Posts Tagged ‘archaeology’

I’ve joked before that I gravitated towards economic and social history because I have a terrible memory for dates. That’s not entirely true – it’s rather the case that I think that, most of the time, longer-term structural factors are more important than short-term l’histoire événementielle in shaping human life, and of course that applies to politics as well – but I *do* have a terrible memory for dates, and hence tend to get defensive on the subject, given that a lot of people assume that history is basically about dates so this must be what I do.

Given this proclivity, you might expect my reaction to this week’s news story about a Pompeian graffito that potentially changes our view of the date of the eruption of Vesuvius would be basically negative: whoop-di-doo, as I once remarked of the fuss over the discovery of Richard III’s bones. Not at all! (more…)

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Once again, I’ve remembered to keep track of the blogs I’ve especially enjoyed over the last year (with the curious exception of April – I don’t know, at this remove, whether I was too busy to read anything, or not much was published, or I was feeling hyper-sniffy at the time so didn’t think there was anything worth recommending. Very happy to get suggestions in the comments of great things that I’ve missed). This doesn’t claim to be a definitive list, just the stuff I came across – often via the Twitter, which continues to be a great way of keeping up with what’s going on in different regions and fields, despite all the management’s efforts to ruin it and drive everyone away – that deserves a more than ephemeral readership… (more…)

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Tom Holland has been doing the Twitter equivalent of prodding me with a pointed stick, loudly advertising the fact that he, Vic Reeves and Tanni Grey-Thompson were going to be discussing late Roman economic policy on ITV this evening, purely to annoy me. He must have a new book to plug, and wants to provoke a bit of controversy-related publicity. I determined, therefore, not only to watch the programme but to like it; after all, it’s great that there is still a bit of archaeology on television, at prime time no less, and it emphasises the possibility of constructive co-existence between professionals and enthusiastic (and often very knowledgeable) amateurs, and shows a wide range of fascinating objects with interesting back stories, and the celebrity presenters (including our Tom) do the necessary job of refusing to take academic equivocation for an answer from the various experts, without drowning out their caveats altogether. Interesting to note that the unifying theme of the programme was something to the effect that in this ever-changing world in which we live in, some things remain the same, rather than emphasising the equally plausible but perhaps less comforting idea that the past may in many ways be another country. Shades of heritage and Our Island Story…


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If there is not yet an annual award of Archaeological Integrity in Media Relations – anyone know of one? – then it needs to be instituted immediately, so that it can be awarded to Jay Carver, the lead archaeologist of the Crossrail project, for heroically resisting every temptation to over-sell the latest finds. The news report I read (and I stuck to the Grauniad; heaven only knows what the other papers came up with) is quite hilarious. ROMAN SKULLS FOUND DURING CROSSRAIL DIG IN LONDON MAY BE BOUDICCA VICTIMS, screams the headline. “Blackened Roman skulls, possibly victims of Boudicca’s revolution that scorched the foundations of the Roman empire in Britain, have come tumbling out of a Crossrail tunnel in the heart of London…” The next reference is a little more cautious, noting that earlier finds “were often interpreted” as the skulls of Boudicca’s victims – but then hastily rushes on with the dramatic colour: “decapitated and slung ignominiously into the river, when in 61AD her Iceni tribe swept south from their East Anglian home, and torched Roman settlements on their way to attack Londinium itself.” But then we get to an actual quote from the archaeologist:

However, Jay Carver, the lead archaeologist on the project, who called the find “an unexpected and fascinating discovery that reveals another piece in the jigsaw of London’s history”, fears the more prosaic explanation is that the Walbrook washed away the edges of a Roman cemetery further upstream, possibly soon after they were buried: skulls would have tumbled and rolled further in the water than long bones.

Maybe I’m imagining it, but I can hear the grinding of teeth and rolling of eyes on the part of the journalist in the face of such intransigence. Come on, even if these aren’t the remains of someone our readers will have heard of, at least let them be the victims of someone famous, and linked to a famous historical event. What’s with all the professional caution? You can’t prove that they weren’t brutally decapitated by the rampaging Iceni, probably while enjoying an orgy of honey-coated dormouse. What have you got to lose? Don’t you want to get your own telly programme?

As I’ve said on here before, I do appreciate the pressures that many archaeologists feel to make the most they can of their finds – and my reading of this story suggests, to a greater degree than I’d realised, that a lot of the pressure may come from the media, wanting a simple and sexy story, rather than from financial imperatives or the Impact agenda. Jay Carver is clearly free of at least some of these pressures, very likely because of the very different context of his role (see also the interesting interview with Museum of London Archaeology here) – but that isn’t going to stop me cheering for his quiet but stubborn stand against the dumbing down of archaeological discoveries.


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Apparently we will discover later today whether a skeleton excavated in a Leicester car park is that of Richard III. Whoop-de-doo. Apparently it has a curved spine and battle injuries (and obviously no one else in the middle ages ever suffered such things), but the crucial piece of the jigsaw will be the DNA test. Too much to hope that the margin of error on such things will be properly explained; I’m on the edge of my seat waiting to see whether it’s one in a million or one in seventeen billion that it isn’t the man himself. Of course, even if there isn’t a plausible match (the level of hysteria this morning suggests that they must feel pretty confident), this has still been wonderful publicity for the Leicester Archaeology department, and maybe even for archaeology in general. Who can complain about that?

Well, I’m going to. (more…)

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