Saturday, 14 October 2017

An Open letter to Robot Wars

An open letter

To whom it may concern,

   I am extremely concerned about your next series of robot wars (series 10 or 3, depending on your point of view). I will outline the reasons why I am not going to be watching your next season when it airs in October 2017.

For one, you are changing the format of the show, with less robots being used in the upcoming series, thus leading to less fights. By contrast, you had upwards of nearly 100 competitors in a single series of Robot Wars before series 8 (or one, depending on your view) This not only denies spaces to budding entrants who want to spend time and money to enter your show but also limits the action in the arena. If you are looking to attract more people to fight in the arena, who may potentially bring a new weapon or tactic into the warzone, then surely you are limiting the talent pool?

Next, and perhaps more criminally, a number of errors keep appearing in your websites and press releases. Behemoth was never a champion, strictly speaking, unless you count the Challenge trophy, which they started with without actually having to fight anyone. Even your website could not make its mind up as to whether you should continue calling it series 9 or series 2, depending on whether you looked at the tab or the actual web page itself. Typographical errors such as these really infuriate the passionate fan, who want grammatically correct sentences. It feels as if you are not employing staff who can sufficiently QA their own work. Either that, or you do not employ staff who are as committed to Robot Wars as perhaps they could be, which is clearly hindering the product.

Additionally, your promotional material is not actually allowing me to enjoy your show any more than if I was actually watching it. This is not how promotional material is supposed to work. I cannot remember any of the promotional material from the original series, but currently you appear to be both hiding and revealing things at the same time. You say that there is a new arena threat, but there has been little explanation of it? At the same time your preview demonstrates a robot flying higher than any other robot may ever have done, and from the looks on the faces of the teams this was NOT due to the flipper. This leads me to conclude that either a team has a flipper capable of this (perhaps one we already know or don't know) OR you have lied to us about the arena changes. I suspect the former, which is fine, except that this is indicative of a style of programming that relies on being able to constantly deliver these big shocks, and unfortunately this leads to a certain amount of burnout if there are too many of these types of huge shocks. It may have been better to not show this clip at all, but rather focus on a new house robot or the new arena threat.

Until you rectify these issues, I abhor the viewer who is willing to watch a show which contains fewer robots of overall lower quality, while turning the entire format into a parody of the original series 3. If this was your intention, well done. I feel that you are having something of an identity crisis which is ruining the show. In spite of your apparently successful series ratings, I fear you are dragging the show down into a spiralling descent of falling interest, until you realise what the show is all about. Is it a sport or entertainment? Is it going to be the UK Championships, as it used to be, or is it therre to showcase the achievements of schoolchildren alongside amateur and professional competitors? If you really want to hark back to the "good old days", why not employ some of the more unique aspects of the show, such as the non-gladiatorial games they used to do on series 1 and 2, such as the pinball, sumo, football or other games? Even better, attend one of the live, untelevised shows that occur all over the country, like Robots Live and Extreme Robots. This would level the playing field by increasing the emphasis on driver control. Swarm bots might get an advantage in some games but overall I feel this would appeal to many different fans.

Yours sincerely,


To whom it may concern,

   I am delighted by the changes you have made to the show, and I will make it my mission to ensure that as many people as possible tune in to watch your show. Why do I feel it necessary to express these feelings? Your focus on fewer robots allows people such as myself to really get to know the robots we actually care about. To aid this, your press releases have been useful in allowing us to really get to know the new and returning competitors in a style that fits the tone of the show for the 21st century, while giving a nod towards the somewhat silly yet still dangerous antics of the old series.

Although less robots might be seen as a bad thing for the competition if you want constant, no-stop fighting, it really can take you out of a show if all you want is a 60 minute clip of robots bashing each other. It can actually get quite numbing, so spending time in the pits, learning cool information about the world of robotics from the judges and having two of the most engaging presenters in the business really help to create an atmosphere that I can get behind. However, while I enjoy the promotional material, I have noticed a few errors on your website which could be rectified. Now, no one is perfect, but under the circumstances I am willing to accept the errors if you correct them in due course.

