thinking about archaeology


Dr Mr Cameron

Times Diary

I read in today’s Times that you apparently believe the Guardian is a paper fit only for burning. I’d like to think the columnist got something wrong – after all, you can’t trust everything you read in the press. But this is The Times. Did you really mean that?

I have a soft spot for the Guardian, and I admit that is not just for the quality of its international reporting. Over the years as an occasional journalist, I have been advised by several Guardian editors, and the paper has accepted more of my pieces than any other (I have had my byline in other titles, including the Mail, Express, Telegraph, and yes, the Times, but none has been as helpful to me).

So if you don’t read the Guardian, Mr Cameron, you are missing most of my informative and sometimes opinionated contributions on heritage and archaeology, and that concerns me! Please try the Guardian again!

Of course it has its silly pieces, and none of us would be surprised to know these tend to lean to the left. But every paper has its silliness. If you based your reading criteria on avoiding extremes in any paper, you’d end up reading none.

So I wonder, Mr Cameron, which papers you do read?

climate change denial

The Telegraph? The paper which recently ran a piece headed, “The fiddling with temperature data is the biggest science scandal ever”? An online questionnaire was appended, asking, “Has global warming been exaggerated by scientists?” I voted No (you’d have to be out of touch with reality to vote Yes), but then found that of 78,850 votes, less than 5,000 had also been Yes.

The Times, perhaps? The paper in which Melanie Phillips defended torture. “There is a difference between what torturers do”, she wrote, “and what is done by democracies to protect themselves against attack. Tyrannies torture their own people and their enemies… But sometimes it is a moral imperative to use limited ill-treatment if the purpose is to save innocent lives.”

The Independent’s independent view on one of your recent electoral promises (not to raise taxes) was that it was “foolish”. Into the box for winter fires.

Or the Sun? It wants people to vote for you, so perhaps this will pass muster. But you would have to tear out the pages featuring Katie Hopkins calling migrants cockroaches, and other sillinesses.

So which is it, Mr Cameron? Or do you not read any of them?

Yours sincerely

Mike Pitts

PS Please let me know if you’d like to read any of my Guardian pieces, and I would be delighted to supply copies.

What’s in store for Richard III in 2014?

Digging for Richard

One small dig made 2013 an extraordinary year for British archaeology. Yet 2014 may bring even more to interest those following the Richard III story. It’s been seven months since I wrote the second of my two main blogs about the excavation (And Richard it was, Feb 6, and The peers in the car park, May 29). After that, I had a fascinating (and very busy) time talking to many of those involved in the project, and my book about it all comes out in May – more on that later. First, let’s catch up.

Richard III statue in Leicester, soon to be moved

There can be no doubting the international interest. Look at this list of 2013 lists:

Archaeology magazine top 10 discoveries of 2013, no 1: Richard III

Fox News (Live Science) 10 best science stories of 2013, no 1: Richard III rediscovered

Live Science 10 coolest archaeology discoveries of 2013, no 1: Richard III bones

NBC News year in science, five leading themes no 1: DNA unravels history’s mysteries, leading with Richard III

International Business Times top ten archaeological finds of 2013, no 1: King Richard III Grave

Heritage Daily top 10 archaeological discoveries for 2013, no 1: University of Leicester announces discovery of King Richard III

Discover Magazine top 100 stories of 2013, no 64: Skeleton of King Richard III found in England

BBC News, Year in digs: How 2013 looked in archaeology, lead story: The king in the car park

Metro newspaper 2013 news quiz, first question: Who is Michael Ibsen?

Observer science quiz no 22: In which country was Michael Ibsen born?

Times news quiz of the year 2013: Richard III’s long winter of discontent has ended, the toppled King made glorious at last in the sun of a Leicester car park. Why is a new Plantagenet Alliance fighting on his behalf? [See below…]

Observer 12 faces of 2013: Philippa Langley

Guardian people who made headlines in 2013: Mathew Morris

BBC News magazine super-shared stories of 2013, includes: Scientists confirmed a skeleton buried under a car park in Leicester was that of English king Richard III

Charlie Brooker’s 2013 Wipe on BBC2 featured the announcement of Richard III’s identification.

Leicester University Press Office: Ather Mirza (centre) with Mark Cardwell (left) and Peter Thorley

This is why I’ve called the find a Tutankhamun for our times: not because there was any treasure involved (or for any information the dig might bring us), but because of the relentless media pressure for new stories, driven by a public eager for insights into everything from the state of Richard III’s teeth to the personal lives of archaeologists (for those who don’t work in media, the University of Leicester Press Office’s collation of comments offers striking evidence of how unusual this all was). The physical remains do what archaeology always does, which is to offer a tangible link to the past, making its presence felt in our own lives: but unusually, the discoveries do this with a charismatic and puzzling known individual, made celebrity by history, Shakespeare and more. The mix has taken us into new territory: we learn more about archaeology, and ourselves, as every month passes. So what next?



First up, we are still – as you would expect – waiting for most of the research results to be published. Leicester University was extremely free with detailed information about the dig early in 2013. Its website remains a mine of information, though relatively little about the archaeology has been added since last March. The Richard III Society’s website too has much information, naturally stronger on history than archaeology, and keeping up with events.

Scientific studies of the finds continue. There was a bigger dig at the site in July (described in a blog – to follow in order, you read part 2, then part 1; British Archaeology reported on this in the Nov/Dec 2013 edition). Three more burials were excavated, including that of an older woman, who had been encased in a lead coffin and a fine outer stone coffin – clearly an important medieval figure, though unidentified. The tentative layout of the friary church was confirmed, and remains of a new building, possibly an earlier church, were also found. Pieces of stone tracery believed in 2012 to be medieval turned out to be Victorian demolition rubble, from alterations to the adjacent school.

Excavation in 2013, Richard's grave protected with fresh sand

Excavation in 2013, Richard’s grave protected with fresh sand

Following the Antiquity article in May, we had one peer-reviewed paper, in September, a very specific study of soil samples from around the skeleton. These revealed that Richard was infected with roundworms:

“The intestinal parasites of King Richard III”, by Piers Mitchell, Hui-Yuan Yeh, Jo Appleby & Richard Buckley, The Lancet, Vol 382, issue 9895, page 888 (2013).

