Thursday, 19 December 2013

Terrible TV Review: Battlefield Britain

I normally don't do reviews, but this really got my blood boiling! "Battlefield Britain", hosted by father-son duo Peter and Dan Snow back in 2004, looked at the most famous battles in British history; Boudica v the Romans, the battle of Hastings, the Spanish Armarda, and so on, using a mixture of top-down and bottom-up explanations, with some reconstructions, using actors, physical scenarios and virtual reality. So this actually sounds very normal for a history program with some archaeology thrown in, trying to experiment with new technology and actively trying to reconstruct what it would have felt like to be in a battle, to make it more appealing to the public; currently it is being shown after midnight on BBC 4. But I'm going to explain why this is a terrible advertisment for both history and archaeology, and I fear that it has set a precedent for more TV shows that ignore the facts and just want ratings.

And this was meant to be high-tech stuff back in 2004! (image from wikipedia)

So to begin with I watched the first 2 epiodes and got so angry with the way that they treated the history and archaeology with such contempt that I point blank refuse to watch another episode. Why? Well, the main issue I had was their contempt for presenting a very narrow and very strict version of history that didn't use very much evidence at all. If this was a scientific experiment, they would be laughed out the lab. Seriously, I've seen children's history books with more factual content.

Take the first episode. Boudica was the queen of the Iceni, but on her husband's death, the Romans defied the will he made up and took the whole of her lands, rather than just half. That they got right. What they didn't get right was everything else! They presented a horrible view that the Romans simply conquered every tribe in Britain as soon as they touched down on our Isle. In fact, the Romans went about conquering Britain much more subtly, by negotiating treaties with various tribes, like the Dobunni, who in exchange for their continued security, would pay taxes and allow the Romans to trade with them in their towns, even helping to build these new towns for the tribes. This is information that was even back then not particularly difficult to come by; any archaeologist working on any roman site would be able to tell you what I've just said, and more! Furthermore, the only archaeology we saw was the remains of the temple in Colchester, which "withstood the fighting of the Iceni" by holding out for 2 days. Any look at a Time Team episode (admittedly biased) will show you that the Iron Age is full of archaeology, which can tell use so much more about their lives than the fighting we see on this program (also see my excavation on an Iron Age site here). This was relying purely on the evidence of Tacitus, and not on any site reports that are available, which is a crying shame because there are bound to be site reports for archaeological excavations on all the sites that were mentioned in the program.. Boudica, admittedly some new evidence concerning the location of her last battle, but they neglected to mention the other alternatives (except for Mancetter). New research that wasn't available to them at the time suggests that the battle took place near Church Stowe in Northamptonshire (John Pegg 2010).

Then we come to the second episode (the Battle of Hastings), which was probably written on the back of a coaster in a pub. They neglected to mention the following things (that are rather important to the Battle of Hastings and it's context): the Bayeux tapestry, Harald Hadrada as King of the Norwegian Vikings and his claim to the throne, the story of how Edward the Confessor promised his throne to William. In their defence, the presentation of the fights themselves was well done; fast paced, and somewhere there was a narrative. They did also mention other important facts, like the Italian mercenaries, how it was a battle for god and not just William, how the Vikings were defeated at Stamford Bridge; but a lot of this is mentioned in the tapestry at one point or another.Furthermore, there was no explanation for the Vikings attacking England, except for "pillaging". This is the same army sent by Harald Hadrada; no king with a claim to a throne would send troops to an enemy country with no instructions except to pillage, as was very much implied by the program.
 Yes, the reconstructions of being charge by a horse was a useful exercise in showing the power of mounted knights, but by this point in the program the context of the story had been so muddled up with a lack of information I felt at a loss. A battle without it's own story is just an exercise in meat-grinding.

You can argue against my critique that history is subject to changes in opinion, but we knew even back then, only 9 years ago, that the Romans were not so stupid as to charge head-first into an unknown and hostile land without first making some friends. Neglection of even mentioning the Tapestry is a major flaw in the argument of this episode, especially when they are in France for part of the show. Surely they could have got access to it? Seriously, Dan Snow is now the President of the Council for British Archaeology (although his background is history and not archaeology). He needs to button up and do some reading. Or some excavating. He is a historian first and it shows. Not a very good one, on this evidence. Not one excavtion was shown in these episodes, and I suspect this is the case for all the remainder. Having said that, I will agree with Dan that his dad does explain some rather complicated bits of history quite well, befitting of a man who has worked on the TV for so long.

The main selling point of the program is Peter Snow's "briefcase", which, when opened up, displays a battlefield from a particular time and place. Using virtual reconstructions of men, their weapons and the environment, it presents the fighting almost as it was. There is very little wrong with the reconstructions themselves, but I will come back to the problems of reconstructions in a moment. Meanwhile, they also use a mixture of "interviews" with actors being soldiers or civillians from the time period in questions, which again in itself is not a bad idea. Furthermore, they re-enact some aspects of warfare for themselves; I did like the use of the police as a makeshift "shield wall" and contrasting the two techniques, although the police-woman showed up the Snows in their knowledge of what a good shield wall should do, but then that is a new interpretation in itself, and that is actually good for public viewing, giving a new insight into the mind of those who are on the front line today. But not in the past, it should be said. But this is a minor qualm when you're broadcasting information to the public.

