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Antiquities, archaeology and the public


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Antiquities, archaeology and the public

  1. 1. Antiquities, archaeology and the publicFor the ‘Public and Popular History’ seminar, University of Cambridge, 8th February2011.SLIDE 1I have two part-time jobs, one working for the Portable AntiquitiesScheme (housed at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Researchhere in Cambridge) and one working for the Channel 4 televisionprogramme Time Team. They both are essentially jobs in publicarchaeology, but otherwise they are very different. So after I have brieflytold you how both of them work, and what they try to do, I’ll try toanalyse them, and look at their strengths and weaknesses.Having said this, I must stress that I am not a telly professional, and asyou will find out I’m not a particularly electrifying speaker. I’ve also gotnone of the theoretical background in public archaeology that is beingdeveloped these days. So these are simply my practical observations onwhat I do day to day.SLIDE 2 bullet pointsSo. Time Team and the Portable Antiquities Scheme: • Why have they both been relatively successful? • What impact they have had on the way that the general public perceive archaeology as a subject (and research into the past in general)? • What impact have they had on archaeology as a discipline?Now I know that this is the Public and Popular History seminar, and ofcourse history and archaeology are different disciplines; history studiesthe written evidence and archaeology the unwritten or physical evidence.But they both have what you might call a joint endeavour; they are bothaimed at finding out more about the past.So it is important that historians have a basic understanding ofarchaeology, and vice versa. I think it is also true that in most people’sminds there is little distinction between history and archaeology – theyjust want to know what happened in the past, and how, and why. I’ll saymore about the relationship between the two disciplines later on.SLIDE 3 PAS mapI am going to start with the Portable Antiquities Scheme. This is agovernment-funded scheme which records archaeological finds made bymembers of the public, and the slide shows you where our 30 or so 1
  2. 2. officers are based around the country. We don’t cover Scotland orNorthern Ireland, only England and Wales.Before we were set up, about ten years ago, there was no formal place torecord these things. If you found a Roman coin poking out of a mole-hillin Cambridgeshire you might take it to a museum, but often they wouldnot know what it was, and even if they did, the information generallydidn’t get to the Historic Environment Record at the County Council – sogenerally it would be lost and no-one would ever know, which was, to putit mildly, a pity.SLIDE 4 websiteWe now have a great big website with a huge database on which werecord all the finds – and as you can see, we have a vast number ofrecords of all dates, from palaeolithic handaxes half a million years old,to early 20th-century Russian flax seals.SLIDE 5 detectorist and gardenerMost of our finders are metal-detectorists, for two very good reasons:one, their hobby is looking for things, and two, they have an expensivemachine to help them find things. So they find more archaeologicalobjects than other people do.SLIDE 6 demographic of detectoristsMetal-detectorists are a slightly skewed demographic. They tend to bemale, middle-aged or elderly, and of relatively low social class. But theyaren’t the only ones who are interested in our portable antiquities.SLIDE 7 Daily MailAn awful lot of people are interested in things like this – the StaffordshireHoard – or this [SLIDE 8 Daily Telegraph] the Crosby Garrett helmet.These things give us lots of press coverage, so presumably are popularwith the public at large, not just metal-detectorists or people with aninterest in the past.I think that what’s going on here is a combination of a kind of celebrityfactor and lottery factor. These things were owned by the top celebritiesof their day (even though we don’t know who they were) and are nowfamous in their own right. The lottery factor comes in when you realisethat these finds netted over a million pounds each for their finders and thelandowners, and we can all fantasise about how we would cope if wewere suddenly a million pounds richer! It’s kind of like the AntiquesRoadshow on speed. 2
