Thursday, 11 January 2018

A Hitchhiker's (brief) Guide to the Ontology of the Digitisation of Archaeology

The digital world is one of representation that relies on the abstract use of binary numbers over a computer-based network. We treat the digital as we treat the real world, i.e. in a largely visually dominated environment, so perhaps we can phrase the question as an off-shoot of what is really real and not just visually there. Yet archaeology is uniquely placed to utilise the digital; namely to reconstruct the past. So what is the ontological difference between an interaction with an archaeological object in real life and one based in the digital domain? Are we addressing these challenges in archaeology? By using a philosophical framework I will analyse this question through Jos De Mul's four characteristics of the digital world, and by relating it to archaeology through photogrammetric models and photography.

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Humans struggle to visualise the scale of the digital. To quote The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; “Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space”. Traditional analogies do not work for the digital realm for a variety of reasons; Jos De Mul proposes that a better analogy for cyberspace is space travel as they both contain spatial and temporal characteristics that we don't experience on Earth. For example, if we are recording this session, you could watch this session from another planet and this session could be listened to in the future. However, this argument falls down because you can use analogue technologies to do some of these tasks, e.g. analogue radio. It is also difficult to comprehend digital space - space is an abstract notion of nothingness but also it is situated within our reality. It is possible to travel through space, but you are still subject to physical laws. Nonetheless, outer space is so large and the amount of information we can store in the digital realm is so large that we can perhaps compare the two in this respect. An object that can contain infinite representations can be any size you like, and yet it can contain more numbers than you could possibly count, like a dice with a digital display capable of outputting any number you program it to, while an analogue dice is limited to the number of sides it has. Much like when staring up into the night sky; you can visualise the stars easily enough, but could you count every known star out there? The digital makes it possible.

Thus we should approach digital archaeology similarly, particularly online. Archaeologists have already highlighted the importance of the digital image and its contribution compared to an analogue method, showing how important the professional illustrator is to capturing the complexities of a site. However, many studies focus on just the visual critique of the digital, not the underlying ontology. To balance this critique I propose De Mul's analysis of the digital, which provides four main characteristics; Multimediality, Interactivity, Virtuality and Connectivity.
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Multimediality is the combination of words, sounds and (moving) images. Digital information is in its simplest form a binary code. The digital media can then be transported and replicated easily, which puts objects out of their original context. Everything on this screen can be translated into 8 binary numbers, which could then be coded into 256 different linguistic signs, which can then be used in any program which can read a binary code. How well it will work in subsequent programs is a different matter. Aden Evens sees multimediality as an abstraction as well as a manipulation; by capturing information in binary form you are also divorcing the processes of the digital from the temporal and spatial particularities of our reality. In fact, Evens goes so far as to say that it is THE defining feature of the digital as all digital information is superseded by and becomes either 1 or 0; everything or nothing.

Multimediality’s most common function is manipulation, which isn’t a purely digital characteristic. To illustrate my point, one of these images is the raw image, and the other was used in the first Picture Post Magazine in October 1938. Which of these images has been edited for publication? The raw image (on the left) has been “airbrushed” to spare the dignity of the young woman; an early example of an Photoshopped image! However, analogue technology cannot combine visual senses with audio and other senses without resorting to different media sources. The binary code makes the digital different; it allows all of the senses to be used in the same representational platform. In this respect multimediality creates an easier interface between digital computers and humans. I will come back to this point later.

The Picture Post image also demonstrates the media also becomes unstable as they are in flux. The analogue and digital photographs may look the same but they are not structurally identical, as photogrammetry encompasses both traditional photographic methods and digital imaging; yet these media are technologically and fundamentally different. This leads to a common criticism of digital archaeology; de-contextualisation. This is a serious ethical issue that concerns the ontology of the dataset. Multimediality allows us, or a computer, to “Photoshop” an image without us noticing the difference.

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The second of De Mul's characteristics, Interactivity, focuses on the way in which the user navigates through the digital. If humans will interact with computers in new ways, then we should investigate how this might be an ontological issue. In this case, interactivity is best described by hypertext; a non-linear network of fragments through which the user can navigate. Unlike a book, where the author has put the words in a set order, you can intervene on a web page or digital medium, such as a computer game. A book in the digital requires no page number; you may navigate them as you please. Evens argues that this is a significant break from analogue media, as page numbers are considered secondary to the text in the book itself. The referents are the text themselves. In a computer game you can determine the actions and outcomes of the game much more so than a book; the player is free to determine the objective of the game. You are free to set the rules of what you are looking for in, say, a photogrammetric model, becoming your own author and creating an unique experience that may be shared with others. It is also possible to do this with board games too; as long as you are create your own rules. What this also shows is that the viewer in a sense becomes an “author” of the work. The original author becomes a creator of narrative spaces that allow multilinear paths to be taken.

Other definitions of interactivity only occur when the audience actively participates in the control of an artwork or representation. Such an example is crowd-sourcing; a photogrammetric model can have multiple contributions of photographs from a variety of users who are contributing to the final product. We see such active examples in Google Earth where models of existing structures have been crowd-sourced, but there is no rigourous way of checking whether a photograph is acceptable or assessing this data against the objectives of a grander strategy. Conceptual models are also used to fill in gaps in the model, which are entirely created in the digital medium, which are true proxies of our reality as there is no true basis in reality for them.
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Now we must move on to virtuality. Here it is concerned with, to quote Heim, “an event or entity that is real in effect but not in fact”. In computer sciences reality and Virtuality are considered part of the same continuum. A virtual world is a simulation of a world which is not real in a physical sense but its effects come across as real; think of nausea from flight simulators, or the stories of PTSD effects from drone pilots in an army. Virtual reality takes multimediality one step further by becoming the interface that humans can use to access the digital. However, the consequences for archaeology are far-ranging. Western philosophy has traditionally made an hierarchical opposition between being and illusion, but the digital subverts this opposition. The digital image is created from its representation, which is then used to judge reality, creating a positive feedback cycle where the representation can gain more credence than the original it was based on. We may fall into this trap if we overly rely on the virtual.

