thinking about archaeology

Archive for October, 2012

Some Random Penguins

Not just because of the designs, which are fabulous, or the ideas, stories and information, or even the associations and memories. But because of the vision. The idea that the provider – even a profit-making publisher – can decide to give people more than they know they want. Imagine that principle applied today by people who convey knowledge. In news giving, for instance, We could have news presenters who talk to us because they want us to know things they believe to be important. Who have a passion to inform and educate, who want to get underneath the stories, to understand them and to share that understanding – because they believe that it is important that people understand. That is the Penguin principle.

When mammoths built stone circles

Well it makes a great cover, anyway, sort of Doggerland in a nutshell. I wrote the feature about underwater landscapes (or as the cover strapline puts it, “The search for Atlantis and sunken civilisations”) for the new BBC Focus magazine. It was interesting doing it to find how much the UK is leading this area of archaeological research – and what made it difficult is that many of the most promising projects are just getting started, so have little to show yet. It’s a topic to watch.

Singing statues

If you ever wondered how the statues on Easter Island were moved from the quarry, or especially if the thought never entered your head, you really must watch this video on the Nature website – and stick with it to the end. Whether it’s what actually happened is anybody’s guess – as it is with every theory of this type – but it’s wonderful to see!

Nature’s report is based on an article in Journal of Archaeological Science by Carl Lipo, Terry  Hunt & Sergio Rapu Haoa, “The ‘walking’ megalithic statues (moai) of Easter Island”. It’s worth looking at that too: the free content includes a lot of long-captioned illustrations.

You can see Lipo and Hunt (L and R above) addressing the National Geographic Society here, Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo: The Statues That Walked. They have been regularly making controversial claims and interpretations for Easter Island’s archaeology. Other archaeologists researching the island have objected strongly to some of the things they are saying. It’s all good stuff. The history of archaeology on the island is full of things that should not have happened, with much in common with events at Stonehenge. With hindsight, there have been too many small excavations with ill-defined aims, often poorly conducted and often not fully analysed and published, while basic archaeological fieldwork – good surveys of the monuments, for example – has been skimped.

If we are to understand this extraordinary place, we need just the sort of debates that Hunt and Lipo are stirring up. They open up big questions that remain unanswered. They focus attention on the archaeology, what it has achieved and what it might still do. A world heritage site, Easter Island needs what Stonehenge did finally get: a comprehensive analysis and publication of all previous fieldwork, going back into the 19th century; a publicly discussed research agenda contributed to by everyone with an interest in the island’s archaeology and history, and fully published; and coming out of this, ambitious, cutting edge, quality fieldwork that sets out to tackle key issues – which should include excavation on a scale we’ve seen recently around Stonehenge. There are several projects in progress, including Rapa Nui Landscapes of Construction based at UCL and Manchester University. None of what I’m suggested need affect any of these, but all of them, and us, would benefit.

And as a footnote, the best walking statue of all – though it lacks the music.

Time up

When I put that on the cover of British Archaeology above a photo of Mick Aston in February, I left it deliberately ambiguous. Mick was leaving Time Team – but what about Time Team itself?

Now it’s official. Attempts to fiddle about with the 18-year-old format are deemed to have failed, and in the wake of that and confusing scheduling (always a sign that a broadcaster’s heart isn’t in it), Channel 4 has announced that it’s killing off Time Team.

It doesn’t actually use those words, and its press release naturally praises the series and promises more to come. But next year’s series, the 20th, will be the final one with three-day digs. That’s big for archaeology, and big for broadcasting.

Twenty years is a long time for a TV series, especially a factual one. And as well as the standard programmes, there were seemingly endless specials. The series generated a vast number of what we archaeologists call grey evaluation reports. It featured so many practising archaeologists, that the profession has developed what must be a unique accommodation with television. Time Team educated and inspired, and brought many people into archaeology, to study at university and even to work as archaeologists.

It also found new archaeology, and created new stories. As C4’s head of factual Ralph Lee says, “I am incredibly proud that, as well as providing hundreds of hours of education and entertainment on Channel 4, Time Team has invested, over and above production costs, more than £4m in archaeology in Britain over the past 18 years.” Where else in broadcasting can you find that?

There is a part of me that wonders if this might be the right decision for Time Team. The failure of the silly stuff in this year’s series was never going to be rectified by going back to Time Team in the 20th century. Yet it’s that that people love. The TT legacy is going to be strong, and not allowed to dissipate into embarrassing farce. There are books, broadcastable films and DVDs, press and magazine features and the famous excavation reports to fuel debate about archaeology and broadcasting for generations.

Tim Taylor created something very special, and has every right to be proud of it all. Long live Time Team.

C4’s press release includes info on next years’ broadcasts.