  3. 3. But having said this, there’s little connection between being amazed bythese finds and being interested in the past. It’s a bit like the connectionbetween watching the television show Embarrassing Bodies and beinginterested in medical research – a few people might watch because theyare interested in the science, but most watch for a reason which might becalled simple vicarious pleasure.So, one of the advantages of the Portable Antiquities Scheme is that itsraw materials – the archaeological finds – are sometimes of interest evento those who don’t generally value the past. We find it relatively easy togenerate news stories – partly this is because we have better pictures!But we have to be relatively cautious about this – we can’t simply spinour sensational stories, and hope that the interest thus generated will havethe right effect, which of course from our point of view is to encouragepeople to be interested in and value the past.There’s a huge gulf between being fascinated by the celebrity and lotteryaspects of finding amazing objects, and being interested in the past. Mostarchaeologists originally wanted to do the job not because they wanted tofind things, but because they wanted to solve mysteries. For me, it washow Roman Britain turned into Anglo-Saxon England. For others, it washow humans evolved, or agriculture began, or how their village wasestablished and grew, or why we have the political system we do.This also appears to be true for metal-detectorists. One recent surveyfound that most detectorists say that they metal-detect because they areinterested in the past. Not that many people got into it because theywanted to make extraordinary or valuable discoveries.Of course, they may be saying this because the question is being askedthem by an archaeologist, and they know what we want to hear. But ifyou are really interested in the past, metal-detecting is a relatively easyway in. It is a pretty democratic hobby that you can get involved inwithout having to read books and get all scholarly.Plus finds have a kind of immediacy – they are often like stuff we havetoday, and they are easier to understand than something huge like aRoman villa or something most of us have no experience of like a fieldsystem.I think because of this, a lot of effort that is spent encouraging children toget interested in archaeology also focuses on finds and on finding things.SLIDE 9 Sutton Hoo ‘dig’ 3
  4. 4. Here is an example from Sutton Hoo, run of course by the National Trust.Their major children’s activity is ‘the dig’ – a box of sandy soil set intothe ground by the Edwardian house, where the old central heating furnacewas. Objects are buried in the soil and the children dig to find them,helped by their parents and perhaps a visiting celebrity or two. It ispopular with the very tiny – those who simply like digging in a big sand-pit – but it doesn’t take long to get bored. The detective work that iscrucial to maintaining interest is missing.So I think that there are dangers in emphasising the lure of finding thingsas a way of harnessing fascination with the past.And the Portable Antiquities Scheme has to be careful here because it isthe only national archaeological organisation which has staff around thecountry whose job it is to liaise with the public. We are all based inseparate local organisations – mostly museums and planning offices –and there is a temptation there to let the Portable Antiquities Schemeofficer take over the outreach and education side of things. We have beencalled ‘the largest community archaeology project in the world’ – but wemust be careful to ensure that we are not seen as the only communityarchaeology project, because archaeology is more than finds – tounderstand what happened in the past you obviously have to use everystrand of evidence available.SLIDE 10 PAS changing view of archaeologySo when we ask ‘how has the Portable Antiquities Scheme changedpeople’s view of archaeology’, we have to acknowledge both good andbad aspects. • Archaeology is all around us, not just on ‘sites’ but everywhere • Archaeologists are now seen as more friendly and approachable – we go out and meet the public BUT • There’s a risk that archaeology will be seen as finds-based, and the more valuable the object (in monetary terms) the betterSLIDE 11 Time TeamOK now let’s move on to Time Team, which I hope you are all familiarwith. It began on Channel 4 in 1994 and has gone from strength tostrength. Each year there is a series of 13 programmes, normally shownbetween Christmas and Easter, and four hours of Time Team Specialsshown throughout the year where the team follows an archaeologicalproject being done by someone else. 4
  5. 5. Each of the programmes follows an archaeological excavation carried outover three days to answer specific questions. There’s always an elementof risk – how are they going to find that out in just three days? – as wellas an interesting story to tell. There have traditionally been three partswith commercial breaks in between, corresponding to the three days, butnow as Channel 4’s finances get worse and worse there are four parts,with a break at Day 1 lunchtime.As Time Team is now such an old-established programme, it works to awell-honed routine.SLIDE 12 Choosing the sitesWhat’s called ‘development’, or planning the shape of the series, is doneearly in the year by Jim Mower, a very experienced archaeologist whohas been working for Time Team for ten years. He selects the sitesaccording to these