We knew he couldn’t be there for ever, but still it’s a shock to hear Neil MacGregor announce his retirement as director of the British Museum, after one of the most glorious, packed episodes in its long history. He will continue to be busy (above, on left with Ralph Jackson on a chill day at Hadrian’s Wall), but who will lead the place from next year? Simon Thurley? Someone from outside the UK? The museum’s first woman director? The view from MacGregor’s shoulders will be precipitous.

This is the BM’s release:

Neil MacGregor announced to his colleagues at the British Museum this morning that he has decided to step down as Director at the end of December 2015.

Neil MacGregor said, “It’s a very difficult thing to leave the British Museum. Working with this collection and above all with the colleagues here has been the greatest privilege of my professional life. But I’ve decided that now is the time to retire from full-time employment and the end of this year seems a good time to go. The new building has been completed, so we at last have proper exhibition space, new conservation and scientific facilities, and first class accommodation for our growing research activities. We have built strong partnerships with fellow museums across the UK, and are rapidly expanding our programme of loans and training around the world.

The Museum is now ready to embark on a new phase – deploying the collection to present different histories of the world. It is an exhilarating prospect, and it will start with the new Islamic Galleries and with plans for the future of the Old Reading Room.

The Museum is in a strong position to respond to these energising challenges. It has a distinguished international Board under a new Chairman Sir Richard Lambert. To everything it does the British Museum brings the highest levels of professionalism. Around the world it is a valued partner and the Board has clearly defined the British Museum’s role as a worldwide resource for the understanding of humanity, to be made available as widely and as freely as possible.”

Neil MacGregor added, “Although I shall no longer be working full-time I shall be involved in a number of projects.

I shall be working with the BBC and the British Museum on a new Radio 4 series on Faith and Society.

I shall be chairing an Advisory Board to make recommendations to the German Minister of Culture, Monika Grütters, on how the Humboldt- Forum, drawing on the outstanding resources of the Berlin collections, can become a place where different narratives of world cultures can be explored and debated.

In Mumbai, I look forward to working on the presentation of world cultures with the CSMVS Museum and its Director Mr Sabyasachi Mukherjee under whose tenure it has emerged as one of the finest and most active museums in South/South East Asia.”

Chairman Sir Richard Lambert said,

“Neil MacGregor has been an outstanding Director of the British Museum and has made an extraordinary contribution to public life in the UK and beyond. The Trustees are hugely grateful for everything he has done to bring the collection to life, and to tell its many different stories. We respect his decision to move on, and want to support him in his new projects. We are now starting the process of looking for someone to take on what will be one of the best and most challenging jobs of its kind in the world. The Museum is in great shape, and we are fortunate to have an outstanding team in place to lead its activities and help build its future with the new Director. The collection of the British Museum is in a real sense the memory of mankind and the task is to present it in the best possible way in and beyond Bloomsbury for the benefit of present and future generations.”

The German Federal Minister of State for Culture and the Media, Monika Grütters said,

“I am immensely grateful and more than happy that Neil MacGregor with his wide-ranging experience of world cultures and his deep knowledge of Germany will support us in making our most ambitious cultural project happen – the Humboldt-Forum. We are very fortunate that Neil MacGregor has agreed to take on the task of chairing the advisory committee. I am convinced that with his skill in presenting global narratives and his persuasive powers and determination, he will help shape the Humboldt-Forum as a successful institution with an ambitious programme that best serves the public in Berlin, Germany and internationally.”

The institution Neil MacGregor leaves in 2015 is

• the most visited attraction in the UK for eight years running. Numbers have increased from 4.6 million in 2002/03 to 6.7 million in 2014/15. Over 270,000 school children visit the Museum each year. The British Museum is the second most visited museum in the world and has a virtual audience of over 35 million.

• several galleries housing the permanent collection have been splendidly refurbished thanks to generous benefactors.

• has an internationally acclaimed exhibitions programme including ‘The First Emperor: China’s Terracotta Army’ 2007, ‘Afghanistan: Crossroad of the Ancient World’ 2011, ‘Grayson Perry: Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman’ 2011, ‘Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam’ 2012, ‘Ice age art: arrival of the modern mind’ 2013, ‘Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum’ 2013, ‘Vikings: life and legend’ 2014 and ‘Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation’ this year.

