Television and Radio Reviews

by J. Fletcher


At the time of writing, the assemblage TV and radio reviewer's attempts to obtain schedules for future programmes relating to archaeology have met with no success. The independent terrestrial channels have ignored requests, whilst the BBC feels unable to provide information so far ahead (i.e. 3 to 6 months). As a consequence, most of the programmes reviewed have been shown previously, and in the case of BBC2's 'Meet the Ancestors' the original and repeat showings have occurred within the time between the last issue of assemblage and this one.

I am at a loss to understand the reluctance of the TV channels to provide information about their future programming. The request, after all, is not for a minute-by-minute schedule, but simply for a 'what to look out for in the near future' list. Given that many people do not find the time to comb through the TV listings in fine detail, this might actually gain them viewers. I also feel that it is important for people with interest and expertise in a particular subject area to be able to view programmes related to that subject area. The broadcasting media have immense influence over thought and opinion, and those with knowledge of the field covered in any programme must have the right to view and comment on the quality and accuracy of the material presented.

I hope that, in some small way, this section provides one small voice in appraisal of this quality and accuracy.

Radio programmes

'Mapping the Town', presented by Julian Richards, BBC Radio 4, Monday, 11.00 am
As ever with radio programmes 'the scenery is better and the girls are prettier'. In this series of programmes we are given access to enthusiastic and expert discussion with a total absence of the 'professional broadcaster'. Archaeologist Julian Richards explores the history and geography of a town through the debate of two expert contributors. The concept of a 'map', creating a picture of the geographical development of a town, then putting this concept across on radio, is a tribute to the skill of the programme makers as well as to the presenter and contributors.

The series successfully combines archaeology and travel log formats and takes us on a journey through the main areas of historical development of the town in question, with the contributors taking differing views on the influences that shaped that development. Locations and periods are skilfully evoked and linked to each other and to the present day. This creates a picture of dynamic change and development of town geography that is inextricably linked with the activities of its inhabitants. Finally, the discussions and disagreements between the contributors are balanced and resolved using past plans and current architecture, to leave the listener with a solid mental picture of the town in question, past, and present.

Television programmes

'Meet the Ancestors', presented by Julian Richards, BBC2, Tuesday, 8.00 pm
The general format of this series covers the discovery of human remains, excavation and recovery of a relatively intact skull, description and discussion of the excavation techniques and the evidence, and the facial reconstruction using the skull. The quality of the discussion is good, and though there is a clear agenda -- to wit, facial reconstruction -- this is not allowed to obscure the rest of the archaeological investigation. The periods covered range from Bronze Age to Medieval.

The programme explores how archaeologists reach their conclusions. The evidence discussed covers burial date, environmental analysis, and palaeopathology. The analysis of artefacts is explained, the viewer learns what sort of environment the individual inhabited, and sex, age at death, diet, diseases, and lifestyle are all discussed. Importantly, and without labouring the point, the reasons why each specialist reaches these conclusions are presented in every programme, and the doubts and uncertainties surrounding interpretation of any archaeological evidence are also always discussed. The fact that the programme does not make definitive statements is its main strength.

Generally, the coverage of the archaeology is briefer than that of the palaeopathology, but it is nevertheless clear. The emphasis is on the biological sciences, and in particular the wonders of facial reconstruction, using a variety of techniques, and DNA sequencing in the last programme traced direct descendants of the excavated individual.

We are left with a face at the end of each programme, a face that looks no different than any we might see on the street or in the supermarket. Here we meet the ancestor, and together with the good, clear discussion of the evidence, a whole picture of the period under study emerges. We are left with a strong impression of the positive aspects of archaeology -- as an integral part of the social and scientific community.

Overall, this is a series you can warm to on many levels, and it is an example of the excellence that can be achieved in a 'popular' television series, where accuracy and integrity are not sacrificed to ratings or the agenda of the producer.