two criteria: there must be good archaeology to film,and a good story to tell. Ideally there will also be a good mix across theseries, of different time periods, different places across the country, and amix of site types – back gardens, famous places, urban sites, fields.SLIDE 13 PDJim begins the research, gets all the relevant permissions, and writes theproject design which can be very lengthy – here’s a bit of one from lastyear. The PD is circulated before the shoot so that we all know what weare going to do.We all turn up the day before to have a meeting where the plan ofcampaign is outlined based on the PD, and everyone can add their twopenn’orth. This meeting includes local archaeologists and landowners –and everyone who has a stake in the project. We all need to be happywith what’s being done.Then we really do make each programme in three days. It begins withgeophysics on the morning of day 1, and filming of the bits that have tobe done before a trench is opened.SLIDE 14 ScheduleHere is the shooting schedule with which bits will be filmed when. Crew1 are filming Tony and Mick deciding what to do; Crew 2 are filming thegeophysics. So Trench 1 can’t be opened until at least 11 am, and usuallyit is just before lunch. So the digging is really done in 2½ rather than 3days. 5
  6. 6. There are lunchtime meetings on days 2 and 3 to keep everyone informedof what is happening and what is planned, so that everyone knows what isgoing on. Clearly you can’t contribute to the campaign if you don’t knowwhat’s happening – and there have been terrible mistakes made in thepast through ignoring something important, that’s been discovered butnot communicated properly so that one half of the team doesn’t knowwhat the other half are doing.The lunchtime meetings were brought in to improve the way we work asan archaeological team, and have worked very well. There are alsooccasional ad-hoc evening meetings, but these don’t work so well as weare not always all together in the evenings.SLIDE 15 ScriptWe do also have a script, which always surprises people. This is becausethere is a basic framework as to how the programme is made. Decisionshave to be filmed before being implemented. The background researchhas to be gradually told to the audience – not too much at once or theywon’t take it in. Every so often we have to pause and think about what itall means. And the script makes sure that these building blocks are inplace. It doesn’t mean that we know in advance what we are going tofind – and here is the proof, some rather vague scripts from last year.[SLIDE 16 Mad scripts]Now Time Team is very much a collaboration between the television sideand the archaeological side.SLIDE 17 Camera crewThere is a director for each programme who works with camera crew 1,and also edits all the footage together. He or she is responsible forgetting all the bits filmed that need to be done, working with a secondunit director who has a second crew.Each programme has a different director. Those responsible for puttingtogether the entire series are the series editor and the executive producer.They do the hiring and firing and are basically in charge of it all.The important link man between the two sides, archaeological andtelevisual, is a unique feature to Time Team and possibly one of thesecrets of its success.SLIDE 18 TimThis is Tim Taylor, who invented Time Team in the first place. Hetrained as a teacher and then moved into television, but he’s a 6
  7. 7. passionately committed archaeologist too, and because he never appearson camera he can devote himself to making sure everything happens interms of archaeology that is necessary for the programme to work. Sowhile Mick Aston, or whoever the site director is, is filming a decisionthat has been made, for the second or third time – so that different cameraangles can be recorded – Tim can be getting on with sorting out thelabour and so on with the other camera crew filming the actual workhappening. Similarly, if Mick is up in the helicopter then there is nohiatus in what’s going on on the ground.SLIDE 19 Tim at work with MickTim is also essential when discussing what to do next – he canimmediately see how the different options push the television story on (orif something would be impossible to film or make interesting), plus heunderstands the archaeological reasons for doing it.I think it is fair to say that the archaeological team – Mick, Phil, Stewart,John Gater, myself and so on – do the archaeology first, and let it getfilmed. This gives the programme an authenticity and integrity that otherarchaeological programmes, which don’t have such control given to thearchaeologists, lack. But because Tim not only gives this degree ofcontrol to the archaeologists but, crucially, always has his first eye onhow the finished programme will look, not only do we avoid argumentsand conflict between the two sides, but we also avoid targeting anaudience of archaeologists alone.When you ask members of Time Team what makes