• the British Museum is the most generous lending collection in the world from Tehran to St Petersburg, Mumbai to Nairobi. Over 5,000 objects travelled to 335 venues in the UK and internationally in 2013 – 2014,

• the British Museum is an integral part of the UK wide network of museums with seven partnership galleries throughout the UK and more to follow. In the past year 3 million people saw British Museum objects at partner museums. UK citizens are now more likely to see a British Museum object on loan at partner museums around the country than in London.

• the global story from the British Museum’s collection told in the 100 part BBC Radio 4 series, presented by Neil MacGregor ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ has been downloaded over 40 million times. Biography Born in 1946, Neil MacGregor studied languages at Oxford, philosophy at the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris, and Law in Edinburgh, before reading History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. He lectured at the University of Reading and the Courtauld Institute. In 1981 he became Editor of The Burlington Magazine and Director of the National Gallery in 1987. He has been Director of the British Museum since August 2002.

British Museum Vikings

Empty plinths

Parthenon galleries 1

The British Museum opens a much anticipated exhibition on the human body in ancient Greek art on March 26 – a day when much of the world will otherwise be occupied with a royal burial in Leicester Cathedral. I’ll be wriitng a bit about it in the next British Archaeology. Six of the pieces in the show come from the BM’s Parthenon collection. You can already get an idea of what they are by looking at the permanent gallery.

Parthenon galleries 2

Parthenon galleries 4That’s Dionysos on the east pediment :

Dionysos British Museum

British Museum

Parthenon galleries 5

Parthenon galleries 6

Here’s Ilissos, from the West pediment (the piece that went to Russia):

Parthenon galleries 3

Main M Pitts, inset British Museum

And just to remind us of the extraordinary beauty and observational power of the carving, here are a couple of panels from the south frieze:Parthenon galleries 7A heifer is led to be sacrificed.

Parthenon galleries 8Horses fly.

Elsewhere in the BM, this opened yesterday (until May 25), a room with trees. Aboriginal Australian artist Wukun Wanambi has re-imagined painted hollow log coffins as larrakitj memorial poles, painted with Yolngu clan fish.


They’re rather lovely, and reminded me of this – timbers from Seahenge in Lynn Museum, Norfolk:


Then back out in the London streets, my next appointment took me across Trafalgar Square to another empty plinth. This is the one where in 2009 I exhibited 10 pieces of stone to represent 700,000 years of British history (that’s all it was then… nearly a million now!). Which now, as then, was not actually empty. This is Hans Haacke’s Gift Horse, a skeletal representation of the beast with a rolling display of London stock prices, kind of fun and archaeological and also, again, rather beautiful (the exchange information shows up clearly in the half light). You can just make, out in lower right distance, George IV sitting on his horse on the matching plinth, no doubt wondering what happened to the days when you knew where you were.

Gift Horse

Gift Horse 2

Last chance to see Emily Carr in London

Tanoo (Royal BC Museum)

Emily Carr, Tanoo Queen Charlotte Islands 1913 (Royal BC Museum)

I’m looking at exhibitions to write about in the next edition of British Archaeology, and was reminded of the wonderful collection of Emily Carr works at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south-east London. It closes soon, on March 15. If you’re nearby and haven’t seen it, I really recommend it.

Here’s what I wrote for the current British Archaeology:

BriefingAs well as the paintings and drawings, there’s a very select group of indigenous Pacific coast artefacts from the likes of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and the British Museum (though to be honest, the one little thing that bothered me about the show, was that there didn’t seem to be much of a connect between these objects and Emily Carr, which more could have been made of – but in the circumstances perhaps that’s being churlish).

I first saw some of her work when I was in British Columbia (for a time I had a house among the trees on Hornby Island). It struck me then as odd that she wasn’t better known in Britain, not least because she studied here.

Emily Carr, Untitled (seascape) 1935 (Art Gallery of Greater Victoria)

Another Canadian artist who really should be better known here is Jack Shadbolt (1909–98). He was born in England, grew up in Victoria BC, and was a great fan of Carr. His wife Doris Shadbolt (née Meisel, 1918–2003) was director of the Vancouver Art Gallery, and wrote about Emily Carr. Jack Shadbolt’s works draw on the same mix of indigenous art and culture as Carr’s, and Pacific coast landscape, but he expressed the local loss and the human tragedy more visibly and powerfully. Some of his stuff is really quite shocking, and beautiful at the same time. There’s even a touch about him of another artist I greatly admire, Ralph Steadman.

