Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Stone: Joking Aside: Kings, Car Parks, and the Future






The man himself
It feels like most of the country watched "The King in the Car Park" yesterday. A significant proportion of those also watched the press conference by the University of Leicester team earlier. The archaeological/academic griping was gentle after the press conference ("well, I'd like to know a bit more about the DNA"/"it would have been better to hold on three months until after peer review"/"shame about the University hierarchy cashing in on such good research"- for a good summary of these concerns, have a look at Mary Beard's excellent blog A Don's Life. After the documentary, it felt (on my Twitter feed anyway) as if the negativity had risen to fever pitch. I suspect there are a LOT of other archaeology blogs also putting out a post-mortem of events today. So, here are my thoughts on a spectacle that has exposed a huge amount of the tensions in modern archaeological practice, and which has been both a fantastic opportunity and a crashing disappointment. I've divided them into two camps: the press conference, and the programme.

The Press Conference

1) The whole bloody thing was incredibly exciting. It appealed utterly to the four-year-old inside me who just wanted to find old stuff in the ground. I would like to think that it inspired a new generation of children who will want to become archaeologists. And this wasn't just for kids- huge numbers of people were interested and emotionally involved with the outcome- it was an amazing platform for archaeological science.

2) The archaeologists at the press conference dealt brilliantly with this. While frustrated by the slightly overblown wa-wa speeches from the Vice Chancellor and Registrar trampling over good research, in realistic terms I think this is unavoidable. Any university would have done it- they'd be stupid not to. And while it isn't a realistic expectation, this will be a huge vehicle to induce students to apply to Leicester, in the vain hope they will get their mitts onto this type of research. You never know, maybe they will. Anyway, back to the press conference. A lot of people seemed to think it was drawn out, too long. They just wanted a one word statement and some pictures for the paper. I would say that this was a masterstroke from the scientists involved. The proceedings were organised like a series of very small conference papers- the researchers did NOT want you to know the answer without understanding HOW they came up with the answer. By taking the media and those watching through the process of archaeological investigation, osteoarchaeological examination and (the weakest bits as no mention of archives/process) genealogy and genetics, the way professional archaeology works was brought out to the nation. Yes, they didn't peer review- but the entire conference was, in many ways, a massive form of peer review. Had the research just been submitted (as I understand it will be) to Antiquity, there would have been 2 reviewers. As it is, the entire country reviewed their work. Based on the press conference, I was excited about the longer programme.

The Programme

1) The biggest issue I had with the programme personally was the way that the excellent (and very presentable) archaeological staff were sidelined to make way for a very limited selection of historians. Yes, it is a medieval discovery, but the archaeological information was what was central to the case. We did not need to float around Bosworth field showing Victorian engravings of medieval warfare- it would have been far better to talk to those who worked on the human remains from the battle of Towton project (you can follow the work of the Towton survey at http://www.towtonbattle.com/ or you can buy the book on the skeletal remains from Oxbow, "Blood Red Roses: The Archaeology of a Mass Grave from the Battle of Towton AD 1461" here). I am not anti-historian, either. The individuals using historical information were not held to account- who said that, and where, and when? There was a lot of talk about Tudor propaganda, but the sources were never sifted and sorted accordingly. No clarity, just a load of waffle with the diggers shoved in the back room.

Skull from Towton

2) While the diggers and excellent academic staff (who were incredibly presentable and very competent and clear, as they proved in the press conference) were shoved to one side, two people were brought to the fore. One was completely inappropriate, one was an utter victim of Channel 4 production values. The presenter, Simon Farnaby, took the wrong line throughout: he went for comedy. Considering the amount of bad jokes floating around on social media all day, and the potential for po-faced dullness, I can understand where he was coming from. But he wasn't the focus: the dead king was, or should have been. The shots of Simon at home with his (lovely) dalmatian were filler at best, and patronising rubbish at worst. When he began spouting cultural evolutionary cliches about the violence and cruelty of medieval society compared to the modern world, I was spitting fire (see my last post on Dead Babies and Poggio Civitate). People wanted information, not self-reflection from someone who I think was supposed to represent the "everyman" reaction. The other central character in the programme was Philippa Langley, from the Richard III society. The Twittersphere seemed almost united in its damning of her- whipped up by cruel editing and vicious exploitation from Channel 4. Yes, to many people it might seem ridiculous that she was upset by seeing the remains of Richard. But she had created a vision of this long-dead King in her mind, and it was falling down in front of her eyes. Before the dig, her opinion was as valid as anyone else's. Afterwards, she was forced to change it. We all know how unpleasant an enforced change of opinion, particularly a strongly held opinion, can be. If that wasn't enough, she was made to look like a madwoman on television. Nobody needs that. Yes, I too enjoyed watching the occasional snigger from the scientists, but I was generally impressed that Ms Langley was included to such a high degree- it spoke very well for the inclusivity of the project as a piece of public archaeology. It also introduced a potentially very interesting conversation about the relationship between emotion and archaeology, as observed by Lorna Richardson on her excellent twitter feed last night.

3) The brilliant parts of the programme, which haven't gone unnoticed by those who viewed it, were all connected with the research staff. When the osteoarchaeologist admitted putting a mattock through a skull, there was a big mutual grin on the faces of archaeologists everywhere- we all know that if you want to find something delicate, get the mattock out. It's utter sod's law. The reality of human bone treatment- cardboard box for one, please. The incredible skill of facial reconstruction. These were the real highlights. If only there had been more explanation to make these aspects stronger. My husband commented (he's the opposite of an archaeologist- he's a builder) that he felt like the academics wanted him to understand but the producers were determined that he wouldn't. That about sums up the problem. The isotopic analysis of the bone was a particular case in point- people wanted to know HOW the process told us the individual had eaten marine fish, not speculate and move swiftly on.

I could go on to dissect the programme in detail, but I'm not going to. The conclusion that I want to draw from all this is that there is hope for the future in archaeology. The amount of people drawn into the conclusions of yesterday show that. These people do not deserve to be patronised, or conned with weird cartoons and freaky music. They want knowledge, they want information, and they want contact with real research. This is where the role of people like Dig Ventures and Past Preservers becomes so important. The former give people the chance to do professional archaeology for a weekend, and understand the real process of research. Incidentally, this is what (to an extent anyway) Time Team did too, and what university projects SHOULD be doing. Past Preservers have perhaps an equally important role to play, one which any archaeologist lucky enough to be placed in the public eye should also contribute to. We need someone to stand our ground with production companies- to just say no to waffle and blurb, to demand that the audience are treated as thinking adults, to place research at the centre of television. This is an issue that goes far beyond the King in the Car Park documentary. Getting it right in public is one of the most important issues for modern archaeology. In a world of cuts to research and heritage, we need to justify our existence. And the way to do it is through the initial joy and excitement of discovery, but also through the dissemination and sharing of cold hard knowledge.

What do you think about the Rich III saga? Do you agree about the future of archaeology? Check out the Archaeologists Anonymous project blog on the side bar for more on the latter topic.

As an aside, this makes the Poggio Civitate dead baby blow up look like a storm in a teacup. Phew.

1 comment:

  1. Ah I disagree about your problem with the TV programme. I actually thought it worked really well as a TV programme. It had the emotional woman, the serious forensic academics and an affable chap to front it. It was cleverly done to use him as our introduction to a project that had obviously been going on for some time. My biggest problem - too many bloody ad breaks!

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