The paucity of further material (perfectly normal for a research project at this stage) is emphasised by a curious article published in the British Dental Journal in April. It’s written by one A Rai, identified only by email and mobile phone number, and looks superficially like a peer-reviewed article. Perhaps it is. But the information on Richard’s teeth comes from Leicester University’s website and press releases, and I understand that Rai has not seen any of the remains. I can’t help but wonder what the point of it is.

I understand further peer-reviewed articles have been written and are awaiting publication – in the meantime, their contents will be embargoed, and we depend on journal schedules. Work continues on the main project, the excavation, analysis and publication of the friary.

We had two books on the story in 2013.

First came The King’s Grave: The Search for Richard III, by Philippa Langley and Michael Jones (October). Reviewers preferred Jones’s chapters (“measured, reasonable and elegantly written… sound history”, Sunday Times) to Langley’s (“much madder”, Sunday Times; “the idea that there is a cabal of historians trying to foist some Tudor caricature of Richard on an unsuspecting public is baffling”, Guardian; “sentimental, special pleading codswallop”, Sunday Express). The book is an insight into why Langley wanted to find Richard’s remains, revealing how the discovery and resultant new information had no apparent impact on her views.

Mathew Morris and Richard Buckley’s Richard III: The King Under the Car Park followed in November. This is a well illustrated paperback that puts the story of the 2012 dig and study of the remains into the contexts of Greyfriars and medieval Leicester, written by the two men who directed the excavation. It packs much information into its 64 pages.


Memorial plaque in Leicester Cathedral: this view will look very different if Richard's remains are reburied here

Memorial plaque in Leicester Cathedral: this view will look very different if Richard’s remains are reburied here

The biggest fuss, however, has been about the proposed reburial. The archaeologists and the Richard III Society seem to have kept largely out of it, which is wise. For the debate has often been ignorant and unseemly, and sometimes deeply disrespectful.

The issue is not whether or not the king’s remains should be interred (I’m quite sure many people would like to look at them), but where. In August a lobby group which would see the bones buried in York – apparently unconcerned that York Minster has itself said they should be buried in Leicester – was granted permission to bring judicial review proceedings against the Ministry of Justice and the University of Leicester.

The Plantagenet Alliance Ltd (PA), an obscure organisation calling itself “living, collateral descendants of King Richard III” and “his Majesty’s representatives and voice”, asked that the bones be “returned” to York. It backed a UK government e-petition for “Richard III to be re-interred at York Minster”. Some weight was put on the fact that the York petition had more votes than a similar one urging burial in Leicester (“Keep Richard III remains in Leicester”). However, when these closed (York on September 24 and Leicester on October 12), Leicester had shot ahead –  31,300 for York, 34,300 for Leicester – so understandably the PA dropped that line.

North wall of Leicester Cathedral

Reserved parking spaces on the north wall of Leicester Cathedral

There have been several other reburial petitions:

King Richard III should have a state funeral & buried at Westminster Abbey.

Bury King Richard III in Gloucester Cathedral.

King Richard III to be re-interred at Fotheringhay, Northamptonshire.

Richard III to be re-interred in Lancaster.

Burial of King Richard the III at a catholic burial site.

Service and Burial of King Richard III should be held in a Roman Catholic church or Cathedral.

Richard III should be reinterred at Arundel R.C Cathedral. read this and see if you can deny.

The City of Leicester should be allowed to keep the remains of Richard III.

If the bones found in Leicester are proved to be Richard III they should be reintured at Leicester Cathedral.

Richard III remains to be interred at Priory Street Centre car park, York (28 votes for this one so far).

Richard III to be re-interred in York Minster

(note the “in”; this took 600 votes from the “at” version, though Leicester would still have won if “at” had them all).

This puts me in mind of the Times, which also had difficulty in making up its mind. The newspaper opted in two leaders for two places: Westminster Abbey (Loser’s justice, February 4), and Leicester (Royal rumpus, November 27).

The fact is (if you hadn’t already guessed where this is going), there can be no simple answer to where Richard III’s remains should be buried, if you ignore standard procedure, which would have them buried near to where they were found – which happens to be Leicester Cathedral, just across the street. Despite widespread belief, historians have found no evidence as to what Richard III would have wished, and they are unlikely to do so. There are essentially two choices: Leicester (as convention would determine), or anywhere in the world (to be determined by whim).

Friar Lane, Leicester

Friar Lane, Leicester

Nonetheless, on August 15 Mr Justice Haddon-Cave supported the PA’s wish for judicial review proceedings. Despite the belief of some and the PA’s expressed hope, however, this was not to challenge the case for reburial in Leicester. In granting the excavation licence, said Haddon-Cave, the secretary of state for justice had not consulted “relevant interests”.

Which begs the question, whose interests are relevant? Collateral descendants, responds the PA, narrowing it down a bit to between one and 17 million people scattered around the UK and the world (almost all of whom, says Kevin Schürer, pro-vice chancellor at the University of Leicester and responsible for genealogical research in the Richard III project, will not know they are descendants: they would need to be identified and tracked down).

We are entering Alice in Wonderland territory. With so many collateral descendants, the select number in the PA, who I think we can safely guess have not consulted their fellow relatives, have no evidence on which to base a claim that they represent the larger group. Yet the judicial review which they achieved is being held because the decision to bury the remains in Leicester was supposedly taken by an unrepresentative group of people.

Selling sunglasses in Leicester

Selling sunglasses in Leicester

Haddon-Cave argued that the Ministry of Justice should have consulted on the future of the remains before granting the excavation licence. The University of Leicester applied for the licence on August 31 2012. At that point, no remains had been excavated. The request was to dig up six sets. So, according to Haddon-Cave, there should have been a public consultation on six groups of human remains, before they had been identified, or even excavated – indeed, five of them had not even been found. But that’s not all: any licence granted should have been re-visited once it became clear that Richard III’s grave had been found.