I believe that the advertising has been very good in showing the current state of robot fighting in the UK. It is in rude health, with new teams, and a new winner of the heavyweight championship every year for at least the last 5 years, for the last 2 these have been brand new robots and teams. Furthermore, the variety of robots out there is arguably better than the US, with their Battlebots, which actually showcases a number of British teams who have also been on Robot Wars. Robot Wars has so far not mentioned Battlebots, and I feel any mention of foreign competition at this moment in time may be detrimental to the product until more time has been spent on any potential collaboration. So overall your advertising reflects the current state of robot fighting well in the UK.

While some may bemoan that the show is no longer the original product, all products need to move on with the times. This might lead to the accusation of having an identity crisis but this is still a relatively new product. Top Gear managed about 20 series in the 00's and early 10's, of which a number of the earlier episodes had the same problem with trying to maintain it's earlier identity, ultimately changing into something that was presented differently but was fundamentally the same programme. I feel that Robot Wars is going through the same thing. Robot Wars has the advantage of a 15 year break, so the change can be more pronounced and more reflective of the present day.

 Yours sincerely,   Ali

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

ICAP conference 2017: Talking 'bout my Generation

12th International Conference of Archaeological Prospection

The Chartered Institute for Archaeologist’s New Generation group and Geophysics Special Interest Groups are working with ICAP (the International Conference of Archaeological Prospection) to facilitate a session aimed at Early Career Archaeological Geophysicists* at the 12th International Conference of Archaeological Prospection on Friday 15 September 2017 at Bradford University
GeoSIG and New Generation group are able to fund up to four Friday day delegate tickets for presenters for early career CIfA members, thanks to the support of the Institute.
The session will include an Equipment Trouble Shooting CPD training workshop and a number of short papers (approx. 5 mins each) given by Early Career Geophysicists, and intended for Early Career Geophysicists and those who are looking to enter the profession. We are keen to hear from you if you would like to present on the academic/career path that led you to your role, how you gain(ed) experience or what your current role entails. Following these papers, there will be an open discussion for new and experienced delegates to exchange views, ideas and knowledge.
If you have a topic you would like to present, please email your expression of interest using the proposal form to  by midday Monday 28 August 2017.
For full conference details please visit the website:
 *Early career geophysicist in this instance refers only to the time working as a geophysicist, not period since graduation. This is different to the ICAP definition for early career practitioner for the full conference reduced registration fee.

Tuesday, 1 August 2017

Wibbly, wobbly, timey, wimey ... stuff (Theoretical Archaeological Group conference, Cardiff, 18th-20th December 2017)

If you would like to present a paper at TAG Cardiff 2017 this year, why not apply to our session, Wibbly, wobbly, timey, wimey...stuff! Ask questions about the very nature of our consumerist and digital existence that will even have Tom Baker baffled!

For more information, please visit our session on the TAG website

Or you can listen to the podcast below for an audio version of our session abstract.

Paper abstracts to be submitted to or before Friday 25th August 2017.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Festival of Archaeology 2017: Middleton Park Ice House dig

This year, for the Festival of Archaeology 2017, I have decided to talk about the community project I am involved in! The Leeds branch of the Young Archaeologists Club have been running an excavation over the weekend of the 15th-16th July 2017, with a huge turnout of over 40 children and adults!

We were approached by the South Leeds Archaeology Society about the prospect of excavating within the grounds of Middleton Park, where YAC Leeds are based. They had previously excavated the Ice House in Middleton Park to some extent in 2013, but left with more questions than answers (as always seems to be the case!). To the uninitiated an ice house is an old fashioned freezer; a place where owners could put ice before the advent of home freezing. Basically what it says on the tin! They are often found in high class estates, as they were not cheap to build for such a specific purpose! Therefore any entrance needed to not left any light or heat in or else the ice would melt! This ice house in Middleton Park was built by Charles Brandling in 1760, and the ice house existed until 1992. They left the top of the foundations of the interior of the ice house partially exposed but with a large area within the ice house itself not excavated (ice houses tend to be dug quite far into the soil to maintain a cool temperature).

Needless to say we were very excited at being able to run our first ever excavation in the local area, which would be accessible for the kids who come along to the dig. However, because excavations can be very physically tiring for people of all ages, we decided to split the weekend into 4 half-days, so we invited YAC groups from across Yorkshire to turn up for a half-day and contribute to our excavation.

