Friday, 10 January 2014

An Open Letter to Dan Snow...

Dear Dan Snow,

I hope you are well, and had a restorative Christmas with your family. I'm really sorry to be writing what may seem like a snarky open letter to you, particularly so soon after the season of goodwill has ended. I'm especially sorry to be doing so after so many years of watching and enjoying many of your programmes. I can remember loving them as a teenager, so it is with a heavy heart that I'm writing this blog post.

What’s happened to spark this off? Well, on Wednesday night my husband decided he wanted to watch a programme presented by you- Rome’s Lost Empire. I was working on one side of the room, he was enthroned on the sofa. I was happily cracking on with my work, blathering on about Etruscan pots and checking a bibliography, when I heard these words come out of your mouth. They may not be 100% verbatim, but I feel that the below is an accurate account of your meaning:

That’s what they do in archaeology school for 3 years.”

You were referring to your disbelief that an archaeologist could pick up a pottery fragment, and reliably date it on site. While I appreciate that you were trying to relate how impressed you were, this really got me going. That’s not what we do in archaeology school for 3 years. Most archaeological experts have gained their knowledge over at least 7 years at university, and many more years of continuing practitioner development. Most university courses, too, are not just focused on pottery identification skills- it’s about putting the objects you’ve learned to identify in context in the lives of the people who used them. So, in one sentence, you brilliantly downplayed the hard work, training and years of dedication that most archaeologists put in to get to where they are, de-valuing their skills effortlessly. As President of the CBA, you should know better.

I was mollified shortly afterwards by the appearance on the programme of archaeologists for whom I have the greatest respect, my doctoral adviser, Simon Keay, among them. My head went back to chasing down that pesky Studi Etruschi article. Then I heard you say this to one of your co-presenters, the very woman whose work on remote sensing had led you to many of the sites in the programme and revealed so many new features:

“Take your head out of your computer… this is what it’s all about.”

Wow. So all those hours spent researching, poring over data, pulling it together, working her arse off to find new sites, and then her generosity in sharing that data with you, to say nothing of her time- it’s not important. What’s important is to wander around in the desert gazing into the middle distance, crashing through the dunes in a 4x4. Obviously, archaeology is all about pretending to be a great adventurer, and not about the long hours of research and analysis that all of us put in before sticking a trowel in the ground. Again, you effortlessly sidelined the reality of archaeological research, and once again, you should know better.

 I know lots of people on Twitter and elsewhere were unhappy with the production values of the programme, but I don’t think that’s down to you at the end of the day. What you say to camera is. So, I’d be really grateful if you could think about the effect your comments have on public perceptions of archaeology, and how they make us archaeologists feel.

Thank you. 

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