Sunday, 10 April 2016

Space Archaeologist and History Guy do the Vikings

The main team at the site (image linked from the Guardian web site, Freddie Clare/BBC)

Some time ago I wrote a TV review on Space Archaeologist’s and Dan Snow’s, aka History Guy's, programme on the Roman Empire. I had wanted to like the programme, but there were aspects that seemed to make the narrative simplistic, basically simplifying archaeology and hyping up the findings and methods. Last week’s programme on the Vikings, the Vikings Uncovered on BBC1, even if it was much more balanced and improved from the Roman offering, still had some of the formulaic TV speech that does not make archaeologists happy: everything significant is named as ‘clues’ and different uncertainties or facts or hypotheses or conclusions are repeated and repeated and repeated again and again. I cannot remember, if ‘mysterious’ featured. The programme also seemed to enforce the perception that archaeology programmes on BBC are predominantly headed by non-archaeologists, albeit people working in the related fields (e.g. Dan Snow, a historian, and Professor Alice Roberts, originally a medical doctor and lecturer in human anatomy, in Digging for Britain). However, Space Archaeologist is an archaeologist with a PhD in archaeology and the advisors included Dr Karen Milek, an expert in scientific study and fieldwork across Scandinavian Viking world and its archaeology.

Nevertheless, Dan Snow’s round tour of Britain was illuminating and Space Archaeologist’s search for differences in vegetation in the treeless turfed landscapes of Iceland and Newfoundland was methodologically rooted and developed further in the methodology of archaeological remote sensing. It is just the way she appeared in the programme to turn up without any preparations or reading, totally relying on experts on evaluating all aspects of northern Atlantic archaeology. There is wide literature on all matters Viking, also in other languages than the Scandinavian ones, one could turn to. In a way this reliance on experts was an improvement from the programme on the Roman Empire, where she was presented as an expert on every method possible, able to point out relevant features anywhere in the Mediterranean. However, now the emphasis seemed to veer slightly to the other extreme, not showing that a scholar can accumulate knowledge by reading and examining collections, even if it be said that it is safer to ask people with decades of experience of local geology and material culture – as the scientific analysis of some supposed iron slag and a rivet or nail showed. The team had excavated a stone and a piece of natural ore instead of definite evidence in Newfoundland. It was also nice that she showed that the research is a team effort at Birmingham in the States, so that she complements her strengths with those of the others.

The programme did omit some crucial facts that had emerged after they had finished filming. Not adding a voice over or a text board at the end of the programme on the new exciting facts gave an appearance that the team based their conclusions on the biased use of evidence. During the programme Space Archaeologist was developing through trial and error a way to observe potential Early Medieval turf-walled houses from space. The vegetation seems to thrive were the cut turf quadrangulars have been piled in the past and they have then turned into a soil having microlayers of mineral soil or, in the case of Iceland, volcanic ash improving the growth conditions. In Newfoundland the site had signs of fire and carbon samples had been gathered. The dating results shown in the programme seemed to date the place in the 17th century, but these were dismissed outright due to suspected contamination problems. Considering the evidence showing only heating natural ore at some point, this gave an idea that the makers wanted and accepted only one answer. Only by following the hashtag #VikingsUncovered Twitter feed the following day, I realised that they had received a series of results dating to the 9th century and slightly later afterwards. This omission left the archaeologists watching the TV show with a wrong impression – even if in the end the team had proven the Viking Age activities. Not all read the details of the pre-show press releases, since news about a ‘potentially important new Viking site in Newfoundland’ was circulating across social media some days before.

Even if The Vikings Uncovered was highly interesting, it was also slightly too long. Even if the best parts were the visits to the earlier excavated sites in Britain and L'Anse aux Meadows in America together with the delightful experts in Iceland, the slightly ‘Famous Four’ styled search for the Viking turf long houses dragged on and on. Again there were some slight comedy TV moments, when certain activities were performed for the camera. Naturally, jeeps were involved crossing beautiful landscapes and the camera followed a speed boat taking Sarah around the islands. In Newfoundland Dan Snow allegedly trekked for an hour to Sarah Parcak's excavation site. He had a crisp blue shirt, seemingly empty rucksack and brand new trekking shoes. He did walk into every puddle on the short trek he was shown to do. He paid absolutely no attention where he was walking. In real situation, his shoes had been flooded with steps one and two and the hour’s trek had been very inconvenient in the end. When he happily arrived to the small dig site, he seemed to have had no discomfort...

Finding new Viking sites in America is exciting by default, but the best parts from my point of view were those telling about the major sites in Britain. The digital visualisations of the Viking York, for example, were amazing. The stories such as the crushed skull in the Portmahomack monastery in Scotland, the major monastic centre of the Picts, showing clear sword cuts, featuring the interview of Professor Martin Carver, the excavator of the site and Sutton Hoo as well, really educated the viewer about the very limited evidence for the Viking raids. Similarly, the funerary evidence from the Viking Repton at St Wystan’s Church in Derbyshire was astonishing. The remains of entangled skeletons, making a reference to the burial, historically believed to have been one of a giant warrior, told a truly fascinating story of a war lord at death. There was slightly a sense that two programmes – one on the Vikings in northwestern Europe and one on the search for the turf long houses, both deserving a fair independent and intelligent presentation – were trapped in one maxi episode.

It was interesting to recognise an aesthetic style featuring nowadays in many of these big archaeology productions: archaeologists seem to be moonlighting as secret agents, working in dark basements for SPECTRE or some other mysterious organisations. Archaeologists sit with laptops at very small tables with one spotlight illuminating their tiny workspace. The spotlights light presenters’ faces in obtuse angles in the shade where they tell of scientific finds. It is all made for TV, but the simultaneous glorification and dumbing down leaves an archaeologist feeling a bit short-changed. This material – and the talented archaeologists and historians - were worthy of so much better treatment across two programmes. What a programme BBC4 had made out of this material. The kind of headed by Joanne Fletcher or Lucy Worsley – or more fittingly Nina Ramirez. As an archaeologist, one has a very specific view, perhaps even too critical, and thus, one is left wondering, if the Joe Public really enjoys the hype over a humorous, but informative and non-repetitive narrative.

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