The remains of the Ice House in Middleton Park are a series of brick foundations in  a circular fashion. We believe it dates to the 17th/18th century but there is little information to go on, in the history archives. Its location is actually quite hard to find in the woods, so no wonder there has been little work done to it!

On the first day we had set out the areas where we wanted to dig. We had an area stretching outside of the ice house to try to find the entrance, and a small area in the interior of the ice house, which may have been disturbed by animals, so we wanted to excavate it. We took the trenches to about a foot across the entire area, exposing a new wall that may be the entranceway. Meanwhile, a number of nails, glass bottle fragments and pottery were found across the site, mainly in the entranceway. We also found that the interior of the ice house might be sloping inwards, which would agree with the general shape of other known ice houses.

The second day focused on the possible entranceway, with the interior fill taken down to a lower level and the trenches inside the ice house taken very far down, so far in fact we had to get the adults to dig them! However, some very nice pieces of pottery came up and even some animal bones! This ice house also seems to now be sloping away from the centre; this seems unusual for an ice house. MAybe it has a bulbous shape? The kids helped with site recording, photography, finds washing and surveying after we downed tools. Some of the kids from the Leeds YAC did both days, which was a little bit of a surprise!

I can't say too much more as I'm not writing up the site but it is amazing how many sites there are that could be waiting to be researched and excavated. The aim of the site were to learn more about the ice house, and we know more about the location of the entrance and the shape of the ice house. More importantly, the kids learnt new skills in archaeology, from excavation to site photos, from finds washing to drawing plans and surveying with a total station. However, the story is unlikely to end there. Indeed, there is the possibility of a future dig on the site to uncover more parts of the ice house to further understand the shape and reasons for collapse!

Thanks go to South Leeds archaeology group for their knowledge to the site and CFA Archaeology and YAC for providing tools for the dig!

Monday, 19 December 2016

Terrible TV Review: Digging for Britain, series 5

...and as soon as I declare my hiatus, out comes an archaeology program on the TV that has me tearing my hair out so much that I want to dissect it in a blog post. So that hiatus will have to wait until after you've read this post! Digging for Britain has been going since 2011, and normally hosted by Professor Alice Roberts, sometimes with a co-presenter. They've moved away from site visits by the presenter to getting each dig team to film their own digs to get as many as they can inside an hour for each episode, splitting the country into North, Central and South (more on this later). I was actually in the first series at Binchester with my University course mates back in 2011! That bias aside, this first episode of the latest series had me pulling out my hair and stopping inches away from the remote as a good bit of archaeology was done. Why? Although  all the archaeological sites unto themselves have some amazing finds that are pretty much all unique in their own right, and could happily be expanded upon, sometimes the analysis and the interpretation (or lack of explanation in the interpretation) had me fuming. Or maybe I just misunderstood what they were saying...

