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Archaeology and Television: Life Beyond the Trench

Glasgow 6th September 2003

The Dalrymple fund, administered jointly by Glasgow University and Glasgow Archaeological
Society (GAS), was established in the early 20th century to finance a series of free public
lectures on subjects of historic or archaeological interest. Lecture series have been run since
1907, but the annual one-day conference is a recent innovation, timed to celebrate Scottish
Archaeology Month. The first was held in 2001 on "Archaeology and Science", with a range of
subjects from Forensic Archaeology, to advances in Environmental and Palaeobotanical issues.
In 2002 the topic was "Archaeology and Museums", reviewing the multiple issues of
conservation, preservation and who archaeology is for.

I have absolutely no idea how I managed to completely miss these two important events
happening virtually on my doorstep! But I have cottoned on now and will make a point of
looking out for it in future years.

The subject for 2003 develops the question from 2002 on 'who archaeology is for' by looking at
"Archaeology and Television", the crucial medium by which the mass of the public encounter
archaeology. According to the conference notes the speakers were invited to give generally
informal, entertaining and thoughtful talks based on their personal experiences and reflections to
a mixed audience of the general public, interested amateurs and professionals, as well as young
students of archaeology. Topics to be considered might include what is the nature of the
relationship, what are the opportunities and constraints, what does it demand of professionals, the
viewing public and the promoters and producers of the subject, what different forms of
presentation are successful, why and to whom?

The first talk of the morning was a double act entitled "Presenting the Archaeology" delivered
by Dr Tony Pollard and Neil Oliver. Both are graduates of Glasgow University. Tony Pollard
was described as Britain's leading battlefield archaeologist, and indeed a part of their talk
focussed on their fight to get "battlefield archaeology" recognised as a legitimate discipline by
mainstream archaeological practitioners. They seemed bewildered by their transition from
archaeologists to television presenters, which apparently happened almost by accident. A TV
producer had been commissioned to make a series of programmes with an archaeological theme,
just at a time when Tony was getting some attention for doing battlefield work in South Africa.
They met, talked, and the producer decided that the result would be a series of programmes about
Tony and Neil "doing archaeology"!! The duo then went on to out line a little about the way the
programme works. Since they are in essence acting as presenters, they tend not to do the actual
archaeology (of which more presently), but they do do all the research and preparatory work.
Once a potential site is chosen, there are various recce visits, and if it appears that the site is a
goer they have the luxury of a full week's geophysics survey to pinpoint the most interesting
parts of what can be a huge area. They also do metal detecting "big style" - their words not mine.
But they explained that it is the nature of the beast, a battlefield very often doesn't have physical
remains in the way of structures, but will almost certainly have a scatter of metal artefacts. Neil
also explained that the "dressing up" element of the programmes had not been their own idea,
and indeed they had been against it at the beginning. However, they had found that it actually
gave them insights that they could not have got in any other way, and they did come to enjoy it
eventually. In the second series - which we were exclusively told -several times - will be shown
on BBC 2 from Saturday October 11th at 8pm - the re-enactments have become more realistic.
They have been allowed to do live firing this time (last series they were restricted to "sharp
pointy bits of metal") and to do horseback riding. This led Tony to observe that he now knows
why Parliament won the Civil War - as Neil (who was playing the Royalist) threw his sword
away the minute the horse began to move! (Neil explained his Mum had always taught him not
to run while holding scissors - so swords and moving nags did not seem like a good
They concluded that winning a contract to make a TV programme had given them the funding
and impetus to do what they had always wanted to do - battlefield archaeology.

The next topic on the programme was "Delivering the Archaeology" given by Dr. Iain Banks
of GUARD (Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division). He has the responsibility
of supervising the actual archaeology in many of the "Two Men in a Trench" programmes, and
claims to be the REAL archaeologist on the series, although he did say that the diggers are there
as background colour, and they have to learn the art of stunt trowelling (which turned out to be
the ability to trowel the same piece of trench numerous times until the TV people are satisfied
with the shot!). Iain is often involved with the recce visits, helping to plan which parts of the site
will be televisual.
There are many problems involved in the delivery of the archaeology: lack of finds, alterations to
the project which may involve the digging of unexpected holes - and as archaeologists they have
to ensure that every one of them has been fully recorded.
It is Iain's opinion that "Time Team" is the filming of archaeology being done, whereas "Two
Men in a Trench" is the filming of Neil and Tony doing archaeology. Another problem relates to
waiting for the cameras - TV needs to learn how long archaeological processes take, and
archaeologists need to allow for several takes of filming!!
He finished by iterating the good and bad points of being a digger on TMIAT.
The bad points were the hard work and long hours, as well as the shoestring budget - he
complained bitterly about the van they use - which continually slips out of third gear and which
the diggers have to drive to every site - all the way from Glasgow! The producer won't shell out
for something better because he quite likes the image of down-at-heel archaeologists!
However there are good points - while Neil and Tony live in the tent we see on the programme,
the diggers get to stay in comfortable hotels along with the film crew, and the whole group have
built up a good friendship.