it popular, this iswhat they always say. The authenticity of what’s portrayed on screen –we really are doing proper archaeology and making real importantdiscoveries in just three days, and being filmed as we do it.SLIDE 20 Time Team as archaeological researchWe concentrate on the process of archaeology – you can see it as it isreally being done and you can watch every discovery as it happens.We also obviously do include quite a lot of history – the documentaryside of the research. This allows us to get closer to the thoughts andfeelings of the individual. Archaeology isn’t very good at capturing theemotions of people in the past, and this is where people like MichaelWood and Philippa Gregory are so wonderful – they can translate dryhistorical record into warm, empathetic life. But history can be veryseductive, and Time Team has to take care not to let it take over. For us,history is always there to illuminate and give depth to the archaeology,and not the other way round. 7
  8. 8. OTHER TELEVISION PROGRAMMESI think that what really appeals to professional television people, though,is less the integrity and authenticity of the archaeology and more theauthenticity of the risk factor – the jeopardy, as they tend to put it. TimeTeam, although I’m sure Tim Taylor would be horrified at thissuggestion, owes a great deal to a BBC television programme that youmay or may not remember called Challenge Anneka.SLIDE 21 Challenge AnnekaAnneka Rice used to have ‘just three days’ to take on a practicalchallenge, like building a children’s playground or painting a lighthouse.The series had elements that would become familiar in Time Team, suchas the use of a helicopter and walkie-talkies – and of course there was inboth the real uncertainty of whether the challenge set could beaccomplished in just three days, and the interplay of personalities as thestress mounted. Otherwise you might think that doing a communitybuilding project might not be the most interesting thing to watch.SLIDE 22 Other time-limited programmesAnd this ‘can they do it in just three days’ format was of course also usedfor later programmes such as Changing Rooms (1996-2004) and GroundForce (1997-2005), where again the personalities, and the jeopardy factorwith its highs and lows was the real draw – not the gardening ordecorating advice. It’s the same for Time Team.(I don’t suppose that you ever thought you would be consideringprogrammes such as this at a Public and Popular History seminar.)HISTORY PROGRAMMESSo let’s move swiftly on! to consider Time Team’s place within otherhistory and heritage programming.Martin Davidson, the BBC’s commissioning editor of history, once said –at this seminar – that the incremental nature of history research doesn’ttranslate well to television, and for that reason we end up with narrativerather than tales of discovery or even explorations of debate. In otherwords, television doesn’t illustrate the process of thinking very well.Archaeology programmes used to conform to this too; they would tell thenarrative story of what an excavation had revealed, after it had beencompleted; and it would be one story, uncontested. 8
  9. 9. But Time Team changed all that. In its own words, it ‘sets out to captureboth the excitement and immediacy of the process of discovery -archaeology as it happens.’ Television does do physical discovery verywell. But you need to be able to guarantee some discoveries, which isalways difficult in archaeology, where you don’t know what you will finduntil you actually begin to dig. The crucial development withinarchaeology that allowed these guaranteed discoveries was mobilecomputer-assisted geophysics.SLIDE 23 Hitcham geophysics and trenchOnce you can get this kind of picture in a single morning, you have gottwo things: a broad-brush picture of the whole site, plus you know whereto dig to get a result. No more digging vast trenches over a wholesummer with a hundred undergraduates to try to locate something.Time Team is incredibly dependent on geophysics, so that’s anotherelement which allowed it to emerge when it did; in television terms it wasthe development of the race against time format, and in archaeologicalterms it was the development of mobile geophysics.So we’ve established that Time Team concentrates on the techniques andthe process by which we gather the information, and the information, orthe interpretation of the evidence, is slipped in along the way. One effectof this concentration on techniques is that we also now see howconflicting interpretations can arise from the same evidence. Of coursetelevision loves conflict, so Time Team ticks other boxes here. There’salways a big tension between being nice to your colleagues anddisagreeing with them, though, so we perhaps don’t have as muchconflict as we ought to.DOWNMARKETI think one of the things we can learn from looking at the range ofheritage programmes is that archaeology does - in general - tend to beseen as less intellectually demanding than history. This leads producers,who of course aren’t generally experts, to take a less socially exclusiveline with archaeology programmes.Another related aspect is that archaeology ideally tells the stories ofpeople who aren’t recorded in history – the ordinary people, the C2s, Dsand Es of the past. 9