What about virtual entities? Jeff Buechner argues that if we see reality as a purely phenomenological experience then augmented reality is any change in the totality of our sensory and cognitive experience that is produced by some form of technology, via addition, manipulation or deletion, thus augmenting reality, like wearing rose-tinted spectacles. This definition excludes hallucinations or illusions, of what is created by the mind but is not real. If virtual entities are modelled on people or objects, what happens is that you question whether the virtual entity is a different entity from the thing it is modelled on, or whether there is only one entity. If we believe the latter statement (there is one entity) then you accept that a recording of said entity is the actual entity, and the actions of the virtual entity are also the actions of the real entity, contradicting the idea that Augmented Reality is not reality but a change to the totality. If you believe the former statement (there are two distinct entities) then you encounter issues of what is natural; our reality or the virtual entity, especially if the latter does actions that may be considered “unnatural” to the former. For archaeology, it is particularly problematic as it is impossible to psychoanalyse the dead; how can you say the real person would have or not have done that action in the past when you have never observed them doing those actions yourself? There are no principles in defining what is considered more ontologically “natural”. This argument creates a form of scepticism which ultimately questions the basis of reality itself; something that Buechner ultimately denies as the image is simply a pictorial representation of an entity. Note however the creation of multiple identities in the digital realm (just look at how many overlapping or contradictory social media profiles you may have), so individuals may not necessarily see your actions in reality in the same way they do with your online presence, even if your actions in reality and the virtual are identical.
What about printing your digital model? A 3D printed model is based on the numerical representation of the object in a virtual environment, which is then converted into a model through a separate process. At what point can you accept the model as a true representation of an object or site? By creating a model you are creating an unique creation. In a certain sense every “copy” is an “original”. Therefore copies are not truly representative of the original work. But what does this mean for the biography of the original as well? Moreover, digital models are often made separate from their spatial and temporal environments, which are often full of human detritus, which may aid our interpretations of the site. This is not to devalue copies, as they can still enhance our understanding of archaeology. Nonetheless in the digital the manipulation of the image has taken precedence over the exhibition value or cultural value of an object, which are both central to how we display and interpret archaeology.

What about the consequences of all this digital data? If our aim is to record the world as it is, then we may reflect on Cripps's statement that “information that goes into databases is far too perfect and too often a perfect view of the world”. This is interpreted as our methodologies of data collection are flawed by being too representative; we are seeing what we want to see. This is difficult to quantify as we extrapolate from an incomplete datasets and this is difficult to scientifically test without having the whole dataset to work with; in archaeology this data is often destroyed before it can be recorded- a catch 22. However, by using the digital realm to record our world we are creating a new world, not just a copy. This is reflected somewhat in the modern/postmodern dialectic of the mimesis/poiesis; i.e. the idea of recreating an object against the idea of creating new ones. The computer is traditionally seen as a modernist ideal; Nelson Goodman argued that an analogue object is impossible to differentiate in a finite manner; it can only be absolute in a continuum, like a thermometer. A digital computer's strengths lie in giving definitive readings and repeatability. Can scientific methods, such as photogrammetry, be used to create new worlds, rather than just recording them? Archaeology's raison d'etre is being a steward of the past, which seems a modernist ideal. However, interpretations from archaeological features are often multilinear, even though we are only trying to record our supposedly unilinear world! This multilinearity is arguably a form of poesis. So not only is the digital realm giving us the space to record our world, but that this “recorded world” is a new world altogether.
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The final characteristic, Connectivity, links everything we do within in the digital realm through the medium of the internet. This brief synopsis will highlight some further considerations. As mentioned before digital models are de-contextualised; with connectivity a scenario may arise when a group of schoolchildren are given a tour of a virtual excavation with inhumations in their classroom. Without proper supervision, education or advice from an informed person, the children could start reciting Hamlet with the skulls. Does it matter whether you use an unique model or a copy of the original? Should the digital models be given as much respect as analogue ones? What about virtually teleporting oneself into an archaeological site? Even if you were fully immersed in a simulator, your body is still not on the site, but you may feel the effects as if you were there. Furthermore, this positionality may allow the mind to occupy multiple bodies at once; excavating multiple sites, attending multiple conferences at the same time. A flight simulator isn't real, but the effects of it are. Could our minds cope with multiple spaces? Even today some of these scenarios are possible!
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To conclude, is there an ontological difference between analogue and digital models? With apologies to Douglas Adams, The digital space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way to the computer but that's peanuts to digital space. The abstract is made possible and apparent. The digital doesn't work to our laws, and should be treated as such. All information is either everything or not-(everyt)hing. Although the digital is pure representation, the characteristics of multimediality decontextualise everything you record; interactivity makes the participant more of an author of the work. Using nothing more than human interaction the representation of reality becomes the yardstick we use to judge reality itself, creating a positive feedback cycle. It becomes difficult to believe historical characters in a virtual reality simulator. You can break out of your human limitations and experience the world in a trans-geographical and trans-historical arena that surpasses anything possible in the real world, although its effects are apparent. Perhaps the most devastating outcome of this question is whether we are actually using the digital to record the past, or, in using multiple interpretations of archaeology as an analogy, we are creating new worlds altogether that seek to enhance the human experience through the digital medium. This dichotomy of recreation versus creation is perhaps the question that will define digital archaeology in years to come. It all feels real, but that should not distract from the abstract nature of the digital.

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!