Programmes will feature the Anglo-Saxon cemetery in Wiltshire excavated by soldiers in Operation Nightingale; the Roman fort at Brancaster, Norfolk, where geofizz really came up trumps; a Tudor mansion at Henham Park, Suffolk; the remains of Cardinal Wolsey’s home; castles in west Wales, Northern Ireland and Rutland; an iron age hillfort on the edge of Cardiff; a Roman villa on the banks of the Thames; and Elizabethan copper mines in the Lake District.

There will be four Time Team Specials: the sunken wrecks of two of the earliest prototype submarines from before the First World War; Lincoln Castle; reconstructing the bronze age Dover Boat using materials and tools from the time; and an investigation into the tsunami that swept across the North Sea some 8,000 years ago.

C4 says “further one-off specials are planned for at least into 2014 and the series will continue to be repeated across both More4 and Channel 4”.

The release also plays up the channel’s other “new history” programmes. These include The People of Stonehenge (working title) for early 2013, featuring our Aubrey Hole excavation at Stonehenge (and possibly me), and Darlow-Smithson’s film about the Richard III car park dig. You can’t but admire Darlow’s ownership of that, and what will surely be one of the season’s most watched films, in says C4, er, “early 2012”.

Meanwhile Tim Taylor has already posted his response to events.

He feels, he says, that the Time Team format has “gradually been changed” (note, not just “changed”) into emphasising a documentary style, moving away from “Time Team’s core DNA. This centres on the moment that we see archaeology emerging from the ground for the first time and the team battling against a limited timescale, using their intelligence and skill to work out the right strategy to answer key questions.”

“Over the last decade”, he continues, “the size of the production and the staff needed to support it and the budget has grown to an unsustainable level. On the final show of last year we had over 75 people in the lunch tent!  For the first 5-10 years of Time Team it used to be just Mick, Phil, the cameraman, the Director and me in the pub! In my view this size of production made it harder to get in touch with the key archaeological events.”

He wants to “get back to that immediacy of discovery”. He plans “Dig Village” shoots with Mick as a guide, and featuring Stewart Ainsworth, Paul Blinkhorn and others; a pilot will “be seen on the internet in early November”.

He also hopes to return to some old Time Team sites, in “the Time Team ‘Legacy’ Roadshow”.

The Guardian were the first to pick this up, here.

See my posts about Mick leaving, and the media coverage:

Let’s catch up with Mick

Down the paper chain
And here’s another press story, quoting the Guardian. You’ve got to admit, this is a gift for headline writers.

An October rose

A dripping, misty dawn over Savernake Forest this morning.

Lasers at Stonehenge

At last, after all these years, we’ve got the very first comprehensive study of the actual stones at Stonehenge. As part of its research into Stonehenge and its landscape that will feed into displays at the new visitor centre, English Heritage commissioned Greenhatch Group surveyors to produce the first complete, high resolution 3D digital model of Stonehenge and its immediate landscape, using lasers and a bit of photogrammetry. Then Marcus Abbott (ArcHeritage) and Hugo Anderson-Whymark (freelance lithics specialist) analysed the data, created new digital images and news ways of seeing them, added some of their own photos and spent time amongst the real stones. In one sense the results are not surprising: it was obvious to anyone with eyes that that we could learn a lot about Stonehenge with a proper study of the stones. And yes, we have learnt a lot. But just about all the details are revelatory. There are four different areas where new things are really going to change the way we think about the monument:

  • how the stones were dressed and what the original monument looked like
  • prehistoric carvings – difficult to see and unknown to visitors: the new discoveries have doubled the number of such carvings known in the whole of Britain
  • damage by tourists: the scale of damage done by souvenir collectors in the 18th and 19th centuries had not been recognised before
  • graffiti: dates range between 1721 and 1866, though most were carved 1800–1850 – and they’re almost everywhere.

And this must be just the beginning. There are more details yet to see (there is still scope for new and higher resolution survey), and new things to think about in the vast data set. Marcus and Hugo have written a full report on it all for the new British Archaeology, and the feature comes with further comment from Paul Bryan and Susan Greaney at English Heritage. Some of the new insights into the original monument are illustrated In this diagram we prepared for the magazine. If you know Stonehenge, from this alone you can see at once how much new information has been revealed. Amongst other things, it seems fair to draw from this (and other new data) that the sarsen circle probably WAS complete; and that the whole thing was designed to be seen from the north-east, approaching up the Avenue – so the implication follows that the setting midwinter sun you’d be facing to the south-west was the key alignment. British Archaeology also published the pioneering Stonehenge laser study done in 2002. Tom Goskar and colleagues from Wessex Archaeology and Archaeoptics experimented with scanning on three stone faces, and discovered a few new axehead carvings. English Heritage is due to publish the full report today.

Children of the Stones

Stewart Lee presented an entertaining programme on Radio 4 last week about the old TV series that featured strange goings on in a village with a big stone circle. A lot of people are coming here from the link that the BBC kindly provided, so for anyone nostalgic about Avebury, here are a few recent photos. And you can listen to Happy Days: Children of the Stones here.