A slightly different take with this weeks Episode, I want to talk about a piece of fiction, Labyrinth which aired on Channel 4 on the 30th and 31st of March. Labyrinth is a pseudo-time travelling drama, based on the book by Kate Mosse, about the demise of the Cathars in medieval Carcassonne and a modern-day student somehow linked to a woman in the past. Now I don’t care too much about the actual programme (it was watchable) but as soon as I saw the blurb for it, detailing that the adventure started at an archaeological dig I knew I had to watch it. I’m sure it must be a universal desire to go watch/read something knowing that it is going to annoy you, it’s some twisted sort of satisfaction where you can say “I told you so” to yourself. If any of you watched Bonekickers, you probably know what I mean. If you haven’t seen it and want to experience some horrible butchery of archaeological practice, I can’t recommend it highly enough. If however you require some semblance of coherence or logic in you plot, then please avoid, it might annoy you just that bit too much. I don’t want to be responsible for any trowel related stabbings.
Labyrinth starts straight away with images of people excavating an archaeological site, and unsurprisingly it does a horrible job of showing anything close to reality. Now I don’t expect programmes to depict archaeological practice exactly, it would be boring viewing and take needless effort, but just a five-minute conversation with a random archaeologist could have resulted in scenes which looked a lot better and didn’t anger those in the know. So for those of you who have never dug on a site before here is a list of things that you should never do that this programme encourages:
1) Mattock in the same spot, over, and over and over. We don’t want to dig a big hole in one tiny spot in archaeology, it doesn’t tell you much and most importantly you can’t see what you are doing. Notice how that mattock kept on hitting through a big pile of loose soil? That’s one step towards putting your mattock straight through a skull.
2) Sandbags. What were they for? Why would you need to define the area around every trench with a wall of sandbags?
3) Brushes. I definitely saw a brush in the background. Never, ever use a brush on an archaeological site unless you are told to. We don’t use brushes. The only thing brushes are good for is masonry or making a huge undifferentiated mess. Put them down, throw them away, burn them, just don’t use them.
4) Garden trowels. This is one that I really can’t forgive. It’s just plain lazy on the part of the person organising props. They could have at least went to the effort of getting a proper trowel. I’ve berated students for bringing builders trowels to a site before (after being specifically told not to), but I’ve never seen anyone stupid enough to think that a glorified miniature hand shovel was appropriate for an archaeological dig. Please note the difference and never make this mistake:
5) Pulling things from the side of a trench. Again, never do this. Not only is it bad practice, since you can’t record it in situ and can’t get a clear idea of its spatial relations, but also it can risk causing things to collapse on you which isn’t fun even if shiny things are. If you watched the programme about Richard III, you will have noticed that they left him there, legs poking out the side of the trench from day 1 and didn’t start yanking him out or jump at the chance to dig a burial just because it was there. Instead they left the burial where it was and didn’t actually investigate it until some time later when they realised that it was in the area they were looking for.
6) Contaminating the site. The modern-day protagonist walks into a cave with medieval skeletons and is accused of contaminating the site. This is just ridiculous, it isn’t a crime scene with forensic experts crawling over it, and they know its medieval, so there is no problem. Sure she might have disturbed things a bit, but someone was always going to if they were going to find the skeletons in the pitch black of a cave. I admit she yanked a ring from one of the skeletons, which isn’t very clever but worse things happen with a mattock all the time (see point 1). Then the site is shut down, because they found some more archaeology, in a cave, near to the excavation. I never knew that finding stuff was cause to stop a dig, I could have had a lot more time relaxing.