Archaeological TV – News and Reviews

by Vicky Cooper

This latest addition to assemblage was created in order to deal with the rising popularity of television programmes with a loosely archaeological theme. In coming issues, you can expect to see reviews of the latest British programmes, interviews with some of the people involved in the making of them, and a serious look at the amount of money being spent on this element of the industry. This page will also eventually link to assemblage-info's TV information page, which will provide schedules of what's on in the UK, so there should be no excuse for missing anything!

If there is any element of TV you'd like us to investigate, then you can email us at assemblage, and we'll do our best to look into it.

It has been a rather busy couple of months on the archaeological box and a few programmes of note have not made it to review but do, however, deserve a mention. They include the wonderful film Skullduggery, starring Burt Reynolds (minus moustache) as an anthropologist who discovers a race of long lost people, and drags one of their number into the 'civilised' world. Stick on fake hair is abundant (although none is required for the hirsute Mr. Reynolds), and matchsticks are optional if you'd like to see it through to the end! Also, a brief mention should go to Seven Wonders of the World, an interesting and informative (and repeated) series that ran on Channel 4 in March. For those of you with an interest in the Classics, it rates as a 'must see', but should you have a more general interest in archaeology, you should still tune in, if only for the remarkable scenery and top notch narration.

The two programmes reviewed for this issue of assemblage are a couple of episodes from the latest series of Time Team, filmed in Govan and Malton, as well as the programmes that made up the Ice Mummies trilogy, part of the Horizon series just finished on BBC2. (For those of you unfamiliar with either of these series, you will find lots of information in their respective homepages that are linked here.)

Time Team – the Govan and Malton digs

Horizon – The Ice Maiden, A Life in Ice, Frozen in Heaven

Time Team – Govan

Channel 4, 26th January 1997

Tony Robinson and his team of archaeologists, who are fast becoming household names, bring their curious three day archaeology cum media circus to Govan in Glasgow, Scotland to unravel some more of those 'ancient mysteries' which so plague modern archaeology. Early on in the episode we are treated to tales of 'the forces of nature and hybrid beasts' and promise, as ever, of great finds and the placing of Govan at 'the centre of the medieval world'. With the help of some clever computer graphics assumptions are made and plans laid. In the meantime, Govan churchyard reveals little to substantiate any of the theories being bandied around.

Tony Robinson remains as sceptical as ever, playing devil's advocate whilst running manically around, arms to the skies, demanding firm answers from people with beards in trenches who seem unwilling to provide them. The whole team function somewhat in the same way as a soap opera, the relationships between the major characters shift throughout the series, heroes and villains emerge, and usually 'Geophys' saves the day although in this episode they notoriously discover some sand. Govan's churchyard and marketplace is disturbed as much for Sunday evening entertainment as for research purposes. However, the Time Team has asserted itself as the flagship of archaeological television and as such has to be commended.

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Time Team – Malton

Channel 4, 2nd February 1997

Tony Robinson and his merry men (and woman) fight nettles, disability and time in a three day race against the clock in North Yorkshire. There is no more irritating archaeologist than an incapacitated one, and Mick Aston tries valiantly to hold his tongue whilst someone else holds his crutches after a recent leg break.

The team are searching for a Jacobean mansion, a medieval castle and anything else they discover on the way. 'Geophys' in the form of the bespectacled Gater and Gaffney get stuck in early, no computer graphics or helicopters for them, and as usual, come up with the goods. Robin and Mick go for a stroll around Malton while the glamour comes in the form of Tony and Carenza who take to the air and for whom no budget is too large. Phil is off in experimental land, this time attempting to help rather than hinder with the forging of a sword.

This episode is one of the better ones in the series, and finds flow like the wine consumed in the evenings, and the hopes pinned on the archaeology are not so wild as in previous programmes. Overshadowed by the big bad man from English Heritage (actually neither big nor very bad), the team battle on, turning out trenches at an alarming rate. With a reconstruction medieval group thrown in for good measure, this episode has all the hallmarks of popular television and archaeology finally becoming more comfortable bedfellows.

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Horizon 1: The Ice Maiden

BBC 2, 30th January 1997

Programme written by Andrew Thompson

The first of a trilogy of programmes investigating the preservation of bodies in ice, the Ice Maiden is, I feel, the most interesting and moving of the three. It is essentially a tale of three women bound through links that defy spatial and temporal constraints.