One of the issues they had is, as hinted above, is that they are trying to squeeze as many sites into the show as possible. With 10 sites, that's about 5 minutes realistically for each site. There were 6 in this episode, BUT there were a lot of segments involving talking about collections in the National Museums Scotland, which reduced the overall amount of time spent on site. As a comparison, Time Team got one site for a whole hour to explain it in depth, usually over 3 days. Some of these sites had fantastic stratigraphy but I imagine they had to miss out a lot of it because they normally had 3 weeks of filming, which then had to be heavily edited to show the "juicy bits". don't get me wrong, these "juicy bits" are what attract the attention and lead to further investigations, but as an archaeologist, I do wonder how much of the wider picture had to be left out to fit all these sites in, so maybe more programs to fit in the same sites, so they get more time to talk about their sites and some of the other things they've found next time please. Burnswark could have done with more time (or possibly a GIS specialist); two Roman era camps (which could have dated to any period in the Roman era and not necessarily an aggressive military application e.g. a siege) surrounding a hillfort in southern Scotland (presumed early 1st century). They dug the camps (not the forts, interestingly) and found huge quantities of worked stone for slings. They assumed that the Romans made the stones without telling us the provenance of the stones, and simply stated that they must have been fired at the local besieged population in the fort. Why couldn't it be the locals also firing back? I'm aware that the evidence is limited for slings in Iron Age/ Romano-British Britain but it just seems too much like something else is at work here. That being said, they did find a nice stockpiles of sling shot, which probably indicates a reasonably long period of activity for the siege. That being said, the hillfort wasn't investigated at all, and there was no mention of excavating it in the past, or plans to do so in the future, although the area had been fieldwalked. The GIS wasn't used well here at all... there was no way of determining the direction of the shot without some serious assumptions (admittedly quite hard to do), and the map itself didn't differentiate between those shots that appeared to have been fired and those that had been left untouched (either in the stockpiles or otherwise). A bit of use wear analysis fed into the GIS could have gone a long way into making this a much more informed conclusion. Even then, the sheer quantity of sling shot in the area could have been a series of training rounds, as originally the camps were thought to be training bases. Instead, I nearly turned off the TV at this point as this one sites' very selective approach to the wider context of the area was unbearable!! Moral of the story here- assumptions make asses out of you and me. At least the camerawork was reasonable in showing off the sites they did dig, and the experimental archaeology was quite fun to watch on a slow motion camera while informing us that slings are dangerous in the right hands.

Other sites were not so reliant on a quick and dirty approach to interpretation, but probably still have a number of juicy finds that are being missed out for time constraints, as is normally the case with excavations. The hospital at Thornton Abbey could have had a quick map to illustrate the hospital layout on site, because the preservation of the walls and the skeletons are fantastic, but on a video you don't capture the scale of the building, or the position of the skeletons within the hospital. Perhaps even a 3D model? Even a relatively small site, like Loch Arnish in the Isle of Lewis, has only 3 minutes of footage dedicated to it. They spent a good 6-7 hours exploring the underwater landscape and they have probably barely scratched the surface of these island houses (crannogs). What annoyed me on these prehistoric sites is that they didn't even tell us how they could tell it was Neolithic pottery! Even just saying slipped ware (it's not, but as an archaeologist I can say that it is from its appearance) would give the general public a better understanding of these crannogs, which are basically middens (rubbish tips) that was deliberately made into a habitable piece of land. Such sites (including Tells), involving reusing materials to build these "monuments", are not as rare as you think in ancient civilisations, but most are found on land in Europe and the Middle East. Some more discussion on why they thought they built crannogs would have been good, although they did have a good discussion with Professor Alison Sheridan on trade and travel in the Neolithic. Otherwise, a nice showcase of Britain's small but growing underwater archaeology sector.

Lindisfarne, another coastal site, is given a going over by Durham University and Digventures, this time focusing on the famous monastery.  Not the one you can see but the earlier one it replaced. That much is nicely summarised. I won't focus on my worries of Digventures and Durham University cherry-picking Lindisfarne but as if to epitomise my previous argument, a monastery is a massive construction, likely to have a large network economically, socially and politically. Dr David Petts has been on this program before and his experience in summarising the site is evident. Again though, much like Thornton Abbey, I suspect only certain finds were not put on TV to form a particular story, just for time constraints. At least they managed to squeeze in the context of Lindisfarne into the wider history of Britain, with the Viking raids and continuity of Lindisfarne post-793AD.

It is difficult to cover the sheer variety of archaeology in northern Britain, but this program does try, but it is a Sisyphean task. That said, the Hunteston Brooch they describe is a great example of early christian art in British metalwork. Any site on Orkney is going to be unique, to both Britain and itself, as there is simply so much that remains standing. The South Ronaldsay Broch is hardly known outside of Orkney, so it is nice to see it, like Burnswark, getting some much needed attention. Especially as it also demonstrates the reuse of the site from a Broch into a sacred site (with only the bones as supporting evidence). But in discussing the emphasis on the transformation of the site (which apparently takes 17 days!) they have missed out talking about the Broch itself in any great detail. Again, the discovery of bones of various animals makes you wonder what else they found. Bone doesn't survive well on many sites so if bone is being found, what else could have been there? Especially to support such a tentative theory as a sacred site? Why not just a midden with comparatively few animals?