Suppose this had been a more typical urban excavation, in which a much larger area had been opened up, and the best part of the friary cemetery had been found. The archaeologists are waiting to dig, and a developer is waiting to move in and build. But first, consultations need to be conducted on the future of 200 graves whose contents are completely unknown. As the principle is consultation before we know what’s in a grave, this would apply on every archaeological excavation across the UK – not to mention industrial cemetery clearances.

The Plantagenet Alliance first made itself known after the 2012 excavation and preliminary research were completed; it cares a lot about where the remains are reburied, but appears to have little interest in the research and has not, I am told, contributed any funds. Linked names include Charles Brunner, of Kansas, USA, and Stephen Nicolay, who has described himself as “a former field archaeologist of some 20 years”, who had “probably exhumed 10–15 Roman individuals” (a typical professional archaeologist who had worked in the field that long, would wonder, how come so few?).

Originally set for November 26, the judicial review was adjourned (Annette Carson gives a useful summary of the day’s proceedings) and now takes place this year on March 13 and 14, in London. In August last year it was revealed that the university had by then spent £28,000 on legal advice, and the Ministry of Justice £8,000 (a total of almost exactly twice the Richard III Society’s contribution to the cost of the 2012 dig); regardless of the review’s outcome, UoL and MoJ are to pay costs.

One of many street signs in Leicester commemorating Bosworth and Richard III

One of many street signs in Leicester commemorating Bosworth and Richard III

Other things coming up in 2014:

The reburial itself (perhaps). Originally planned for Leicester in the spring, the grand event would appear to have been delayed by the judicial review. The Bishop of Leicester recently said he still believes it will happen in his cathedral, but last November Matthew Howarth, representing the PA from the Yorkshire law firm Gordons, said the review will not be over by August this year. Leicester City Council did not help, appearing to part with the university at one point in mysteriously claiming “ownership” of the remains, and then backing down again. The Lawyer has useful articles about this.

If it does happen in Leicester (I’m on the bishop’s side), we will see the newly designed memorial tomb for Richard, which stirred up a minor controversy last year (should its style hark from Eric Gill – who taught David Kindersley, responsible for the memorial slab set in the cathedral floor in 1980 [see photo above] – or Furniture Warehouse?).

Leicester will open its new £4m museum and visitor centre, Richard III: Dynasty, Death and Discovery (and perhaps they will come up with a better name? This one sounds like a Hollywood movie franchise). This will mostly be inside the former Alderman Newton School that overlooks the dig site. Plans were approved in August last year, and Morgan Sindall began work in September.

Richard III’s statue will be moved from Leicester’s Castle Gardens (see photo above) to the front of the cathedral. The cathedral itself will open its newly laid out gardens, a major £2.5m project that coincidentally began before the excavations.

Meanwhile we should hear the results of a competition for a new sculpture, sponsored by Leicestershire County Council. I favour Michael Sandle’s idea – dark and powerful, and not sentimental – though its cost would mean an additional fundraising campaign.

Richard Buckley will be a guest at Buckingham Palace – twice. Once in February, with Leicester University colleagues to accept a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher & Further Education, and again for his OBE, “For services to archaeology” (one of only two such awards made in this round, the other being to Lindsay Allason-Jones, director of The Centre for Interdisciplinary Artefact Studies at Newcastle University).


Mathew Morris on site in 2013

Mathew Morris on site in 2013

So finally, my book. It tells the complete story of how Richard III’s burial was found – the inspiration behind the quest, the historic research, the archaeological fieldwork and the scientific and other studies – featuring all the key people involved through their own thoughts and words. It throws in a bit of history (unlike some historians, I don’t believe everyone knows all about the Wars of the Roses), but it doesn’t consider what sort of king Richard was, an increasingly tired debate that is more than well covered elsewhere. It does, I hope, capture the mood of the times, which were genuinely extraordinary. To quote the publisher’s blurb:

“The vivid tale of a king, his demise and now his rediscovery, this is also an insider’s gripping account of how modern archaeology really works, of how clues meticulously assembled and forensically examined are pieced together to create a narrative worthy of the finest detective fiction.”

Digging For Richard III: How Archaeology Found the King, is published in May by Thames and Hudson.




Talking archaeology

Warning – this is not a blog. It is a 5,000-word article I wrote early in 2012 in response to a request for a proposed book. Two years later the world of communications continues to move on rapidly. My hope remains that someone will find the article useful, so pending publication of the book, here is my draft.

The article considers how specialists – archaeologists, though I believe the principles apply across academic disciplines – might better reach an interested public with the fruits of their discoveries and ideas. Its conclusion is a call to “recognise the need for a different form of writing and thinking, that rises above the excavation, the artefact or the narrow theoretical debate to develop big ideas and big stories about people in the past.” The book is to be published in Britain, so the material and examples I quote are British; and because I am mostly a writer, the article is mostly about writing.

Communicating archaeology: the message, not the medium

Rescuing our past

On my desk are two sources in which professional archaeologists spoke to a wide public. One is a fading press cutting over 40 years old. The other is a radio programme broadcast in Australia during the week in which I am writing, available as audio on demand and as a downloadable transcript.

On August 22 1971 (seven months after the launch of RESCUE, a campaigning British archaeological body that achieved much in the 1970s to raise public awareness of archaeological losses in the course of development) the Observer published a full-page article written by two archaeologists (Barker and Fowler 1971). It is confident, strident and packed with information. We are told, for example, that “Between AD 1500 and 1950 about 300 [deserted medieval villages] were destroyed… between 1950 and 1970, 300 more were destroyed, and they are now disappearing at the rate of 20 to 30 a year.” The piece ended with what was effectively an advert to attract new paying members of RESCUE.

Forty years ago, archaeology in Britain was a smaller world than it is today, and the distinction between professional and public less complex. Barker and Fowler were younger – and angry – archaeologists taking an unusual approach (a polemic in an upmarket Sunday newspaper), but they had grown up with the idea that leading archaeologists made it their job to tell the public about what they were doing.