Shadbolt Coast Memory (1980s)

Jack Shadbolt, Coast Memory (1980s) (UBC Museum of Anthropology)

Killer Birds

Jack Shadbolt, Killer Birds (UBC Museum of Anthropology)

Dog Among the Ruins (cropped 1947)

Jack Shadbolt, Dog Among the Ruins (cropped 1947) (UBC Museum of Anthropology)

Coastal Image

Socks, cake and a burial cortege: Richard III approaches his last journey


Leicester has today released full details of the journey that Richard III’s cortege will take to reach the cathedral, and arrangements for the reburial week. We expected a bit of fun and razzmatazz. But golly, this is a massive production for the city.

The place to go to get an idea of this is the City Council’s website, which details events, and the traffic arrangements that these will necessitate. For example, roads (“including car parks and driveways”) will be closed along the route of the cortege, now revealed in full. I’ve already mapped the rural routeThere’s an interesting variation from the original announcement, which suggested the journey would begin in Leicester. Now it starts at the battlefield, implying a hoped-for secretive exit from the university lab.

Now we can show where it will go in the city. The map below is adapted from a feature in the new British Archaeology (from which the above image is the opening spread; I was in Leicester taking photos on a cold January day, when suddenly the sun came out and flashed off the cathedral clock). No 10 is the cathedral, and 11 (inside the friary boundary) the grave and the visitor centre. I was rather hoping the route might have gone through the old friary grounds up New Street and past that car park, but I guess it’s too narrow.

Leicester map with cortegeThere’s something almost medieval in the council’s instruction to make sure your car doesn’t get nicked: “If your car or motorcycle is parked along the route on the day it will be ticketed and towed. If your home is along the route, please make sure your car or motorcycle is either on your own driveway, or parked legally away from the route…” It says please, but negotiation is not an option. We are very much in royal territory here.

The British Archaeology feature reviews events of the past couple of years, and anticipates the reburial with suggestions for things to look out for. Leicester has already changed because of the excavation, and works are still in progress. There is much to see of Richard III’s world, and there are clear signs that setting out to do this will become easier and more pleasurable. I’ll be visiting Leicester during the reburial week, and writing about events for the updated and extended paperback edition of Digging for Richard III (not out until much later in the year, so please read the hardback if you want the full background story in preparation for watching the reburial!).

Meanwhile, I’m trying to keep up with what’s happening now – including this commemorative gift. I’m not linking, to spare their blushes (when was Bosworth?):

“This year, you can have the experience of receiving some truly amazing socks. In the year 1487, King Richard III, fell in the battle of Bosworth in Leicestershire. March 26th, 2015, Richard III will be re-interred with appropriate ceremony. In honour of this momentous event, Soks4U will create a special line of socks that displays symbols commemorate the events in 1487. £18 will net you one pair of socks, plus mention in the Roll of Honour on Facebook. Rewards for contributions vary by level, but top out at 12 pairs gift subscription package, plus a King Richard post card and a thank you certificate for £160.”

And the poor man no longer has any feet! Perhaps it’s a spoof, but who knows? There are so many things being made and prepared, official, unofficial, and just odd. The re-creation of the skeleton in the grave in cake is at least one of those; but it did lead to the memorable opening line in the Birmingham Mail, “A sauce, a sauce, my kingdom for a sauce”. Somehow the cathedral is managing to maintain its dignity. It’s going to be very exciting to see the fully completed works inside.

To say nothing of what happens in the week they will rebury Richard III.

Birmingham Mail

Birmingham Mail

British Archaeology

Cover with SpineI’m particularly proud of our new edition, from the Galloway hoard – as we are now calling the new Viking-age hoard from south-west Scotland – on the front cover, to pieces on the Grenson shoe factory and paleo diets at the end. We broke the news about the Old Sarum geophysics survey, which was widely reported in the media. And there are many other new revelations.