Little Carlton, the last site in this selection, focuses on the recent Saxon discoveries made by metal detectors, leading to a large scale excavation of the area. Here, they finally get it right, showing off the context of the site trenches (albeit by accident), some unique finds and more discussion on the context of the archaeology, in particular the skeletons. It should be said that east to west is a traditional christian practice in burial.The last skeleton they focus on is unusual and merits attention. It also shows us finally why Professor Alice Roberts is an academic, pointing out the knee joint in its incorrect position and this observation gives us a clue into who the skeleton might be. Again though, this is tentative, and relies on the skeleton being a christian to support the hypothesis. Little Carlton is rightly summed up as hard to decipher.

My final thoughts: The definition of north in this episode covers half of the country, from Orkney all the way to Lincolnshire! Even on the northern tip of the East Midlands, that still means that there is a huge amount of land that is covered in this program. This means that either there aren't enough sites to cover the program, which on the face of it is worrying, because it would imply that there is less emphasis on sites in the north. However a more realistic explanation is that there are simply less people. However, this rough guide encompasses 2 countries which have 2 slightly different agendas to archaeology, which weren't focused on in the program. the other problem appears to be that if there is a north, where are the boundaries for the other cardinal points? The previous episode focuses on the West of Britain, but doesn't include the West of Scotland. This also means that the East of Britain won't include a large amount of the east coast of Britain. However, this is covered by the North but also by another recent program from Channel 4 - Britain at Low Tide, which focused on coastal regions with archaeology at risk from the sea. These distinctions are rough guides but could have been better aligned as they don't seem to match current thinking on what the "North" is, in historical or contemporary terms. They could have titled the episode "North and Midlands" and it may have felt a bit more appropriate, but you would still be missing large swathes of Midland area, which are included in the next episode and the last episode. Interestingly, the south is amalgamated into the east and west regions; perhaps this is a deliberate attempt to shake up perceptions of what is east, west and north in Britain? They don't reflect on why they did this but its a nice idea.

Perhaps a little harsh saying it merits "Terrible TV" but sections could be improved as outlined above, particularly with the interpretations, which haven't either been explained fully or just didn't get any decent theoretical treatment, or even simply not stating how the archaeologist knows that it is Neolithic pottery!!. As much as I want to see as many sites as possible in a program, because at the end of the day they are all quite interesting and merit further work, this program demonstrates the difficulties in this program's approach, rather than an in-depth "Time-Team" style approach which has one site dug up for an hour on TV (or maybe longer) and gives you an impressively detailed perspective of a very small area. Other shows seem to fit somewhere between the two on the spectrum.

With that min-rant over now I can enjoy my hiatus... pop over to for more information on my new joint project!

Sunday, 11 December 2016

A Christmas hiatus

I am taking time off from this blog for the foreseeable future, so I can focus on one of my childhood passions, Robot Wars. I will be making blog posts for team ARC as the team's driver. Follow my progress at With that, have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Heritage Theory and Practice Conference Summary, 5th November 2016

The Heritage Theory and Practice Conference was a one day event at Leeds City Hall, hosted by Leeds Beckett and Northumbria Universities. It focused on the practical applications of heritage theory (as the name suggests). I attended in my professional capacity; as a largely academic conference I hoped that there would be some commercial input, and that the practice element would contain elements that archaeologists and heritage practitioners at large could take away from the conference. As it was the first time this conference had been run, there was a wide variety of papers, focusing on a number of areas of theory and practices within the heritage sector.

Dr Bernadette Lynch provided the excellent keynote speech, reflecting on her time in Canadian institutions, opening her eyes to how different cultures perceive museum practices in positive and negative ways, but also how museums can be proactive in understanding different cultures. Sounds easy, but the reality of some of the issues museums face was demonstrated by her work as director of the Manchester Museum, where minority ethnic groups were openly invited to have their say on how museums work for them, which had some surprising results, particularly if you see museums as part of a "power-charged set of exchanges", which often manifest as political and social exchanges. She concluded that museums should be used as spaces for "friendly enemies", where you can have conflicting opinions and debate in a safe space, and criticising Scottish museums for not exploring Scottish-ness during the 2014 referendum.