  10. 10. In fact, I think that the secret of success, not only for Time Team but alsofor the Portable Antiquities Scheme, is to be to a certain extentdownmarket.Now this may surprise some of you who think that history/archaeology isan aspirational subject, and that to make it downmarket is to ‘dumbdown’ to the masses in a horribly elitist way.SLIDE 24 Vicky PollardBut in fact both the Portable Antiquities Scheme and Time Team do notmake concessions in terms of the quality of their output (for example,Time Team always get the best experts) or the scholarly nature of theenquiry – they just make it accessible and friendly too.It’s a mistake to think that the audience that could be defined as‘downmarket’ – that’s the C2s, Ds and Es in social grading terms [SLIDE25] is necessarily any less intelligent, or less well educated, or less welloff. In terms of television programmes on history or archaeology, whatall social groups want is their kind of thing, which is a slightly intangibleaim. I think that the ABC1 audience may feel that a downmarket TVshow trivialises its subject, whereas the C2DE audience may find a morehighbrow approach unfriendly and boring. Everyone needs to beintuitively comfortable with the presenters and the style – it’s their kindof programme.I think that what both the Portable Antiquities Scheme and Time Teammanage to do, and the secret of their success, is that they are bothdownmarket – in terms of being accessible, inclusive and friendly – butthey also communicate good authentic research. The work that the PASand Time Team do should be done anyway – the public front is a bonus.And the public can work this out from the feel of the programme, or inthe case of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, the website and the staff.SLIDE 26 public face of PASThe public, when watching the television or talking to someone abouttheir finds, they are participating in something real, a real detective story.DEMOGRAPHICI don’t want to exaggerate the downmarket appeal of Time Team. All ofChannel 4’s output has moved slightly downmarket with the rise of thingslike BBC4 and the obvious appeal of the large audiences pulled in byprogrammes such as like Big Brother. Channel 4 needs to keep its 10
  11. 11. market share up, and going a little downmarket is a way of doing this,because more C2DE people watch television than ABC1 [SLIDE 27] (nbin 2009, 55.8% of UK population could be classified as ABC1s and44.2% as C2DEs.)Keeping an eye on what kind of audience is watching – or participating –is essential. Time Team is going well – SLIDE 28 viewer figuresit is thought of as being one of Channel 4’s most successful programmes.Although its viewers are old – it ‘skews old’ in the jargon – it doesn’tskew quite as old as other traditional history programmes.SLIDE 29 - agesHere you can see Time Team, this time in grey I’m afraid, next to theorange of a David Starkey programme on Henry VIII. Time Team hasmore children – we have a loyal family audience – and far fewer in the65-plus age group. Having said this, our audience is apparently steadilyageing, perhaps in line with the age of the presenters, I don’t know.The Channel 4 share of the television audience in general has gone downfrom 10% of the television audience in the 1990s to 5% now. Theproblem is that the channel needs to be mainstream, not what you mightcall ‘niche’, to maintain audience share and audience numbers – becausethese are what you need to attract advertisers. (Of course this isn’t thesame for the BBC, whose income has not dropped so sharply, so it maynot really be a level playing field.)Ironically though the big spenders, the people who advertisers most wantto attract, are the ABC1s, and those with small children, and so on, whoare in fact niche people! And now there is BBC4 and CBBC, so they maybe watching that instead of Time Team. So Time Team needs to keepattracting new viewers to justify its place in the schedule.SLIDE 30 - questionsSo, to return to what I began with, my questions. Why have they bothbeen relatively successful? I’d argue that both have been innovative, bothhave historically been well funded – and that’s something we haven’teven considered yet, but neither have had to scrimp and save until thepast year or two – and both have kept a careful balance between scholarlyintegrity and friendly approachability.What impact have they had on the way that the general public perceivearchaeology as a subject (and research into the past in general)? This is acomplex question. On the one hand, you could argue that all publicity is 11
