Drowning in the swamp of bad TV: Unearthed at Stonehenge

Skeletons of Stonehenge

The Science Channel posted a link to a film clip a couple of days ago, to promote a new film, apparently called Skeletons of Stonehenge. The piece is headed, “Clues found in ancient skeletons buried at Stonehenge reveal a series of murders.” (Hint as to where this is going: the bone above is not from Stonehenge.)

Many readers of this blog will already smell something wrong. We have only two skeletons from Stonehenge. Both men (as they were) died violently, so we might very broadly say they were murdered. But they died 3,000 years apart. Two deaths separated by three millennia suggests a very strange serial killer.

The programme is in a strand called Unearthed. The clip is three minutes long. It’s worth quoting the narrative at length.

“The body of a man dumped in a shallow grave in the middle of Stonehenge

“Could this man’s bones reveal a sinister previously unknown use for the famous stone circle?

“200 miles from Stonehenge, at another prehistoric pagan site, archaeologists have found more victims, murdered with the same grisly MO. Ten headless bodies. Eleven skulls. Seven without jaws. Jo and her team have unearthed shocking evidence of multiple decapitated bodies, all seemingly killed at iconic prehistoric landmarks across Britain. Is this the work of a deranged ancient serial killer?”

The osteoarchaeologist is Jo Buckberry. She is a reader in biological anthropology at the School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences, University of Bradford. I don’t know her, but she seems sensible and none of this drivel comes from her lips. She deserved better. Viewers deserve better. People who died in the past deserve much better.

There’ll be more in the complete film, which I haven’t seen, but for the record:

“previously unknown”: a skeleton was excavated at Stonehenge in 1923, and identified as an execution victim in 2000.

“dumped in a shallow grave”: the body was laid out on its back in a grave, with the head propped up on its shoulders.

“in the middle of Stonehenge”: the grave is outside the stone circles.

“Skeletons of Stonehenge”: the story is about Anglo-Saxon skeletons, and there is only one identified Anglo-Saxon skeleton from Stonehenge.

Yet despite this, the worse thing is the stupefying nonsense of the argument. And the fact that it is shown through film of an archaeological specialist who could not have approved it: surely the poor Jo Buckberry had nothing to do with the film’s script (I’ve been there myself)?

Indeed. As I was writing, I found this from her on the Science Channel’s Facebook page, commenting on the post a few hours before. I quote it in full, because she deserves it:

“Jo Buckberry Ok, so I’ve not seen the to programme. But I gather the editing was, erm, done with artistic licence. These skeletons are from East Yorkshire, not Stonehenge. There is a single burial from Stonehenge of the same date, with very similar injuries. These skeletons were from the 7-10th Century (later Anglo-Saxon), and had evidence of decapitation, but no other injuries. The location and mode of burial, long period of use for the site and evidence of decapitation is suggestive of judicial execution. No idea where they got sacrifices or murders from. How do I know? I analysed and have written 4 papers about them. I was filmed (that’s me in the photo). I talked about a photograph of the Stonehenge skeleton, on a laptop. I’ve never seen the skeleton from Stonehenge…”

What is wrong with TV? People are fascinated by Stonehenge. There are extraordinary stories to tell. Why make up such idiocies, insulting your specialists to boot?

And the Science Channel’s slogan?

“Question Everything”

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4 thoughts on “Drowning in the swamp of bad TV: Unearthed at Stonehenge

  1. Hi Mike, thanks for writing this. You are right- I didn’t see the script, and spent the whole day filming talking about a broad pattern of archaeology, linking back to the one individual from Stonehenge. Right from the start I kept saying ‘but I know very little about Stonehenge, are you sure you want me to talk about skeletons from Yorkshire’… I’ve not seen the final programme, but have friends in the US who have. I’m dreading it being aired in the U.K. It’s very difficult to respond when you’ve not seen it though.

  2. With instant global interactivity and multiple channels we have entered a new era of communication that is no longer mass communication but channelled and ‘bespoke’. The only means of defence we have in this situation are adhering to integrity and principle; individually we cannot teach critical thinking and the ability to discriminate, all we can do is calmly refer people to the evidence (with some explanation as to what the parameters that are used to define evidence are in each case). The satellite and terrestrial media are driven by a need for profit, which of course means integrity and principle are often casualties! But I appreciate this will feel like small compensation for you and your concerns for the impression this programme may give. “Penny Dreadfuls” will always be popular, but we will be fine so long as there are more people inside and outside the media who have sufficient integrity, principle and critical faculties (and despite apparent evidence to the contrary, I remain optimistic). If that doesn’t make you feel better (and having had experience of negative media coverage) remember its soon ‘yesterday’s papers’, which these days is a torrent of fresh ‘product’ blasted out every few seconds …

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