The BBC were soon to broadcast two films featuring Mortimer Wheeler looking back on his life (Hawkes 1982, 366), accompanied by a double-spread feature in the Radio Times (Campbell 1973). Wheeler remains one of the greatest communicators archaeology has ever seen, but other key 20th century archaeologists who had written popular books, given radio talks and appeared in television programmes were alive and active in 1971.

Stuart Piggott – described by Richard Bradley as one of British archaeology’s “three wise men”, who “more than anyone else… laid the foundations for the study of British prehistory and… taught most of the senior figures in the discipline today” (Bradley 1996) – was 61. As well as his distinguished academic publications, Piggott had written several trade books. Importantly, he expected these books to be read by both archaeologists and “the general non-specialist reader” (Piggott 1965, vii). In the preface to Prehistoric India he noted that “Much of the material presented in this book is either new and hitherto unpublished or is a synthesis made for the first time… But despite [the inevitable technical detail] it is hoped that a coherent story… has been presented to the non-specialist reader” (Piggott 1950, 9). This book was a Penguin paperback priced at three shillings, around £5 in today’s terms.

Grahame Clark was 64 in August 1971. He wrote Prehistoric Societies with Piggott, a book favourably reviewed in the Economist and the Sunday Times (Clark and Piggott 1965). The Manchester Guardian described his Prehistoric England (Clark 1940, reissued in several editions) as “an excellent and detailed introduction to a fascinating subject for the non-expert reader”; for the Illustrated London News Clark treated “an essentially learned subject in a… readable and attractive manner”. Like Piggott, Clark valued public knowledge: “If we are ever to recover the story of a common past, it can only be through the pressure of an informed public opinion” (Clark 1939, vii).

Glyn Daniel, author of The Megalith Builders of Western Europe (“Unusually clear and sensible”, Observer) and the travel guide The Hungry Archaeologist in France (Daniel 1958 and 1963), as well as detective novels (eg Daniel 1954), was 57. In A Picture Book of Ancient British Art (Piggott and Daniel 1951, vii) we see a familiar refrain: “Our aim has been twofold”, that is, to appeal to both “the serious student” and “the general reader”.

Piecing together the past

Perhaps the greatest writer of popular but learned archaeology books had been Gordon Childe. Had he not committed suicide in 1957, he might still have been alive in 1971 – he would have been 79, a year younger than Wheeler. He wrote few books exclusively for archaeologists, but his many trade books (eg Childe 1936, 1942) were influential within the profession as much as at the railway station bookshop – as Miles Burkitt said in his Nature review of What Happened in History, Childe wrote to “stimulate thought” (quoted on the 1957 Penguin edition). His little Story of Tools (1944) was one of very few archaeological publications that Childe might not have expected archaeologists to bother with.

Childe’s contribution to the Young Communist League’s vision for “spreading deeper knowledge of the development and achievements of human society” (1944)

Childe’s contribution to the Young Communist League’s vision for “spreading deeper knowledge of the development and achievements of human society” (1944)

These men were some of the great thinkers in British archaeology, excavators of internationally significant sites (Maiden Castle, Stonehenge, Star Carr, Skara Brae) and responsible for texts that defined the profession and its subject matter (eg Wheeler 1954, Piggott 1954, Clark 1952, Daniel 1950, Childe 1957). And they appeared on TV: Wheeler and Daniel were the key figures on Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?, the BBC’s most successful game and chat show in the mid 50s, which also featured Piggott, and even Childe (Hawkes 1982, 298–301; Lavell 1981, 119).

We are given a very different picture today by Rachael Kohn, in conversation with Karin Sowada who is an Egyptologist and specialist in Biblical archaeology. The programme was made by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Radio National (Kohn 2012), but the insights are universal. In 1971 the media were a limited range of opportunities for archaeologists to tell the world what they wanted it to think about what they were doing. In 2012 the ever-changing and ballooning mix of print, video and audio, and online blogs and gossip, intimidates archaeologists. If they had some control over presentation in 1971, in 2012, it would seem, they have almost none.

Sowada notes that the proliferation of TV broadcasters – she names the Discovery Channel, the History Channel and the National Geographic Channel – has created an unprecedented demand for media content. “They need to fill their airtime”, she says, leading to “manufactured discoveries”. These might be fabricated stories, or finds that were “made some years ago but are being reinterpreted through new eyes by non-scholars who see an opportunity to make a name for themselves, sell a book, generate an exhibition, whatever”. Such discoveries need to be told at a pace, and if university archaeologists are involved, they will be encouraged “to get media attention, … to bring in money [and] perhaps partnerships with TV stations”.

But scholarship takes time, proceeding through slow research and peer-reviewed publication. “Academics”, says Sowada, “are under enormous pressure with teaching loads, research loads, their university key performance indicators are based on research output in scholarly journals and books. … The TV documentary is … an additional burden on the already overworked academics … they find it very challenging.”

Despite this, Sowada wants archaeologists to be seen more. “The one-hour television documentary is the gold standard for how people receive their information. So whether an academic likes it or not, they need to … engage much more vigorously with the media with their own discoveries … taxpayers absolutely have a right to know where their money is going and to hear the results of those expenditures.”

So should archaeologists try harder? Should they seek a return to values of the gentler media world of the 1970s and before? Or should they be doing something altogether different? And regardless of what they aim for, how can they improve the hope of achieving it?

The art of writing

Words lie behind any communications designed to inform, whether they are written, spoken or hidden in the equivalent of stage directions that steer and shape a presentation. How words are used is important. Here are a few points that have struck me as a part-time journalist and broadcaster, and editor of British Archaeology.

Bad writing distracts

Bad grammar, bad spelling and misplaced style hinder communication. It has become common online to flaunt lazy writing. But an archaeological blog replete with typos, unfinished sentences and grammatical errors fails. It fails because if it has something to say, that message will be obscured; and it fails because the sort of educated, busy reader the archaeologist might seek to reach will not read past the first sentence.