Our third talk was entitled "Twenty Five Years Around TV Archaeology: A Personal View"
and it was presented by Dr. Colin Martin, a familiar figure to anyone who has watched the TV
programmes featuring the Civil War shipwreck off Duart Castle on the Island of Mull. He is one
of Scotland's best-known Scottish archaeologists, and has recently retired from St Andrews
Having worked on TV archaeology programmes since Chronicle in the 1970s, he began his
presentation with a review of archaeology on TV going right back to the first-ever 'archaeology'
programme "Animal, Vegetable, Mineral" in 1952 with Sir Mortimer Wheeler. This was
followed with a series of full-length documentaries under the title of "Buried Treasure". In 1966
the BBC's history and archaeology unit was established and that led to "Chronicle". Dr. Martin's
first experience of TV archaeology was the filming of an Armada wreck off Donegal. This led to
"Armada" the first TV series to use archaeologists as presenters speaking directly to camera.
Coming more up to date he was a touch disparaging about the two series he has recently been
involved in, describing "Journeys To The Bottom of the Sea" as a lightweight approach to
archaeology which is more interested in the personalities than in the time capsule aspect of the
finds. "Wreck Detectives" he considered to have a formulaic approach which was an artificial
construct leading to contrived outcomes.
However Dr Martin has most recently worked on "Time Team" on a programme on Mediaeval
Roxburgh, and gave it a much better report. He was impressed with the professionalism of the
archaeologists and with the work of the production crew. He enjoyed working with Mick Aston,
Phil Harding, Carenza Lewis, John Gator, and Stewart Ainsworth, and appreciated Tony's skill in
asking the right questions. He thinks Time Team works because the archaeology is real.
So what of the future? Dr. Martin feels that the public is being left with a positive impression of
archaeology from the current TV coverage. However TV must continue to make sure that the
formulas are right. Good archaeology must frame the questions, and must be flexible enough to
respond to new situations. Perhaps the next innovation should be a complete video diary of a
dig? Dr. Martin himself has been filming his Mull excavation for 10 years, and considers his
films to be an integral part of the archaeological record. He concluded by stating that
archaeology complemented by moving pictures is here to stay.

After a break for lunch, first on in the afternoon was "Producing the Archaeology" from
Jeremy Cross of the independent TV company Wildfire. Jeremy told us that he had had no
contact with the world of archaeology until he was commissioned to produce the 1997 "Time
Team Live". He was pleased to be involved with the Team, as the programme consistently
delivers a higher percentage of the watching audience than any other Channel 4 factual
programme. But, he pointed out, nothing can stay exactly the same forever and "Time Team"
needed to grow outside its format.
The concept of "The Big Dig" had come from a survey of the Time Team club, in which 80%
responded that they wanted to "have a go" at archaeology. A small-scale feasibility study had
indicated that the format could work, and so the proposal was written for a week's worth of
programmes. However, when the idea went public it was not well received by the archaeological
world, with comments such as "appalling" and "grotesque comedy" being bandied about.
Jeremy told us that one of the reasons that "Time Team" works so well is that the three-day
format is real. In order to work "The Big Dig" had to be real also. But it was vital that it should
appeal to the archaeological community. A working group was set up which liased with all the
heritage bodies. Various restrictions were agreed and the number of sites that each
archaeological advisor would deal with was limited to five. Putting these checks in place began
to reassure the professionals.
Once the programmes went ahead, it was treated in the same way as an outside broadcast
sporting event - Jeremy pointed out that archaeology is unpredictable and the crew had to be
flexible enough to respond to whatever was the most interesting thing happening.
The post-programme assessment showed that "The Big Dig" had worked well in TV terms,
gaining 10 to 12% of the available viewing audience and more than 600,000 hits on the website.
Had it worked well archaeologically? So far there has been no call on the fund set aside for
conservation of finds. It is expected that about a quarter of the registered sites were never dug
and about three-quarters of the rest found nothing. It was Jeremy's opinion that "The Big Dig"
had achieved a balance between doing nothing at all, and the feared "trashing" of the
What would he change? It has already been decided that there will be no Big Dig next year, but it
is not ruled out that there will be a repeat in the future. Jeremy hopes that it will not be for two or
three years, as he feels that there should be a lot more pre-dig consultation time. He also would
like better research frameworks.
But, he concluded, public archaeology is here to stay.

The final speaker of the day was our very own Tony Robinson, who was introduced with the
customary "this is the man who needs no introduction"!

However in the programme notes it says of him ..." of the most familiar architects of the
new rapport between presenters, the public and the professionals. From his background as a
professional actor, Tony has developed his love of history and its transmission by both his
participation in the phenomenal success of Time Team and his own series and publications."
Tony began by asking prior forgiveness because he intended to have "a bit of a rant".
First he posed the question as to whether "Time Team" was formulaic television? He answered it
by saying that all television is formulaic. But he agreed that form shouldn't override content.
He then posed the question "What is archaeology? - Are we objective?" Often archaeology is
ideological - the same archaeology might prove different things to - for example - the Israeli or
the Palestinian. Each archaeologist is subjective and tends to search for evidence to support their
He then stated that in Britain, archaeology is exploitation of the young - poor pay, and poor
working conditions which lead to problems such as bad backs and knees (Tony likened them to
Victorian chimney sweeps).
Archaeology on TV is a cultural device - it is neither good nor bad - it is just something that is
Tony thinks that we underestimate the threats to archaeology - that some 40% is being lost to the
plough, that metal detectorists will remove virtually every metal find in the top 12" of soil within
the next twenty years, that global warming will drown many sites and that bad legislation is not
doing enough to protect our heritage.
Tony's opinion is that the only way to protect the archaeology will be if there are votes involved.
We have to get across a sense of disapproval of the trashing of heritage in the same way that egg
collecting, a perfectly respectable hobby in the past, is now almost universally reviled. He said
that popularisation is the only way to mobilise public opinion, and to do that we must involve
ordinary people. He concluded that it is ironic that there should be this 'preciousness' in a
discipline that was originally driven by amateurs.

The afternoon finished with a half-hour general question and answer/ discussion session (at
which I was so absorbed that I'm afraid I forgot to take any more notes) that concluded in plenty
of time for Tony and Jeremy to catch the 5 o'clock flight from Glasgow Airport!

Author Valerie Reilly

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