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.

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