Unfortunately, this cannot be said of the recent BBC2 'Horizon' series, and in particular the following programme.

'Horizon -- Shipwreck', BBC2, Sunday, 30 August, 1998
The general expectation when viewing BBC's 'Horizon' series is that the programme will explore a particular topic in detail and from many different angles, ultimately leaving the viewers to reach their own conclusions based on a wealth of evidence. This latest episode totally failed to satisfy this expectation.

'Shipwreck' was ostensibly an investigation into the wreck of a sixteenth-century ship sunk off Alderney in the English Channel. The initial archaeological investigation produced artefacts from a number of different European countries. However, from ten minutes into the programme the agenda was set, and the race was on to prove that this was in fact a ship from the Elizabethan fleet commissioned in the 1590s.

We are steered (please pardon the nautical allusions) into exploring a theory which is continually presented as fact. The investigation sets out to prove that this is, in fact, one particular ship, the pinnace Makeshift, which disappeared from the shipping lists in the 1590s. The assumption is she is the wreck, and no other possibilities are adequately explored by maritime archaeologist Michael Bowyer. English weights found on board are used to date the ship post 1590, when it could have been built much earlier, and to claim it as English, when any ship trading with England would have used these weights.

Enter the historian Dr John Nolan of the University of Maryland in Europe. His particular hope is to link the ship with one Sir John Norris, one of Lord Burleigh's agents. This is done with the help of a letter from Norris to Burleigh dated to 1592, detailing the ship carrying packets (presumably orders) 'that is cast away about Aldernay'.

So far the evidence is promising but tenuous. We are then subjected to a long, tedious documenting of the attempts first to get permission from the trust, then to raise a timber for dating. The doubts expressed by the trust were fully justified, the lifting of the rudder onto the boat was dangerous for both crew and artefact and was a health and safety nightmare. This further contributed to the impression that nobody involved so far with this excavation knew what he or she was doing.

We then progressed to the 'science'. Owain Roberts of the University of Bangor used the dimensions of the rudder to calculate the dimensions of the whole ship, based on the shipbuilding formula used by Elizabethan shipwrights. The original dimensions for the 'Makeshift' are documented, and they do not tally with the reconstruction. The wreck off Alderney was over six feet wider and was probably a cargo ship, rather than the fast, manoeuvrable pinnace style.

Another disappointment was that the rudder did not yield enough rings for dendrochronological dating. The agenda of the programme is reinforced here when Ian Panter of York Archaeological Trust expresses disappointment at not being able to 'prove what we want to prove'. Here archaeology is seen as failing when, in fact, the failure lies in the desire to prove a theory at all costs. The desire is that we have an Elizabethan ship that has now changed from a pinnace carrying vital intelligence to a cargo ship carrying arms to combat the next Spanish Armada, which Nolan admits would fit his theory better.

Finally, we have a gunport cover, with adequate tree rings, sent for dating to Denrochronology at the University of Sheffield. The procedure and results are not discussed; we are instead treated to some fancy, dramatic camerawork with close-ups on the computer cross-match identifying the wood as English. We then cut to the pub, with Bowyer revealing to Nolan that the date of the cutting of the timber is 1575, and the wood is English. Therefore we have an Elizabethan ship, which is apparently satisfactory, and the programme closes on the implication that the ship does relate to Sir John after all.

The whole programme was trivial, poorly presented, and lacked integrity. The real experts were not properly consulted, and the real evidence neither presented or discussed. The programme was determined to prove a theory, not explore the potentials and problems of the evidence; the science was almost completely absent and the investigation was poor. The content created the impression that there was not enough to fill the time, therefore they needed to spend long periods filming people on the telephone and examining rusted modern rudders attached to boats, or discussing the weather. This time would have been better employed exploring the implications of the dendrochronological dates, the methodology used, etc., and seeking out a few more maritime experts to comment on the quality of the evidence.