The same principles apply to print. Here are some real archaeological examples, from published and unpublished texts, starting with spelling – the message here, is read your text and do not rely on your spell checker.

“A decisive navel battle was fought near Actium.”

“A line of post-medieval tits was recorded during the excavation.”

“Rabbis have been a feature of the English countryside since Norman times.”

And finally, an old favourite:

“Developers must put the evaluation in the pubic domain.”

There has been much said about the issue of unattached participles or gerunds, often to the effect that we should no longer worry about it. Only those who do not care to be understood should take that line. The alert reader will be distracted; the lazy will not be following you anyway.

“Walking through the picturesque graveyard of Llandadarn Fawr, the urn carved on an 1843 gravestone would make any archaeologist stop and look twice.” (It would indeed, though it was probably the archaeologist, not the urn, that walked.)

“Proposed for demolition twice, the casework panel felt that the building contributed to the conservation area.” (At least at that point, the panel was still standing.)

“Before making the 105 mile journey back to the fort, English Heritage appointed a team of skilled experts … to conserve the 1,800 year old stonework.” (Despite their logo, English Heritage has never lived in a fort.)

Academics like florid metaphors. The Sun likes it straight. There is perhaps a happy medium, but if you must use metaphors, read what you have written carefully, or you will end up with this:

“It is now established that the framework of the medieval countryside crystallised over the final centuries of the first millennium AD when a united England was forged from a patchwork of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.”

In the real world, “frameworks” do not “crystallise”, and a “patchwork” is sewn, not forged. Rather than a vivid image of early medieval England, this sentence raises confused memories of school chemistry. Or again, an example that is just weird:

“… drama-led formats, in which the goalposts shift towards entertainment.”

Careful reading can reveal more subtle problems. These two examples are grammatically correct, but both give the reader an unintended, and distracting image:

“As I left to make my way to the airport my colleagues asked if I had my sick bag ready… [followed shortly by] … It’s amazing what you see from the air. Sites you think you know well throw up new surprises.”

“’Chronological and imaginative leaps’ become possible without, as *** puts it, a need for ‘a plethora of crappy reconstruction’. ‘With radio’, *** continues, ‘you can float ideas’.”

If people can not understand what you are saying, they will stop listening

 Most of us are aware that when we address people who have no special archaeological knowledge, we need to say what we mean when we use terms like liquid scintillation counting, Protruding Foot Beaker or terminus post quem. Nonetheless, it is worth saying that such terms really do need to be explained; and if we can omit the term and go straight to the explanation, so much the better.

What is harder to appreciate is that archaeologists habitually use many words they do not think of as jargon, many of them related to excavation, that a wider public would not understand correctly. Thanks to Time Team, “trench” and “geofizz” often need no introduction (though it is worth bearing in mind that for many, these words have specific Time Team-related connotations). But others such as “section”, “rob” (as in robber trench), “concentration” (a tight cluster of finds), “cut”, “parallel” (used to compare one artefact to another) and many more, may not feel like jargon, but in fact have very specific technical meanings, which are different from their everyday uses. So for example, if you are on video describing a trench section, you can get away with saying “this section” and a sweep of the arm. But without the picture, you should say what you mean by “section”, and as always with jargon, that very thought should encourage you to ask yourself if you need to use the word at all.

Clarity is power

Academics like long, convoluted sentences and obscure words. Much of the time this fondness for confusion hides confused thinking. This may be a useful service for the ambitious but less gifted archaeologist, but it repels the general reader seeking enlightenment. Obscurity can also result from unnecessary use of jargon. If you want people to read and understand your message, read it through and make it clear, or you will end up with sentences like these:

“It is often the material spreads themselves on such sites that provide snapshots for the temporality of the deposits.” (Spreads of debris can represent snapshots in time.)

“His burial post-dated the abandonment of the building.” (He was buried after the building was abandoned.)

“The new country that emerged was driven by a past master of repossessing lost pasts through a selective narratives process.” (The new country that emerged was driven by a master of historical reinvention.)

On the other hand, repetition of simple words and phrases can deaden the brain. More importantly, it may suggest to the careful writer that their text can be shortened by the removal of redundant passages – a better strategy than reaching for the thesaurus for alternative words. This was the case with an otherwise excellent text I edited (a feature on an urban excavation, of less than 2,000 words) in which the phrase “a series of” (as in “a series of large brick drains”) occurred six times, the word “room” 15 times, and “building” 40 times – including two appearances of the phrase “the building was rebuilt”.

The past was populated by real people

It is easy to get too close to your work, and to forget that the object of your research is not the excavation trench or the object in your lab, but the stories these can tell us about real people’s lives. The oversight can show:

“At least eight individuals, presumed to have been men, were buried with swords, spears and shield bosses.” (And presumably the real warriors had whole shields.)

“…evidence of flint working and the processing of animal remains.” (Next season we hope to find the site where they processed the animals.)

“The axehead has mineralised remains of the wooden shaft still attached to it.” (We might say “still” if the shaft had survived, but no mineralised remains were attached to the blade when it was in use as an axe.)

“The post-excavation analyses revealed… a group of post-holes dated to 1880–1640BC… which had been intentionally burnt down probably not long after construction.” (The writer presumably had in mind posts being burnt down, not pits.)

The world of archaeology is very small

What matters within the world of professional archaeology does not necessarily matter as much outside. Much of the criticism levelled by archaeologists at media coverage is of the form we might label the wrong offside law. In January 2012 a set of coins was launched to commemorate the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. One of 29 sports commemorated was football, with a 50p piece that illustrated the offside law. Except, complained football referees, it got the law wrong – apparently a technicality introduced in 1995 had been misrepresented (Hills 2012). In similar fashion, the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers objected to artist Martin Creed’s 2012 Olympics project, Work No 1197: All the Bells in a Country Rung As Quickly and As Loudly As Possible for Three Minutes. “We think 8am is not the right time for ringing in very many towers”, said the council’s blog (Higgins 2011).