The Viking hoard feature describes for the first time how the find was located and excavated, and how significant archaeological discoveries were made when the initial dig was extended to a 30m by 30m trench. In my experience, this is the first time such a large area has been explored around a detecting find here in the UK. That so much was discovered adds materially to the debate about how these sites should be approached by the archaeological and curatorial professions.

As always, you can find the magazine in newsagents, in the App Store or in digital form. If you go there now, you can read the Old Sarum story in a free preview. These are the feature opening spreads – just the start.

The boring Stonehenge story takes off again

fund the tunnel I would really like the Stonehenge A303 problem to be sorted out – and there is a serious problem, as anyone knows who has to drive there regularly. Tunnelling has to be part of the solution, for it would achieve what nothing else could, the removal of an impermeable barrier across the world heritage site landscape. So news that the government is ready to fund major works there is good to hear. road closed But let’s save a great deal of anguish, time and money: keep the politics out of it. For those of you new to this story (you wouldn’t think there would be anyone, but to judge from online comments, there are many), here are a few pointers.

  1. Don’t waste time dreaming up complex new routes. If you can find one, be sure it’s already been thought of. The map below is a hint of the work done in this area. It’s from a 2006 Highways Agency consultation, and it shows some of the major routes that had been seriously (=expensively) considered (I’ve combined two maps from the report). To be fair, research did not allow for flying cars. So if you really must pursue your own way, perhaps there’s an opening there.

where's the A303

  1. There is already a big road going through the world heritage site. We call it the A303, and part of it is a dual carriageway in a cutting. It’s full of cars and lorries. Tunnelling, or adding a lane to the existing road, would change things, but it would not introduce something alien to the place.

A303 lorry

  1. Hitching your political reputation to a solution is not necessarily to be recommended. The track record is not good. But all power to Danny Alexander, LibDem chief secretary to the Treasury. “The A303”, he has said, “should be a south-west super highway, which is what we are going to make it into through this investment programme. It can be England’s new economic engine.”

This is the same Danny Alexander who in 2010 told us that he had cancelled a proposed Stonehenge Visitor Centre, because it did not “represent good value for money”. We had to point out then that the government wasn’t actually in a position to cancel the project, and thus save £25m, as it was funding less than half of it. The Daily Telegraph has today drawn attention to the fact that “Two thirds of the [new road] schemes where construction work has been given the green light are in Tory and LibDem constituencies, including some of the parties’ most marginal seats”. If you can claim credit for taking away money that didn’t exist, you can presumably promise to spend it when it’s not there. But maybe UKIP-fear will finally deliver what all else has failed to do. I wish them the best of luck.

Nick Clegg at the stones this morning (ITV/Meridian)

Nick Clegg at the stones this morning (ITV/Meridian)

Brian Cox, master of the universe

Well, at least of the wonders of the universe aphorism. In that regard he’s truly up there with Carl Sagan. And having criticised him for an archaeological presentation, I was delighted to see him at his best on Easter Island.

From Human Universe 3: Are We Alone (photo BBC/Paul O’Callaghan)

From Human Universe 3: Are We Alone (photo BBC/Paul O’Callaghan)

I wrote earlier about a sequence in the first of the BBC’s Human Universe films. Cox talked about modern human origins, and a – plausible – link with climate changes. I complained about how, I thought, a complex story was simplified to the point of being misleading (Henry Gee, a senior Nature editor who has handled many of the journal’s important science stories about human evolution, really didn’t like this bit). I ended my piece with a photo of Cox on Easter Island, with the caption, “Dare I watch?”

I did, and it was wonderful. The third programme began on the island, with some characteristically lovely film and snap-perfect editing. The narrative used the island – people so often use the island – to make a point about isolation.

Here on this remotest of inhabited places, where, as Thor Heyerdahl memorably put it, the closest visible land is the surface of the moon, people must have wondered if they were alone. Was there anyone else out there? When an European ship arrived in 1722 its crew would have appeared like aliens.

So we think of Earth, and Cox delivers this dazzling passage.

“Think about this. There are billions of habitable Earth-like worlds out there in the galaxy – and yet we are alone.

“Think about this. There are billions of habitable Earth-like worlds out there in the galaxy – and we are not alone. There are others.

“One of these statements is true.”

