Episode 5- Stories from the Dark Earth

This week we have another series of programmes which are very good. In fact, I would say that Stories from the Dark Earth: Meet the Ancestors Revisited is even better than the last Episode’s programme A Secret History of Archaeology.

This programme sees Julian Richards looking back on a number of sites covered in the various series’ of Meet the Ancestors and shows the ongoing work of the last 10-15 years. What makes this particularly interesting is the charting of how interpretations about the sites and their contents have changed over this time. There are a number of reasons for these reinterpretations, from new scientific techniques and further excavation to a simple reassessment of the evidence. One example is a young girl believed to have been from the continent due to her grave goods, who was shown, via isotope analysis of her teeth, to in actual fact be local.

What is particularly great about this is it shows that what we see on television isn’t the final word and that often things will be looked at over and over. In fact even that the first instance of investigation of a site can take years and years. Over this time interpretations can change massively, be this on a small element of the site or something major which has major implications for archaeology of that period. The discovery that native Romans were still moving to Britain at a time when it was previously thought they were all leaving the country is a great example of this.

This practice of constantly looking at the evidence and changing your ideas to fit what is in front of you also mirrors what happens as you excavate a site. So often on television you see the final interpretation and perhaps an initial one which is shown to be wrong, but often as you dig a feature you can go through a dozen different ideas before you settle on one which you think the most likely. Although we are trained to do this work, archaeologists are not always right, and sometimes we have to go on guesswork and basic logical inference from our limited evidence.  I think it is fantastic that this programme really does its best to put this across.

That’s not to say everything about the series was good of course, but my only real criticism was the insistence on repeatedly making use of facial reconstruction. Now I know that this technique gets used a lot, and people’s entire careers are based around this, but personally I have major issues with it. Any form of reconstruction gives the impression of veracity and this is no different, and whilst it is possible to get an idea of basic head and face shape from the skull, including muscles in the head, there are a great many things that go into someones facial appearance beyond this. Skin colour, fat, cartilage, hair, body modification, tissue damage, all of these things can have a major effect on how someone looks, but are completely unknowable from skeletal evidence. The dubious nature of facial reconstruction can be highlighted by Kennewick Man’s (a likely Polynesian skeleton over 9,000 years old) apparent resemblance to Patrick Stewart.

Kennewick Man (The Times 8th November, 2003)

Still, this one criticism certainly isn’t enough to ruin the quality of this very engaging programme. The series is available on iPlayer until the early hours of Thursday morning, so go watch it now.



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