In these cases, projects designed to entertain also have the clear capacity to draw in new interest that could be encouraged by specialists. Yet they were dismissed by those with most to gain, for reasons that seem petty to the outside world. Some of the criticism aimed publicly by archaeologists at Time Team’s Big Dig or the Portable Antiquities Scheme, for example, is of this type (Kennedy 2003, Moshenska 2010).

Journalists are human beings

It is too easy and often wrong for archaeologists to blame what they do not like in the media on editors, journalists and presenters. If the latter are reporting an archaeological story, they are reliant on archaeologists to tell them what is important, right and wrong, and not to confuse them with minor irrelevances; they work under intense pressure. Clear use of words is never more critical than when you have a leading broadcaster on the phone for 30 seconds, seeking help. These comments are taken from JournAlert, an online daily newsletter for journalists.

“Well structured articles within 100 words of the word count and inside the deadline.” “A clear approach, decent grammar and honesty.” “Copy in on time and written to a professional standard.” (Answers to the question, “Name the most important attributes that make a freelance journalist stand out for you”. Note that these are not preferences; they are essentials.)

“If I can trust a contributor to deliver the goods and do so on time, I value them highly. If they don’t, I kill them.” (A warning from the editor of Tattoo Master.)

“I don’t like ‘time suckers’ on the phone. I don’t take many calls when I’m working, as this industry is all about deadlines and 15-hour days.” (In answer to, “Do you like freelance journalists to get in touch with you directly to pitch ideas?”)

It may seem that an archaeologist seeking a wide audience for their excavation faces a dilemma: if editors are so busy, how do you reach them? The answer – simple to write, less so to execute – is to get to know the industry, and show it an archaeologist who can help. This takes commitment, and hard work. Somewhere along the line (it could be months, it could be years), if you get it right you will make the transformation from an archaeologist struggling to interest a news desk in a discovery, to a valued writer that editors will phone for help when they want to follow up a press release.

Quality media do not print press releases: they want to put their own spin on a story, and to be seen to be contributing. And if they have the resources to do so, they might do their own research and find another story altogether (most journalists are repelled by press offices’ attempts to spin a story to the benefit, say, of a university department). Editors have contact lists. If the list includes archaeologists who can write or speak intelligently, entertainingly and informatively when an archaeological story needs to be covered – and to length and on time, often within hours – everyone benefits. And if it does not, the absence is as much an archaeological failure as an editorial one.

As with any form of communication, writing and talking are not specifically archaeological skills. There are many publications that can help (to take but two that helped me, in earlier editions, Dick 2003 and Horstmann 1997). The three books I repeatedly use when writing are Ernest Gowers’ Complete Plain Words (Gowers 1973), Robert Dutch’s edition of Roget’s Thesaurus (in the abridged Penguin version, Dutch 1966) and the Economist’s style guide (The Economist 2010). All are a pleasure to read, as well as to refer to.

Thinking big

The common thread in the above selective comments I would like to draw attention to, is the fault of being too close to your material. If an archaeologist writes or speaks about an invasion of pots or a woman buried with a belt buckle, uses language that obscures rather than explains, or appears obsessively concerned with issues that matter only to a few colleagues, they are unlikely to arouse interest in what they are saying. Importantly, they reveal a limited horizon, a particular danger in archaeology. The field attracts because of the grand, romantic and mysterious, but it deals mostly with the small, broken and tedious; and as Karin Sowada says, archaeology moves “at a glacial pace … it can take years to actually reach a conclusion” (Kohn 2012). Wheeler was right when he wrote, “Dead archaeology is the driest dust that blows” (1954, v).

The media are in flux. New technologies and attitudes to information are shredding the simple and distinct trio of trusted brands in print, radio and television that we all remember. In such a world, it can be easy to think the key to better dissemination and communication is to understand new media. When behemoths like the BBC beseech us to use Twitter to tell them what we think, or when Facebook announces the acquisition of another 100 million users, it might seem that social networking is the essential route to spreading archaeological news.

There are undoubtedly important digital opportunities that archaeologists can take greater advantage of. If the time and effort put into lecturing and writing about archaeology and media as a topic instead went into creating pages on Wikipedia, a much enlarged new public resource would exist. The entry for “Excavation (archaeology)” has since 2007 been marked with the editorial comment, “This article needs additional citations for verification. Please help improve [it] …” It remains a wordy, worthy and arcane treatise with only one direct reference (an article by Lewis Binford published in 1978, that is not about excavation). Many organisations, the Council for British Archaeology, English Heritage and the Institute for Archaeologists among them, have useful entries, as do finds such as the Staffordshire Hoard or famous sites like Stonehenge (despite its length, there remain significant omissions in this entry, and it will be interesting to see how it copes with the coming full publication of complex revisions to the monument’s phasing).

Many obvious candidates for Wikipedia entries, however, are substantially incomplete or missing. “Long barrow”, for example, has 650 words under the subheading “Long barrows in the United Kingdom”, followed by a short sentence under the other subheading, “Long barrows in Russia”. There is one cross reference, to a single barrow in Denmark. There is no mention of the internationally significant radiocarbon dating work by Alex Bayliss, Alasdair Whittle and colleagues (eg Bayliss and Whittle 2007), of any excavations or of the substantial evidence and research across the rest of Europe. There is a separate list of UK long barrows, which, as a Wikipedia editor has helpfully noted, is “incomplete”; only one barrow each in Wales and Scotland is described more fully, the entry for the latter giving no more than its length. The entry for “Round barrow” is significantly less informative and contains no references.

Given that many such entries are written by enthusiasts offering their time freely, the record for professional archaeologists is poor. Yet the opportunity to reach an enormous, international audience (and, for university teachers, their students) with no distribution costs, to hand the public the tools with which to write and enjoy history, is unparalleled. British archaeology is blessed with an uncountable number of organisations, from national to parochial, in one way or another concerned with fostering archaeological knowledge. It is time some of them got together, developed a strategy to exploit and add value to Wikipedia, and implemented it.