I suspect that future research may show that Easter Island was less isolated than we imagine – that other Polynesians were in touch across the ocean from the west, and quite possibly that Europeans stopped by before 1722. Archaeology can tackle such questions. But that doesn’t matter, as it doesn’t spoil Cox’s line. He caught our imaginations with words and a mesmerising location, without patronising or manipulating the story. And on Easter Island, that doesn’t happen often.

And just for fun, here’s a screen grab from the film, with my photo of Hoa Hakananai’a as it now looks in the British Museum; the red spot is about where it originally stood.

Rapa Nui and Hoa Hakananai'a

Reburying Richard


Richard III's last journey

The Leicester Cathedral Quarter Partnership Board has published a provisional timetable for the reburial of Richard III’s remains in March next year. Here is what it adds up to. We really haven’t seen anything like this before!

Sunday March 22 2015

[1] 12.00 Hearse departs from University of Leicester, to [2] Fenn Lane Farm (reputed site of Richard’s death)

Thence to churches at [3] Dadlington (where battle-dead are said to be buried) and [4] Sutton Cheney (where Richard is said to have taken Mass on the eve of Bosworth)

14.00 Short ceremony at [5] Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre led by the Bishop of Leicester, the Rt Revd Tim Stevens

Cortege returns to Leicester via [6] Market Bosworth, [7] Newbold Verdon and [8] Desford

16.00 Arrive in Leicester at [9] Bow Bridge, for greeting by City Mayor, Sir Peter Soulsby, and Lord Mayor, Councillor John Thomas

17.45 Journey to [10] Leicester Cathedral completed in horse-drawn hearse, to be met by Dean of Leicester, the Very Revd David Monteith. Archaeologist Richard Buckley hands a copy of the Ministry of Justice exhumation licence to the Dean, and responsibility for the King passes from the university to the church

18.00 The coffin is carried into the cathedral for evening worship (Compline), with a sermon from the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols.

Monday 23 to Wednesday 25

The mortal remains of King Richard III lie in repose in Leicester Cathedral. The public are invited to pray and pay their respects during daylight hours.

Monday 23

Cardinal Nichols celebrates Mass for the repose of the soul (a “Requiem Mass”) for Richard III in Holy Cross Church, the Catholic parish church and Dominican priory in Leicester city centre. The Choir from St Barnabas’ Cathedral, the Cathedral of the Diocese of Nottingham, will sing at this Mass, which will be open to the public.

Thursday 26

The mortal remains of Richard III are re-interred in Leicester Cathedral, in the presence of an invited congregation and the Most Rt Revd Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, senior clergy, other Christian denominations and representatives of the World Faiths.

Friday 27

People from across Leicester and the county of Leicestershire are invited to gather in the cathedral to see the tomb revealed and celebrate the future.

In and out of Leicester, passing significant places such as the Newarke, where Richard's body is said to have been laid out for two days before burial at Greyfriars

In and out of Leicester, passing significant places such as the Newarke, where Richard’s body is said to have been laid out for two days before burial at Greyfriars

Let’s trust the viewer’s intelligence

I’m delighted to see some big, thoughtful personalities arguing as I have done for more intelligent TV. In the past few days Hilary Mantel has complained about poor historical drama, and Sir David Attenborough about TV documentaries in general.

“It is perfectly possible to do good history and good drama,” says Mantel, “they are not mutually contradictory… as soon as you decide this is too complicated for the viewer or history is an inconvenient shape – ‘I’ll just tidy it up’ – you fall into a cascade of errors which ends in nonsense.”

Two or three episode documentaries, says Sir David, are not enough to “deal with something properly… I would like a stronger commitment and a belief in your subject… The general view is that viewers don’t like people coming along and saying they know more about it than you do, so it’s unfashionable.”

“It all stems”, says Mantel, “from not trusting the intelligence of the viewer.”

Photo BBC/Emile Fjola Sandy

Photo BBC/Emile Fjola Sandy

Indeed. So I turned with hope to a new series presented by Brian Cox, who delights brilliantly in trusting the viewer’s intelligence.

In Human Universe, part one, Apeman – Spaceman, Cox posed big questions. What makes us special? How did we become who we are?

“It’s a story that begins in Ethiopia,” he says, “where our story began.”

He meets a troop of gelada baboons. We were once like this, he seems to be saying. Now there is “a huge gulf” – “we have something extra”.

