Monday, 1 April 2013

Archaeology in TV and Film

"I'm a time traveller. I point and laugh at archaeologists."
So said David Tennant in Silence in the Library, as River Song and her team of archaeologists introduced themselves. And I trained as an archaeologist, so I point and laugh at the 'archaeologists' portrayed in TV and films.

Truthfully, though, it would be more accurate to call them "tomb robbers".

Take the Tomb of the Cybermen as an example. Having just seen and enjoyed The Bells of Saint John, I felt the need to revisit some classic Who, and you don't get much more classic than this Pat Troughton story. A team of archaeologists are opening up the ancient city of the Cybermen (in a quarry near Gerrard's Cross) - by blowing up the mountainside to reveal the doors! Even Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings didn't use explosives, and that was back in 1922!
Then, after carelessly losing the first member of their party to the electrified doors, they mention that everything must be carefully measured and recorded, but they're soon cheerfully pulling every lever in sight to see what happens! And thereby lose another member of the party. The party itself isn't composed only of academics, either - there's the wealthy couple who financed the expedition, and their tall black servant (let's just not mention the racist and sexist parts of the story just now....that would be a whole different post). Unsurprisingly, the wealthy couple are up to no good - and it was revealed in the DVD extras that the actor who played the wealthy man was already well known from Hammer Films, mostly as the baddy searching for a mummy's tomb.

Those 'archaeologists' paid lip service to the recording of the site by writing a few things down in a note book and taking a few photographs (at least before the Cybermen were re-activated, being not as dead as they were supposed to be).
Some screen archaeologists don't even do that (I'm looking at you, Doctor Henry Jones, Jr.). Indy's very first scene was an act of tomb robbing - going for the golden statue in the booby trapped tomb/temple/whatever it was. A properly archaeological expedition would have been far more interested in finding out how those booby traps worked as they explored the complex - the statue would have been mildly interesting (okay - it was gold, and archaeologists are human too) but it would have been only one thing in a whole wealth of information that they could have brought back about the skills and technology of the local tribal peoples.
Perhaps strangely, Belloc's excavations, with all the local people digging away in the sand, was much more like actual excavations of the period - Egypt is easy from one point of view, because there's no stratigraphy in sand to speak of. It gets far more difficult in Europe, because you can see the differences between the different layers of soil, and it's also possible to date them by the finds in each layer, or at the very least, relative to each other (and more recently there's pollen analysis and lots of other fun scientific stuff).

Then there was the episode of Murder, She Wrote, when Jessica was a volunteer on a dig which was laid out in a way that hadn't been used by real archaeologists since the 1950s. Once again, there was no recording to speak of, and when Jessica found something exciting, she picked it up and waved it in the air!!!
I winced. I still wince now, just thinking about it. You don't move anything until it's been recorded in situ, which includes being photographed, and getting the people with the theodolite to plot its position and height/depth from a base line, as well as someone with a planning board coming round to draw the thing onto a plan. (When I was digging, computer planning was just about coming into use, but mostly we used tracing paper and pencils, and meter square frames threaded with string at 10cm intervals to form a grid we could lay over the bit we wanted to plan.).
I once spent a whole day uncovering a Saxon pot in a rubbish pit, gradually realising that it was the only complete Saxon pot we had found on a site that was so thickly littered with Thetford ware potsherds that some of the girls took a few home to use in the bottom of their plantpots! Though it had no intrinsic value, being pot rather than gold, it was treated very carefully indeed - and certainly not waved about in the air! It was planned, in situ, and had levels taken on it, and it was given a finds number, before we even thought of moving it. (But the thrill when it finally came loose from the earth, after all that time! That was something special.)

You'd think that, with Time Team being on TV for years, modern TV series would be a bit better about the details of a dig.
What a pity about Bonekickers, then.
I wanted to like this series. I really did! It had a real archaeological consultant, and up until about half way through the first episode they even looked as if they were trying to look like a real dig. I could forgive them the chainmail that came out of the ground after 800 years and wasn't rusted into a solid lump - viewers had to understand quickly that it was chainmail, after all.
But then one of the students invited a member of the public to jump into the trench with her, and then the same student lifted up a chunk of wood from the ground in much the same way as Jessica had done in Murder, She Wrote, and waved it around. She even tucked it under her arm and took it to show the director of the dig - and she didn't get thrown off her course! Or the dig. And this lump of wood turned out to be a piece of the True Cross - the member of the public got a splinter and started performing miracles, and the archaeologists ended up in a huge cavern under the dovecote at Garway, their only reaction to leaving a dead body behind them being "Let's go to the pub!"

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