  12. 12. good publicity, and the more that the public understand archaeology themore that they will appreciate it and be prepared to pay for it. That’strue, but you have to remember that Time Team and the PortableAntiquities Scheme both present a biased picture of what archaeology is.SLIDE 31 – knivesOn the one hand, the remit of the PAS is confined to archaeologicalobjects, and as I said before finds are a relatively easy thing to intuitivelyunderstand, they are relatively accessible.SLIDE 32 – digging at TottifordOn the other hand, Time Team always concentrates on an excavation (thisis last Sunday’s very muddy site). It covers other aspects of archaeologyas well, but always centred around the dig as the heart of discovery.Again this is concentrating on what might be seen as most exciting, mostaccessible, but it is not at all a reflection of what makes up mostarchaeological work – especially most amateur, do-it-yourselfarchaeological work.The third question is what impact have they had on archaeology as adiscipline. In some ways Time Team has had a fantastic effect, withincreased numbers of prospective undergraduates, and better educatedones at that. When I was at university the big draw was the Indiana Jonesfilms, SLIDE 33, so we all had a slightly unreal idea of what the jobmight actually be like. These days not only university applicants but alsopeople like major developers and civil engineers, SLIDE 34, who willactually be having to work with archaeology, understand what it is.Both Time Team and more particularly the PAS have also been verycareful to keep politicians aware and involved with what they have beendoing. Politicians also like a slightly downmarket approach – theyprobably think of it as extra democratic and appealing to everyone – andthe PAS in particular has really benefited from inviting MPs to eventsand giving them photo-opportunities. We’ve only had a 15% cutcompared to English Heritage’s 32%, over twice as much.But it’s not all plain sailing. There is the persistent stereotype that publicarchaeology leads to dumbing down. And when this is combined withthe relatively good resources historically enjoyed by the PAS and TimeTeam, it can generate resentment within other parts of the discipline. Youhave to be prepared for slings and arrows if you are going to work withthe public, and most particularly if you are trying to win new audiencesthat the existing outreach services have failed to reach. It’s a hard old 12
  13. 13. slog of missionary work, not only to those outside the discipline but alsounfortunately to those within it.I think I should end by looking to the future. The lesson from TimeTeam is perhaps that archaeology and history programmes should bedeveloped within the contemporary light entertainment framework, andnot merely made as straight documentaries. They should be original to acertain extent, but their formats need to be instantly recognisable by thepublic too.The big gap in archaeology programming today, I think, is the personalquest. Within historical research there has been for many years now agreat army of people pursuing their own individual research, mainlyaimed at working out their family trees.SLIDE 35 - WDYTYAThe programme ‘Who Do You Think You Are’ has been phenomenallysuccessful. The format has been sold to other countries and it hasspawned DVDs, a live show that you can visit, a magazine and of coursemost famously a weeping Jeremy Paxman.Who Do You Think You Are has taken family history and made it thevehicle for telling the stories of the people who don’t usually make it intohistory – ordinary people – with the twist that their descendants havebecome famous, and therefore interest us. We like to see them cry.Using history to explore people who we think we know, and usingcelebrities to make history interesting – it’s a perfect combination.So many of us want to find out more about our forebears, and there ismuch the same impetus to find out more about where we live. I’d like tosee a Where Do You Think You Are, which can use history andarchaeology – without digging – to work out the story of a place.SLIDE 36 – maps etcMap analysis, architectural history, looking at aerial photographs anddecoding the landscape can all be done by someone on their own withoutvast resources. The worthy side is that this constitutes the nuts and boltsof basic archaeological research; but it can also have personal stories ofpeople who lived where you live now, who saw the same landscape ortownscape every day that you do, but had such very different experiences.Of course, I’m not naive enough to think that this will make millions risefrom the sofa and take out their maps and guides to vernacular buildings. 13
  14. 14. I’ve watched enough cookery programmes to know that they don’tactually turn anyone into kitchen goddesses. But archaeologicaltelevision programmes do increase interest in and support of what we do– research into the past. (And of course they also create employment forsome of us).SLIDE 37 David Starkey and Phil HardingSo in conclusion I think my last slide sums up the appeal of Time Team. 14