At this point there is a clever little sequence that mimics the moment in Kubrick’s 2001, when a mysterious force implants human thinking into African apes, and the shot jumps from the savannah millions of years ago to a spaceship in the future.

Back with Cox, we are fishing on lake Ziway. “Constructing complicated tools like boats, nets and spaceships is a skill unique to the human mind. And this ability is thought to have emerged for the very first time in the hills around the lake.”

Over a quarter of a million years ago, early humans were attracted by the lake, and by obsidian.

Yonatan Sahle, University of California, Berkeley shows Cox how to knap an obsidian flake. He makes a bifacial “spear point”, like those made there 250,000 years ago, “the oldest of their kind ever found”.

“I can see that this takes an intelligent animal”, says Cox. “It takes concentration and dedication, you need to know exactly what you’re doing, and you need to sit here and do it and have patience, and be able to visualise the shape.”

But that’s just the first stage: then you need to haft the point to a shaft. “You’ve got to imagine something that doesn’t exist”. You need lots of people, sharing ideas, passing things on over generations, improving the technology till it gets to this point. “That requires some means of communication, probably some primitive language.”

He holds up the ancient obsidian point. “This is the earliest physical evidence we have found of minds that think like ours.”

If this hadn’t happened, the universe might still be no more than “a collection of glowing balls of gas and some rocks”.

“But then, around 250,000 years ago, a clump of atoms became aware, looked at a rock, and saw a spear.”

This is the origin of “the transformation from apeman to spaceman”. We are 15 minutes into the first film.

Brian Cox is bright, scientifically informed and a great communicator – the last person you’d expect to patronise TV viewers. So, as I found with the BBC’s two films about Stonehenge, it seems here again a broadcaster thinks we’re stupid. For this view of human origins – beautifully shot and edited, and presented with emotive verve – simplifies beyond any sense. And that’s patronising.

We don’t understand why we are here – why human characteristics first appeared among great apes, why they stayed and why they developed in the way they did. But we have lots of evidence, and we have lots of ideas.

When Cox holds an obsidian spearhead, he describes it as something the pigeons outside my study did a few months ago when they built a nest. The birds “imagined something that didn’t exist”. They shared ideas, passed things on over generations, and improved the technology till it got to this point. But they do not have minds that think like ours.

This is not a human mind

This is not a human mind

As we currently see it, the moment when a hominin first did something that no other animal has done happened not 250,000, but two and a half million years ago. That was when the first stone tool was intelligently knapped.

That process requires a set of skills – the ability to visualise a complex sequence of three-dimensional events, and to exercise mechanical control guided by that intelligence – that has been seen nowhere else.

We have a continually growing respect for the intelligence of other creatures, not least birds and apes. But not even a chimpanzee has been seen to achieve what the least skilled early hominin stone-tool maker did.

You might argue with that, and say Cox was talking about complex, bifacial stone tools, and not simple Oldowan tools that need have no more than one flake removed from a lump of rock to make a sharp edge. The point would be valid: but we don’t see chimpanzees making Oldowan tools either. We see the first bifacial tools – archaeologists call them Acheulean – one and three quarter million years ago. Long ago, in Fairweather Eden, I compared this skill to playing chess, and language.

This is a human mind – Boxgrove, half a million years ago

This is a human mind – Boxgrove, half a million years ago

In evolutionary terms this happens very fast, but we didn’t suddenly appear from nowhere. Something happened when Homo habilis evolved and started bashing out stone tools. And whatever this something was, it continued to happen, as species evolved and brains got ever larger. Acheulean tools were made by Homo erectus and a variety of related species. Homo sapiens appears around 200,000 years ago. We can’t talk about “us” until then, at best. Yet the universe ceased to be no more than “a collection of glowing balls of gas and some rocks” long before that – at least two and a half million years ago.

It is a wonderful, challenging story. You cannot just ignore it if you want to answer, how did we become who we are?

Am I being picky, obsessing over something I happen to know a bit about but missing the wider perspective of those who know nothing? I don’t think so. And I don’t think Sir David Attenborough or Hilary Mantel think they are, either.

Human Universe, part three – dare I watch? Photo BBC/Paul O’Callaghan

Human Universe, part three – dare I watch? Photo BBC/Paul O’Callaghan


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