Other essential digital tools are the website and the blog. Blogs can be valuable as a running commentary on excavation or research (a good example being one that describes the conservation of two Roman altar stones from East Lothian: AOC 2012). Properly curated, a good blog is also an important and unprecedented type of historical record. Yet surprisingly few archaeological projects or archaeologists are represented by good blogs. For the professional archaeologist, a blog or website can be approached in the same spirit as an academic publication – care taken with grammar, style, facts and illustrations will repay itself. The chief difference between a journal article and a blog need be no more than reach, between a readership of a hundred or so and millions. As with Wikipedia, compared to traditional forms of publishing, blogs and websites are relatively cheap to produce, have an almost limitless audience and are ripe for well thought out strategies developed at a high level within the profession. All such digital communications can also be controlled, or largely so, by archaeologists: while they might look televisual on a screen, they are a world apart from traditional television.

Important digital opportunities, then. And at a more superficial level, tools like Twitter and Facebook can help promote projects, draw in readers and highlight campaigns. But the significant point here is that while these opportunities occur on the internet, what matters most is not the medium but the message. In an unpredictable and fast changing media world, one of the few true constants is the value of content. An article about long barrows on Wikipedia may reach a wide audience: but what makes it valuable, to the public and to the archaeological profession, is the quality of the writing and information.

Antiquity 1944

We might, then, think back to the world before 1971, when leading archaeologists were able to write well and entertainingly, and apparently commercially successfully, about broad issues such as the nature of archaeology or the sweep of ancient cultures across the world. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that most archaeologists then had the communication skills of Wheeler or Piggott, or sought to emulate them. Wheeler famously had many detractors (Lavell 1981, 118); Barry Cunliffe has told how his arrival at Oxford University in 1972 was greeted with the news that some senior university members did not consider archaeology a “serious subject”, because “some archaeologists had appeared on television” (Cunliffe 1982, 61).

Antiquity 1950

Antiquity, touted in 1927 by its founder-editor O G S Crawford as a popular journal, found only a small circulation, partly, in Kenneth Hudson’s words (1981, 103), because its editors have been “more anxious to gain the good opinion of scholars than of the general public”. Attempting to capitalise on the interest generated by Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? in the 1950s, the Council for British Archaeology failed to find “the writers who might have done it” (Lavell 1981, 120). The favourable book reviews in newspapers and literary journals such as those quoted earlier, look less impressive when it is noted that reviewers were often other archaeologists; even A Picture Book of Ancient British Art was published by a university press.

Peer-reviewed: A 1976 Pelican reprint of a 1965 book, with puffs from colleagues

Peer-reviewed: A 1976 Pelican reprint of a 1965 book, with puffs from colleagues

The rapid growth in the profession from the late 60s did not bring a proportionate rise in great communicators. When Jacquetta Hawkes defended the “humanistic values” of archaeology in 1968, she appeared reactionary to many – perhaps most – younger colleagues. Now, when we read of her horror of texts “so overburdened with unhelpful jargon, so grossly inflated in relation to the significance of the matters involved, that they might emanate from … an introverted group of specialists … [contributing] nothing that is enjoyable, generally interesting or of historical importance”, she looks far-sighted (Hawkes 1968, 256). The profession was turning inward and media coverage becoming more “highbrow” (Kulik 2007, 118–20); a decade later, “the professional archaeologist [was] moving in one direction, his public in the other” (Cunliffe 1982, 61). Today, archaeologists deem “popular writing” “simplistic”, and “resent” good story-telling by non-archaeologists, and the former are rarely taught literary skills (Clack and Brittain 2007, 28–29).

The ultimate way to engage a new and wider public, however, is not to seek to turn specialist academics, scientists, excavators and bureaucrats into prize-winning novelists. It is to recognise the need for a different form of writing and thinking, that rises above the excavation, the artefact or the narrow theoretical debate to develop big ideas and big stories about people in the past. It is to understand that extending archaeology’s reach does not only mean watering down what is important to archaeologists until it is consumable by the less knowledgeable, and castigating broadcasters as irresponsible if they fail to participate (Lavell 1981, 120).

This does not mean popularising archaeology, if that implies the presence of something more important that most people will have little interest in. It means doing it properly, encouraging and valuing in its own right what Childe, in particular, sought and achieved: the stimulation of thought.


AOC, 2012, Lewisvale Park Roman remains

Barker, P and Fowler, F, 1971, Rescuing our past, Observer August 22 1971

Bayliss, A and Whittle, A, 2007 (eds), Histories of the dead: building chronologies of five southern British long barrows, Cambridge Archaeological Journal 17.1 (supplement)

Bradley, R, 1996, Stuart Piggott, British Archaeology 19, 23

Campbell, J, 1973, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, still digging at 82, Radio Times March 22 1973, 8–9

Childe, V G, 1936, Man Makes Himself

Childe, V G, 1942, What Happened in History

Childe, V G, 1944, The Story of Tools

Childe, V G, 1957, The Dawn of European Civilization (sixth ed)

Clack, T and Brittain, M (eds), 2007, Archaeology and the Media

Brittain, M and Clack, T, 2007, Introduction: Archaeology and the media, in Clack, T and Brittain, M (eds), 11–65

Clark, G, 1939, Archaeology and Society

Clark, G, 1940, Prehistoric England

Clark, G, 1952, Prehistoric Europe: The Economic Basis (Cambridge)

Clark, G and Piggott, S, 1965, Prehistoric Societies

Cunliffe, B, 1982, Archaeology and its public, CBA Annual Report 32, 59–64

Daniel, G, 1950, A Hundred Years of Archaeology

Daniel, G, 1954, Welcome Death

Daniel, G, 1958, The Megalith Builders of Western Europe

Daniel, G, 1963, The Hungry Archaeologist in France

Dick, J, 2003, Freelance Writing for Newspapers

Dutch, R A, 1966, Roget’s Thesaurus (Harmondsworth)

Gowers, E (revised B Fraser), 1973, The Complete Plain Words (Harmondsworth)