The first session was titled Establishing Heritage, which had papers on the intangible heritage of women during the Upper Clyde Shipyards strikes in Glasgow (by Tara Beale), the Church Heritage Record (CHR) (by Rob Piggott), and the influence of heritage studies on designation practice for listed buildings and scheduled monuments (by Claire Price). This session was the one I was professionally most interested in as understanding the forces at work in defining our HERs allows you to think about what could be missed out- what about feminist heritage, for example? Often the HERs and the CHR (which both feeds into and uses the HERs but is used by the Church of England and the Church of Wales, some 16,000 entries to date) is biased towards the architectural records, rather the social significance of the entry; a hangover from when the first legislation for scheduled monuments was made in 1882 (The Ancient Monuments Act). There was also some discussion on to what extent the bureaucracy involved in church heritage records are dictated by the legality given to it by being a "servant of the state" (i.e. Historic England's position as a part of government).

The second session Participatory Approaches in Heritage Practice, with a presentation by the Bam! Sistahood project (by Rosie Lewis and project volunteers, The Angelou Centre), which looked at how a successful project focusing on ethnic minorities can be easily mishandled if it's done from a top-down approach. While museums can help with these projects, empowering minority communities by discovering their own heritage and presenting it in a unique manner that doesn't necessarily have to be recorded. The focus on training, sharing information and creating safe spaces for women have proved to be good ways of getting women from minority groups to come together and explore their own heritage in North East England. The other paper in this session was by Tara Beale on travelling show-people in Glasgow, and how their heritage has been preserved in a collaborative project with Glasgow museums, which also led to reinterpretation of a small number of the museums collections!

The third session, Rethinking Heritage, had a theory-heavy paper on the Museum as a deep map (by Adrian Evans). This explored architecture's relationship with landscape in the modern world (as a detached entity), and used this as an analogy with museum collections, with an implicit objectivity and variety of presentation and preservation techniques, including narrative. The most important aspect was how much you interpret an artefact- too much and you lose the mystery of the object. Too little and you risk  going into pataphysics and escapism (the science of imaginary solutions). The deep map allows a narrative to be built up as layers, thus you regain the identity of the object within it's locality. The other paper by Taras Nakonecznyj, focusing on his work with the Cockburn Association, Edinburgh's Civic Trust, and their attempts at promoting Edinburgh's architectural heritage to a wider audience using social media. With Edinburgh's cultural heritage being prioritised by the council, potentially threatening the historic aspect of Edinburgh and endangering it's World Heritage status, this could be an interesting case study for the rest of the UK.

The final session was Immersive heritage, which felt more like an outlet from the Annual Student Archaeology conference, with a mixed bag of quite fun and interesting papers, but with less of a critiquing theoretical focus. However, these works should be commended as they had no research frameworks to fall back on. There was a paper on ghosts by Alison Edwards, who argues that as a phenomena has been criticised too much for being a pseudo-science (with a top-down approach) and a number of valuable points can be taken away from her exercise (people who actively hunt ghosts themselves often do so as a reaction to feeling left out of mainstream heritage interpretations, much like minority ethnic groups) and the way ghost tours are marketed and organised could be used as a model for archaeology and heritage. However the statistical analysis of the tour was a little thin on the ground. Rhiannon Pickett presented her work in collaboration with the Nottingham County Gaol, where new research into the lives of the inmates and workers there allowed for an impressive overhaul of the interpretation of the museum, although there was conflict in what information should be on display to the public. The final talk of the day was given by Lisa Traynor, who looked at reconstructing the events of 28th June, 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed by a bullet. The question she sets out to answer is "Could the archduke have survived?" (with body armour available at the time). She isn't trying to re-imagine the historical events but to see if the silk body armour at the time could have stopped a bullet from the weapon it was fired from (at 2 metres). The results will be released on BBC 4 in January 2017.

Overall this conference (which was free to attend) provided a good platform for debating current heritage issues in the UK. It touched on a number of pressing concerns and I feel I can take away points that will feed into my own commercial projects. While it was overwhelmingly academic in outlook, there were commercial archaeologists who made the effort to go and make sure that our voices were heard, and that relations between University researchers and professionals are healthy.