Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Pub archaeology – why did it take this long?

Having known a lot of archaeologists from Norway to the US and from Canada to Estonia one thing that is common to most of them – not to count a few teetotallers - is the love of beer. And if not beer, then vodka or wine – in moderation, of course, as you would say to your GP. If you wonder about the teetotallers then I must say that, yes, they are more common than you expect. Not all of them are teetotallers because they had been drinking too much in the past but because of their religion or just not caring about the tipple.

However, in the UK pubs and drinking have traditionally been part of the make-up and social life of the whole country. Well, now with the rising prices social drinking may be more part of house parties and more beer is bought from the supermarket but people are still known to down a few pints.The annual TAG (Theoretical Archaeology Group conference) normally means that the local student union bar is to be dry after the conference.

With Time Team suffering from having been on air for such a long time and Mick Aston stepping down, the search is for a new archaeology programme that would catch that certain audience, consisting of blokes and middle aged couples sharing an interest, that likes to see the others doing the digging and exploring interesting sites. You can have ever so many attractive Bettanies waving their hands at Knossos but nothing beats the sight of hi-viz and JCB on a green field or park land.

Now Channel 5 (apparently with a helping hand from the History Channel) has sent the pottery expert Paul Blinkhorn and the comedian and presenter Rory McGrath to make Pub Dig. Yes, him from Time Team and him from the sporty panel shows and the plethora of three men in a boat or two programmes all over. The latter one has more hair than Tony Robinson and Paul Blinkhorn combined. Together they are a jolly combo and in the first episode were looking at the Tudor and maritime heritage in Chatham in Kent. The archaeology is presented in the familiar Time Team fashion with different trenches being disappointing and Dave or two revealing the foundations that present the most important finding of the day.

Just why this has not been done before is anybody’s guess since field archaeologist spend a lot of time in a pub and the production companies have managed to get through such inexplicably embarrassing archaeology programmes as Extreme Archaeology. Current Archaeology’s Carly Hilts lauded the presentation of responsible archaeology and the expertise of Paul Blinkhorn. One can only assume that the crew at the dig at the Command House must have got some free beer against all free publicity the pub got. As one TV critic said ‘that is their excuse’ to go around nice, historic pubs in England and down some pints on camera. I must be fair and admit that the search for the lost Elizabethan docks was quite interesting. The presentation of any excavation begins to be a bit tired in the TV but this series has the added bonus of seeing just how cheesy Paul and Rory will get!

The second episode showed Paul being even more on the money and coming across as a true pottery expert. He truly outshines Rory who is supposed to be the main act but ends up to be a paid admirer to Paul’s genius. They call the programme Rory MacGrath’s Pub Dig but it is Paul’s more like it.

Current Archaeology web site has more information on the future pubs studied in the series and the third episode is about The Six Bells in St Albans, Hertfordshire. That pub is located inside the area of the Roman Verulamium. Roman urban archaeology and a proper pint – that sounds very good to me!

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