Thursday, 13 December 2012

Space Archaeologist and Nephew of Jon do Roman Empire

Sometimes even if you know many of the people involved in a television programme it leaves you wanting. No matter how much you would like to like their offering you feel a little short-changed when the programme has ended. It is not the lack of interesting topic, historic events, archaeological monuments or first class research behind the programme that fails Rome’s Lost Empire, but the dumbed down way of speech and the lack of intellectually delivered narrative. The need to be shown to be impressive was probably more important than the real historical narrative and the archaeological results drawn by different teams.

First of all, one wondered, if the team from the University of Southampton digging at Portus, the harbour of Rome, and specialized not only in Roman archaeology but also in archaeological computing with the results reaching Second Life and beyond, really did not spend any time studying air photographs before Sarah Parcak started to look at her satellite images for this programme. She was unfamiliar with the geology and land use and was looking slightly lost somewhere in the flat hinterland of Fiumicino. Her work with the satellite recognition of Egyptian sites is truly amazing but here she was out of her comfort zone.

The Lidar study in Romania, ancient Dacia, gave exciting results showing the extent of one Roman fort there. Nevertheless, with clearly visible earthworks, it was likely to have been known from the start. My guess is that the programme helped the local archaeologists by revealing the exact perimeter of the fort – mapping such a large feature in the slopes of a wooded hill is a big task. The fact that this was a novel method to Sarah, made me suspect that somebody else did the data processing in order to filter the return signal from the trees.

The sections in Jordan and Tunisia presented some touristic images with the presenters riding camels to Petra and having a meal at a Bedouin tent with David Mattingly. In both cases Sarah and her iPad revealed a series of forts, apparently from Google Maps, highly visible in arid landscape if one knows what to look for and which geometric forms the ramparts of a fort take. Naturally, with large projects with huge amounts of field work, research and reporting, it just may be that different projects did not have time to scan the Google or Bing coverage for their study areas. In that case they are grateful that somebody else pays this work and gives them publicity and results.

The programme seemed to be a licence to travel across the Mediterranean and meet impressive archaeologists, so I am not surprised Sarah took this opportunity. After all, it was a Beeb documentary and presented a possibility to co-present an archaeological programme in the prime time. In addition, worthy projects got plenty of air time. However, there are several extremely good examples of engaging programmes, such as Raminez’s Treasures of the Anglo-Saxons or Worsley’s If Walls Could Talk. Nothing is worse for an archaeologist than a historian rolling his eyes and wondering aloud how archaeologists could say anything about sherds of pottery. The scripted scenes of finding possibly previously known features – but admittedly using a method giving results easier, quicker and more extensively – with simple story lines is unfulfilling. Is it such a shame to show one’s scholarly knowledge and speak to the audience like they are intellectual human beings, not slobs?

Nevertheless, there was a truly hilarious and impressive moment when the wiz kids from Southampton (or Beeb?) made the lighthouse of Portus, the symbol of the might of the empire, to rise among the detritus of disposed cars at a local end of the life scrappage centre or junk yard with Sarah, Dan and professor Simon Keay, the current assistant director of the British School at Rome, watching from a distance. The flair of ‘Five Go Exploring’ was there as it was throughout the programme, but the gimmick made a point.

PS. On the BBC web site the ‘If you liked this, you might also like’ suggestion was Homes under Hammer... That probably summed up the expectations from the Broadcasting Company’s side.

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