Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Sunday Supplement Etruscans

Image (c) The Sunday Times.


Yeah, I know. It's Wednesday, not Sunday.

But very unusually, I got my grubby mitts on a Sunday paper. We don't normally bother- pre-baby we felt like they were expensive and luxurious, so would get them very occasionally. Post-baby, we don't have time. My parents were here, and they looove their big Sunday broadsheet, so palming Silvia off on her father, I leafed through the different bits of the Sunday Times. And there, in the telly guide, was a reference to the Etruscans! Unfortunately, it was in relation to a really poor piece of archaeo-tv, a programme on the Celts that has been so comprehensively reviewed by the excellent Rachel Pope that I won't go into its faults (and there were many) here.

The TV critic, A.A. Gill, broadly shared Rachel's opinion of the Celts programme. He divined that the Celts were really a made-up people (a somewhat fair point, considering the machinations of 19th century cultural historians) and that the whole show was trying to overcompensate for that fact, cobbling together a tight historical narrative based on Roman texts, instead of exploring the complex interrelationships of these different communities across Iron Age Europe*.

But he had to go and drag the Etruscans into it, didn't he? I've recycled the damn magazine now (foolishly), but the gist was that the Celts were a made up people "like the Etruscans." Well. Well now. Who'd have thought I'd wasted so many years of my life studying a figment of the 19th century imagination, stirred up from Roman texts?

Well, big sigh of relief all round, I definitely haven't. The idea of an Etruscan people is right there in their own words. The term "Rasna" or "Rasenna" is used to refer to a collective group of central Italian communities who chose to define themselves with this word. It's thought to mean "people of the city," so the Etruscans are stating the centrality of urban living to their self-identification. It's central to who these people thought they were. It's (perhaps) what made them different from their neighbours, across the Appennines and to the south. So, Mr Gill, even if you are unhappy with stylistic attributions that stick art styles to archaeology and then to supposed ethnic groups, here is a group of ancient people who were quite happy to define themselves as different from their neighbours. Leave the Etruscans out of it, please. We have quite enough problems of our own to deal with in promoting Etruscan archaeology without everyone thinking the whole thing was made up.

In fact, help a sister out. ***Brazen publicity request/plug alert*** Can we please have a feature on the Etruscans in the Sunday Times Culture section, perhaps when my new book comes out? Let's talk. 

*In a massive and simplified aside, why are we still so scared to admit that on occasion the Romans were wrong? The ever-brilliant Mary Beard (who Gill has been deeply, misogynistically unpleasant to in the past) was opining in the same Culture section of the same paper that the Romans are really terrifically overrated. And that's from a classicist! Come on people (especially commissioners of archaeological TV), let's break free of two millennia of Roman intellectual oppression. Digression over. 

** In the magazine of the Sunday Times, Mr Gill was back with a review of what sounded like an atrocious and very expensive restaurant in London. He made a reference to "if Lidl did an own brand French fish soup." Mr Gill, they do- I tried it last night, and it's not half bad- tasted ok, no nasty after effects and cheap as chips. I suggest you give it a go, it was far nicer than the bouillabaisse you described forcing down in the review.

Monday, 5 October 2015

Telly Special: Questions and Queens

Secret History is back on Channel 4, and it's been a while since I blogged about archaeology on the telly, so I thought I'd share some thoughts on the first two episodes.

I want to start with last night, probably the more tricksy of the two shows so far. The hook was Cleopatra, and the film focused on the single minded quest of an amateur archaeologist to find her lost tomb. It was clear that the lady in question, Kathleen Martinez Berry, was living out her Indiana Jones fantasies, and fair play to her- through her stubborn refusal to give in, her bright optimism in the face of snubbing and snobbery (implied) and her incisive desk-based investigation, a rather exciting site is emerging from the desert sands. When you think of the hostility this woman has endured (and probably is still enduring, if social media is any guide) it is remarkable that she has kept going. Kathleen, an ex criminal lawyer, perhaps has exactly the type of thick skin you need to succeed in archaeological adversity these days. With enough money behind her, she has become a new kind of independent scholar*, steadily demonstrating that Taposiris Magna was a major Ptolemaic temple site with associated necropolis.

Of course, not everything was perfect, especially when it came to methodology. I would definitely have wanted a full Ground Penetrating Radar survey first off- rather than as a late doors attempt to find tombs. Collecting strategies also seemed unusual- there were shots of human remains being removed without being photographed in situ with scales in place (ALTHOUGH this could just have been the film's editing). If this was accurately represented, it would presumably not have happened if an experienced Egyptologist with strong documentation skills had been part of the dig from the start. What a shame.

More positively, there were so many fabulous women scholars featured. Dorothy Thompson from Cambridge presenting a papyrus fragment with Cleopatra's possible signature. Salima Ikram examining the amazing necropolis.

The first episode of the new series also featured an incredible female team- the women of the Rising Star expedition. As a claustrophobic wuss, I was in awe of their skill, strength and dedication. The entire excavation project was a lesson in public archaeology- live tweeted by director Lee Berger from above ground, (I think) webcams so you could follow the discovery as it happened. And all this from a cave deep below the South African bush. I don't know enough about human origins to assess their findings, but from a scicomm perspective this was the business.

These two programmes have raised serious key questions for me, regarding how we communicate archaeological research. Firstly, Cleopatra. The hook is the same as the worrying trend of "finding" (in)famous people in the past- Richard III anyone? Do we need personalities to pin projects on? Why is the discovery of Taposiris Magna not enough? Another key question- in an age of restricted research posts and cuts to funding, are independently wealthy amateur archaeologists going to be a permanent part of the scene? If so, how can they be welcomed and integrated, encouraged to partake in best practice without being patronised?

Secondly, and more simply, Homo Naledi and Rising Star. How the hell can a project in the middle of nowhere (relatively), metres below the surface, have better communications than excavations in the middle of European holiday hotspots (Tuscany, Greece etc)? What can we do to share our research more widely, and more accessibly? If Berger and Co can do it, then why can't we?

Field seasons for 2016 are in the planning phases now. Let's start planning how to share, as well as how to discover.

*or a reincarnation of a very old type of scholar- let's party like it's 1899.