Episode 3- The Flying Archaeologist

Tonight will see the airing of the first in a new four part series on BBC, the flying archaeologist. Some of you may have seen one of the episodes before, they were aired across the country in the areas they focus on, but this will be the first chance you get to see the other three. Perhaps surprisingly, I am actually going to recommend you watch this series, having seen the Stonehenge episode that kicks off proceedings tonight.

Of course, that’s not to say that I don’t have criticisms (when do I not?), but over all I think it presented archaeology well and introduced some interesting current research. It even highlighted a few theoretical issues which are well known in academia, but are often not made explicit to the public. Ben Robinson, the flying archaeologist himself, admits that the views he uses in his work are completely unnatural, and would have been entirely alien to past people, since they did not have the ability to see the landscape from above. In an age of aerial surveys, mapping and satellite imagery, it’s an important thing to remember when you are looking at past landscapes, but it is something that is so often taken for granted (I’m looking at you Time Team). I think that sometimes this issue is over pressed though. Many pre-modern people clearly had the capacity to visualise landscapes as if seen from above; the Nazca lines of Peru are a testament to this.

Nazca lines in Peru with high contrast image

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Spider

The Spider (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To contrast the good parts, here are a few of the things I took issue with; One of the ideas Robinson presents is that vales are about life, whilst plains and downlands are about death, as indicated by the relative amount of monuments found in these locations. Whilst it is certainly true that there is a difference here, this does not mean that there was a difference in the number built. We always have to bear in mind the representativeness of the archaeological record and since the plains and downlands have been built upon less since prehistory, especially in the last few hundred years, it is more likely that sites there have not been destroyed by later acts. In the vales there may well have been far more sites, which have been destroyed by building without being identified. The thing which I really disliked, and I can’t help but feel the public viewer will not connect with, is the apparent excitement expressed over finding a Mesolithic flake and part of a boar tusk. The archaeologists on screen would have you believe these are the greatest finds you could possibly find on the site. Now let’s be honest, they aren’t that exciting for an archaeologist and I can’t see many other people getting excited either. I’m not denying that the site has some interesting aspects to it, and it could be very important for our understanding of the area, but I feel it would have been better to focus on the parts of the site that are actua,lly important, even if to the untrained eye they seem mundane. Far better to present a real image than try to pretend something is exciting when it isn’t, in the belief that the public will only be engaged by objects.

Oh, and I’ll say it once more, don’t pull things out of the side of a trench! It was probably planted there for the show, at least I hope so. All in all though this program is well worth a watch, and I look forward to seeing how the series continues.

Check back later in the week for a new post on something slightly different.

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