This programme series as a whole, and this episode in particular, are indicative of the problems involved when competitive tendering takes priority over programme integrity.

[Over to independent television's contribution to archaeology now and unfortunately to another disappointment -- but one that perhaps is to be expected....]

'Time Team Live', presented by Tony Robinson, Channel 4, 29-31 August 1998
The August Bank Holiday Live Special was started last year with a more-than-hoped-for spectacle of the discovery of a new Roman villa. The problem here is the standard was set high at the inauguration, and now it is a case of 'follow that'. This year we were introduced to a Norman Church and possible Saxon religious site in Norfolk. Again we had a large site, but we also had an agenda -- that only the Saxon material was in any way important to Tony Robinson, and any other finds were 'very nice' but glossed over. The impression the programme gave during its live bulletins was that this site was not as prestigious as last year and not spectacular enough to draw the public interest. Consequently, the hype set in early and never left. We were subjected to a frantic, disjointed presentation leaving the interested viewer frustrated for real information.

The usual format of trenches, computer-generated models, and 3-D images was employed. The presence of a Saxon reconstruction society set the agenda for what period was considered most important. However, there was little or no recognition of the contribution made by these people's skills and dedication to detail. Demonstrations involved weaving, wood turning, making a coin die, creating a replica of a Saxon strap end found on site, building a bread oven, and baking and cooking a Saxon feast. Instead of recognising that this group made a big contribution to understanding the lifestyle of Saxon England, we were led to believe it was all the work of TV cook Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. In fact, his contribution consisted of asking everyone 'What are you doing?' or 'What have you done?' The most disgraceful treatment of all came at the end of the final programme when a mason, having reconstructed the Romanesque arch in the church, was interviewed by Robinson, who was quite clearly not interested in any of the processes involved and effectively turned his back on the man!

The programme has become too celebrity-centred and the problem celebrity is its presenter Tony Robinson. He still fails to ask the questions that require clarification, and he displays no respect for the archaeology or the archaeologists. His contribution consisted largely of rushing from one trench to another and interrupting informative discussions. On one occasion, he cut across a discussion of geophysics to talk to the TV celebrity cook, and on another he climbed down into a trench to look at an 'exciting' skeleton and kicked some human bones out of the way to do so. The evidence is reduced to a 'soundbite' interpretation made by the 'star'. The archaeologists involved in this programme lack no expertise or skill, what is lacking is the integrity of the programme makers and producers in allowing this 'star' status centred on Tony Robinson. The future of any site invaded by this three-day army is always an issue that is not addressed satisfactorily by Channel 4's 'Time Team' producers. The complexity of this site justifies far more detailed excavation and interpretation. The cavalier treatment of this three-day media event is not adequate.

The 'live' dig and 'Time Team' in general fail to present archaeology as it could and indeed should be presented. It does not have to be dull and dry as dust to appeal to the audience as the production team of 'Meet the Ancestors' has shown. It is a sad reflection that those in charge of presenting our past feel the need to shout at us in bursts aimed at a 30-second attention span. If our level of attention is so short, can we remember that we have a past?

Given the poor standard of representation in the last two programmes reviewed, it appears that media representation of data and evidence in all fields can turn out to be misrepresentation.


If any assemblage readers have experienced this problem perhaps you would like to send e-mail to the TV and Radio Review Editor and either detail your grouch or answer any or all of the following few questions. Every response will be treated confidentially, and the questionnaire is only to satisfy my curiosity in the form of a straw poll. If the response is big enough, we can present some results in the next issue, so you know you are not alone.

It's the truth Jim, but not as we know it.

  1. Have you, as an expert in your field, ever been consulted by the printed or broadcast media?
  2. If so, were you satisfied/dissatisfied with the final presentation?
  3. Have you ever, as a result of dissatisfaction, turned down subsequent approaches?
  4. Have you been able to influence the media presentation of data or information in a way that satisfied you?

Copyright © J. Fletcher 1998


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