the trouble with facts is that there are so many of them

Cas is currently… 'having a rant' at life

I have long held slightly contradictory views about the program “Time Team“, and I don’t think I am alone in this – the majority of professional archaeologists feel pretty much the same.

We like the program because it increases awareness of our discipline and promotes the public’s interest in their heritage. Without public interest, we really would have no jobs, because no matter how much we try and convince ourselves it is essential, archaeology really is a luxury, to be indulged when there is food on the national table, not when the masses are starving. Take a straw poll of any first year undergraduate archaeology course in this country, asking why they got into archaeology, and a goodly proportion will say “because Time Team made it look fun”. (A sizable portion will also say “Indiana Jones”, but that’s a rant for another day winking smilie). Time Team has, undeniably, contributed to making Archaeology (if not sexy), then at least interesting to the average joe.

At the same time, the program is the root of much evil. The majority of the public are now under the impression that you can dig an entire site in three days, that you find skeletons wherever you turn, and that you will get a wonderful tan whilst digging. The truth is far from this. In reality, you can spend three weeks or more clearing topsoil just getting down to the archaeology; skeletons are rather rare outside of cemeteries and you don’t frequently get permission to dig them up’ and that brown colour you turn? It’s an inch thick layer of mud you need three showers to get rid of.

Much of archaeology is cold, dull, hard work, for little reward. You don’t get paid a living wage, we have one of the highest incidents of alcoholism and suicide as a profession after veterinary surgery, and your joints will be arthritic by the age of 40. I’ve spent entire seasons on a dig and found nothing more exciting polystyrene, the skeleton of the farmers dead cat, and variations in the colour of clay. Trust me when I say you can get hundreds of different colours of clay – all subtle plays on a shade of grey, if you are curious.

But it isn’t just this glamorization of the discipline that sets the collective hackles up – they tend to practice bad archaeology. It is frequently rushed and what is dug is slanted toward what will make good television. Worse than this, the way it is presented provides the false impression that the past was this one set way.

There are no certainties in archaeology, which is something each archaeologist has to personally wrestle with for themselves, and most of us have come to terms with that. You say “it is likely that”, instead of “this happened”, and you are prepared to say a few years down the line “I was wrong, new evidence has come to light, it is actually more likely that this happened”. Archaeological debates can be, and frequently are, remarkably heated due to this fact. If you can’t prove anything, everything is up for discussion, and anybody could be right. We can be pretty certain that aliens didn’t build the pyramids, but I have a few colleagues who are quietly holding out hope that something will turn up to give their case some validity. A few years back, you wouldn’t have found a single text-book that said the Romans made it to Ireland, now, we’re pretty sure they were frequent visitors. We’ve now got evidence that the Romans even made it to South America, something you would have been laughed out of the conference hall if you’d tried to say it five years ago.

My point – “proof” is an elusive term in archaeology, and is a word that’s likely to run you into some trouble down the way.

Which brings me to my latest beef with Time Team. I caught the last five minutes of this week’s program was on Durrington Walls. Unlike normal Time Team’s they had followed an established dig over an entire season, but that’s by-the-by. In Tony Robinson’s summation (yes, Tony Robinson of Baldrick fame is the presenter), he asked the lead archaeologist if they could date Durrington Walls and tie it into the construction of Stonehenge. The archaeologist said that, yes, they had dated an antler pick to 2500 BC, which meant the pit it came from was either dug, or had activity in it, at that time. Which consequently meant that Durrington Walls was at least in use around the time that Stonehenge was being first built. Due to the proximity of the two sites and other factors, it is also highly likely (the nice bearded professor said) that the two complexes were related in some way.

Tony Robinson then finishes the program by saying:

“Despite typical archaeologist fence sitting… This is final proof that [Durrington Walls] was constructed at exactly the same time [as Stonehenge]”.

*Throws something heavy at the television set*

It’s final proof of NOTHING you dimwit! And “typical archaeologist fence sitting”? Ouch.

3 thoughts on “the trouble with facts is that there are so many of them

  1. I was a student of Archaeology digging at the Durrington site during the Time Team programme. It is also useful to note that Tony Robinson probably knows very little about the site due to the fact that he was there for, I think, 2 part days during the entire length of filming (the dig went on for one month).

  2. I’m friends with people who’ve worked on other Time Team digs and they have similar experiences to you – dear Tony knows very little about what is going on, and cares even less. I think the phrase ‘arrogant arsehole’ was used on more than one occasion to describe him.

    The Durrington dig was slightly a-typical in that you were there for a long time whilst Time Team only filmed a bit of it, with Tony only there for a few essential snippets of footage so they could claim it was a Time Team show. But the man has to have script people who write what he is going to say – surely they could have tightened the language up so how he wrapped up the show was not so totally false?


    (My grrr being at Time Team, not the Durrington site people).

    Welcome to Bright Meadow, Durrington Digger. If you have any other tales of digging life, please share them with us 🙂

  3. Pingback: Bright Meadow » Sunday Roast: never question the cosmic law of french toast

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