Hawkes, J, 1968, The proper study of mankind, Antiquity 42, 255–62

Hawkes, J, 1982, Mortimer Wheeler: Adventurer in Archaeology

Higgins, C, 2011, This week’s arts diary, Guardian November 16 2011

Hills, D, 2012, New 50p coin aimed at explaining offside law “gets offside law wrong”, Guardian January 6 2012

Horstmann, R, 1997, Writing for Radio

Kennedy, M, 2003, Time Team digs up row over DIY excavation, Guardian June 21 2003

Kohn, R, 2012, Archaeology and the media

Kulik, K, 2007, A short history of archaeological communication, in Clack, T and Brittain, M (eds), 111–24

Lavell, C, 1981, Publication: an obligation. Archaeological documentation in Britain today. Bulletin of the Institute of Archaeology 18, 91–125

Moshenska, G, 2010, Portable antiquities, pragmatism and the “Precious Things”, Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 20, 24–27

Piggott, S, 1950, Prehistoric India to 1000 BC (Harmondsworth)

Piggott, S, 1954, The Neolithic Cultures of the British Isles (Cambridge)

Piggott, S, 1965, Ancient Europe (Edinburgh)

Piggott, S, and Daniel, G E, 1951, A Picture Book of Ancient British Art (Cambridge)

The Economist, 2010, Style Guide

Wheeler, M, 1954, Archaeology from the Earth (Oxford)

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.

Metal detecting in the US

There’s been a debate in the States involving serious issues, prompted by two TV series. One of them, a pilot that appears to have at least temporarily been shelved, was made by National Geographic, the other by Spike TV, creator of  “1000 Ways to Die” (“true stories about those who succumbed to the grim reaper in the most unorthodox of styles”, with “full re-enactment” and “fun historical tidbits”) and “Deadliest Warrior” (what would have happened if Joan of Arc had fought William the Conqueror?). The programmes were not as different from each other as you might have expected. There has been huge disquiet in both the professional archaeological and detecting communities about both series. I wrote about the issues for a guest editorial in Anthropology Today, and the publisher John Wiley have kindly made the whole text accessible for free and open to comment. You can find it here.

When front covers go wrong

Heart-warming and intriguing news coming out of Egypt, but I sympathise with a fellow editor who must be thinking, why now? I’m sure it seemed a good idea at the time, but when around 414,850 members of the CSMA Club received their magazine over the past few days, editor Jeremy Whittle can only have wished it didn’t have “the wonders of the world’s oldest destinations” on the cover – Egypt.

As tourists try to flee the country, one of many interesting things is the way Egypt’s heritage seems to be faring. There is damage reported in the Cairo museum holding Tutankhamun’s treasures, but it, the New Library of Alexandria, Luxor Museum and other locations seem to have been protected by a spontaneous alliance of citizens, police and military. There are many instances of this kind where in the most fraught situations, people have shown how much they really value their heritage – so at odds with a cultural attitude in Britain that too often puts heritage in a side-room with cheap souvenirs, unskilled labour, light entertainment and soft politics.

I don’t have any special inside information on events in Egypt, but there are several things on the web worth following, including  Alan Boyle’s Cosmic Log, Margaret Maitland’s Eloquent Peasant and Egyptology News.

I happen to be writing about unusual archaeological places to visit for a travel magazine this week. No pyramids there anyway, at least not in Egypt.

British Archaeology has just gone to press, so there are a few days for something to go disastrously wrong with our cover. But fingers crossed we shouldn’t be affected by protests and revolutions – and the cover’s one of our best. Not to mention the contents…

Who then will tell the story of our last hunters?

The new British Archaeology is now in the shops, a particularly strong issue, from Spoilheap’s analysis of new MPs at the front to an interview with photographer Don McCullin at the back, and lots of news, digs and stuff in between. The Council for British Archaeology’s survey of “community archaeology” – volunteers, amateurs, enthusiasts, unpaid archaeologists – is surprising and fascinating.

It’s not the biggest thing in the issue, but I liked the letter from Tim Marshall. He questions archaeologists who bring an unthinking attitude to criticising alternative energy schemes because of their real or apparent threat to archaeological remains or landscapes – a feature in the previous issue had ended with a swipe at the proposed Severn barrage. “Surely”, he writes, “archaeologists above all should be aware of the (more…)

Where are all the women?

I don’t often get called “whitey” or a “discriminator”, or accused of “femicide”, but those words seem to have been addressed at me (and other “events organisers, editors in broadcasting and the media, radio and TV producers, commissioners and jurors”) in a vitriolic and perhaps wilfully thoughtless piece by Bidisha in last week’s Guardian. Of course, I can take it – I’m an editor. But there’s a serious issue here, which is the continuing dominance by men of the powerful and creative ends of the arts and media, to be seen against a wider engagement that is plainly more balanced, if not weighted towards women (“Women write, read, edit and publicise more fiction than men”, claims Bidisha). Though the article was not about race, Bidisha appears to think that humanity divides into whites and Arabs. As Julian Baggini has already commented, things are far more complicated than she seems to believe. Editors, organisers and producers are facilitators, not gods.

I’ve been editing British Archaeology for six years. There is only one editor, and I’m a bloke, so inevitably some of the content (more…)

Remembering Timothy Bateson

Timothy Bateson (right) on Windmill Hill, with June Barrie and Martin Friend seated

One of the first things I did after leaving the Alexander Keiller Museum in 1984 was to write an Avebury guidebook. I hoped Shire might publish it, but John Rotheroe thought the market too small (though later he commissioned a guide from another author), so I decided to publish it myself – the start of what became Digging Deeper.

I had to get advance orders before the bank (more…)

Do you have ancestors who went to Patagonia?

Routledge Patagonia

Looking at some evocative photos of the Patagonian coast (I seem to know a lot of people who’ve recently been out there), I was reminded of a boat that went through the Straits of Magellan in 1913. This was the auxiliary schooner Mana, registered in Whitstable in 1912, captained by William Scoresby Routledge, stewarded by his wife Katherine Routledge (nee Pease) and crewed by a curious collection of seamen, fishermen, scientists and the odd Royal (more…)