The first woman is the Ice Maiden herself, a powerful young woman who could have had little idea that she was to irreversibly alter the life of her discoverer, Natalia Polosmak. Natalia has herself achieved much by being a prominent woman archaeologist and who, like Konrad Spindler, focal point of the second programme, will spend the rest of her life dealing with the body she discovers. She caresses the Ice Maiden's possessions as if they were her own and there is little doubt that the find itself has caused her both great happiness and pain. The third woman, Esther Jackson is a little like the unnamed character from E.T., who dreamt about spacemen all his life and who can only watch from the sidelines as he is not the chosen one.

When the three women are finally brought together towards the end of the film, there is an atmosphere charged with emotion and regret, memories of sacrifices that have had to be made and lives changed. As the film progresses, the archaeological evidence that is being presented pales into insignificance when we consider the lives behind the archaeology. This is a great tale of three women's own personal journeys, well told and interspersed with data provided by Swiss researchers, of which there are many.

The majority of researchers and archaeologists in this film are female, which is unusual, and while we leave the ice maiden at the end of the film and put on the kettle, we are left with the feeling that Natalia will never be alone again.

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Horizon 2: A Life In Ice

BBC 2, 6th February 1997

Programme written by Tim Haines

In this second part of the Ice Mummies trilogy, attention turns to Ötzi, the Neolithic man plucked with an ice pick and some not inconsiderable brute force from an Alpine glacier. Once again, as with the Ice Maiden, an impressive set of relationships are on display in the vicinity of the leathery character and his bedraggled belongings. By far the most important man in Ötzi's life is Konrad Spindler, whose chance identification of the age of the mummy upon its discovery catapulted him to stardom and a life of analysis and scientific monitoring. Spindler is fiercely defensive of Ötzi, like Frankenstein and his monster, although the relationship is much less emotional than Natalia and her Ice Maiden.

A bewildering array of more minor characters emerge during the course of the film, my particular favourite being a yodelling mountain dweller, included as a representation of how Ötzi has effected the local population. All varieties of archaeological life appear in this film, from Professors zur Nedden and Seidler, whose double act hints at the Muppets Stadtler and Waldorf, to an extra from This is Spinal Tap, Hanspeter Schrattenthaler, whose bare chest and rock star poses suggest he dearly wishes his copper axe were a guitar. Also worthy of mention is the loveable Harm Paulsen, who lives and works in a reconstruction of a Neolithic village and whose lilting Danish tones express some of the more human elements of the sad demise of Ötzi, such as the family he may have left behind, providing a stark contrast to the strictly 'scientific' views of Spindler.

Our own Sheffield University is represented in the form of Dr. B. Ottaway and Dr. Mark Edmonds, whose starring role as a quiet, pensive, young and attractive academic will hopefully boost study applications to the university well into the next millennium!

The programme itself is well made, despite a few sequences involving a blue and green fuzzy gasping ice man and some green glowing skeletal elements revolving at a rather alarming rate. Opinions are well presented, and we are left to draw our own conclusions of what we see. Spindler, however, does not compare favourably with Natalia. Here are two people in almost identical situations and yet the differences could not be more striking.

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Horizon 3: Frozen in Heaven

BBC 2, 13th February 1997

Programme written by Tim Haines

The final part of the Ice Mummies films was always going to be difficult to write about for someone who doesn't like the sound of the pan pipes. However, it proved more traumatic than the soundtrack implied. Set in the Peruvian mountains, this episode focuses on one man's quest for a peculiar goal ; the recovery of Inca child burials from mountain tops. The man for the job is Dr. Johan Reinhard who, with his team from a local university are journeying to Sara Sara, one of the highest mountains in Peru, with the express intention of uncovering a well preserved image of child murder.

Reinhard is not new to this business, having prised his prize, Juanita, from a similar location and taken her to Washington to allow the public to gaze on her and allowing himself the opportunity to raise funding for the excavation that is this Horizon film. There are very few other people in the film, however, Sylvia Quevedo Kawasaki is worthy of mention, a keeper of another frozen child who strokes it as if it were her own and whose love for the child and her job shine in what is otherwise a disturbing film.

The writer Tim Haines highlights the fact that these children died scared, and there is evidence that Juanita was clubbed to death. Reinhard's fixation with humans placed in such an unfortunate situation left me feeling uneasy about his whole excavation and the motives behind it.

At the end of the film, Reinhard finds his child on Sara Sara, another girl, and I could not share his elation as the small bundle began the long journey from her resting place to media stardom, balanced on an empty sack.

This Horizon series has been excellently filmed and written, and has shown that it is not just the mummies themselves but the dedication of the people around them that is worthy of note. However, the series also raised questions about the ethics of taking from the earth what it does not freely offer up, and as such, it is to be wholeheartedly commended.

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Click here for Vicky's exclusive report from Malmesbury when she went on location with the BBC to meet the ancestors!

© Vicky Cooper 1997


© assemblage 1997