If this program was given any more screen time than it has already been given, I would be extremely concerned. This is a very lop-sided version of histroy that simply ignores unacceptably large amount of evidence. Yes, we've all heard about the Bayeux tapestry for the hundredth time, but there's a good reason why you've heard about it; it is one of the most important pieces of evidence we have surrounding the account of the battle of Hastings, and it provides more than one side of the story, even if it is written by the victor. A lop-sided and deliberately incomplete account of history is a far more dangerous thing than a simply lop-sided one. Many of the tyrants of history knew that eliminating the traces of your vanquished foes made your position all the more secure; to quote Hitler "Who remembers now the destruction of the Armenians?", a rhetoric reference to the Armenian Genocide, which was carried out during World War 1, and seemingly forgotten about during the inter-war period, possibly helping to justify Hitler's extermination of the Jews and other races during the Second Word War.

Now for the reconstructions. I could be here all day, but I will keep it short. You can reconstruct anything from the past, but if you do not explain how it was reconstructed, what sources you used, and what could be an alternative presentation of the facts, then you risk alienating experts, you risk presenting a falsified version of events, and then accidentally (or intentaionally) lying to the public. Given that we pay the licence fee, the BBC needs to think carefully over what it is spending it's money on. Those virtual reconstructions are based on some historical and archaeological evidence, but also ethnogrpahic evidence (the actors, reconstructing fighting techniques and so on), but there is no mention of where the environmental sources! If you look out over a bit of green space, how long ago do you think it was before it was cleared of trees and undergrowth? We don't know the answer to that question unless we count rings on trees and count pollen from coring samples. This links back to the "written on a coaster in a pub" statement above; it feels very rushed, without consulting all the evidence (again, becoming a bit of a theme here). My point here is that no reconstruction is ever going to be perfect, no matter how "realistic" it looks. It can be an accurate and precise reconstruction, but it can never be a "true" reconstruction, because of the nature of the evidence. You will note that this caveat is never mentioned in any program that features reconstructions, not even in Time Team!

On to the BBC itself. While the nature of historical programs has got better in using more recent historical and archaeological evidence, if they are replaying Battlefield Britain as a genuine alternative, then it contradicts the BBC's efforts to present a solid argument for presenting history and archaeology on the TV. But that can't be right; it is relegated to the midnight slot! But having said that, given that the BBC are re-running it, shows that the producers care little for the critical review of the content of the program, and simply the ratings that big names can pull.

If I was in charge of this program, I would make a lot more of the historical and archaeological evidence actually mentioned on the program, and I would have used more experts from various institutions as well, while cutting down on the actors, although not getting rid of them (they were overused a bit). If I was in charge of the BBC, I wouldn't have this program shown at all. Instead, I would recommision it, maybe with Dan and Peter Snow, because I am sure that they not entirely to blame, and we all learn from our mistakes. Besides, they are not the main fault of the program; if arcaheologists were on the program I would still slate it for the lack of factual accuracy. If archaeology is not on the TV being broadcast and reminding the public about it's importance to telling us about understanding the past, then we will lose it! 

Rant over, please leave any comments below!


Bardakjian, Kevork, 1985, Hitler and the Armenian Genocide,, Cambrdige, Massachusetts, Zoryan Institute.

Pegg, J., 2010, Landscape Analysis and Appraisal: Church Stowe, Northamptonshire as a Candidate for the Battle of Watling Street, craft:pegg, London

Image one: Author unknown, last accessed 19/12/2013, Battlefield Britain,, last updated 15th December 2013.


Sunday, 8 December 2013

Archaeology in the Public Eye: Ooo shiny...

I noticed a while ago an article on the BBC about the "hairdo archaeologist" (see here). Why has this woman's fascination with hair led to a media sensation, and why don't other archaeological news stories across the world, which are more impressive and arguably more important (see here for dolphins discovering a 19th century torpedo in the USA!), get more attention? In a more recent set of articles from the same University, emphsising my point, a set of 18 skeletons were found next to Durham Cathedral (see here), while a relatively unoticed excavation in Asia by the same University will redate the birth of one of the world's most important religions (see here). Which of these stories did you hear about?

In my perfect world, everyone would be fascinated with the periods just before and after the Romans (particularly in Britain), or anywhere around the world that looks at the cultures that existed just before writing occurred, and then push back the boundaries of our knowledge further. Maybe I grew playing too many games in the Total War series, where grand armies could sail from Norway (or France in Rome: Total War) and conquer large parts of Britain to my (their?) hearts content, distorting my interests in historical periods. In one sense though, this is virtual archaeology- the games themselves provide a small, yet interesting amount of history (rarely archaeology though) as to how certain weapons were made, and how and why some buildings were built, and some historical battles. Of course in the grand scheme of things, this comes across as a minor point when you are beheading virtual foes with your mighty huscarl regiment. There is also the small issue of the Total War series not explicitly telling us where they got this information from!

My point is Archaeology is everywhere, usually you just don't recognise it! See that field over there outside your window? If it has small earth mounds that run across the length of the field in a linear fashion, chances are that it is medieval ridge and furrow. If you see a pond surrounded by trees, or respected by hedgerows, the chances are again that it has a longer history than you think, and may have provided fish for a local lord or monastery back in the day. If you live by the seaside, you will usually spot some pre/historic feature that indicates the area's function, no matter how small it may be. However, most of the time, because you aren't told about these things, then you won't recognise this "heritage".

Do some research into your local library; look at old tithe maps, parish maps, local landowners, and any previous historical or archaeological investigations, and prove me wrong. Shiny things, such as gold torcs or Roman coins, in contrast, provide a different side of the story, usually reflect elites, and other important individuals in society. Metal hoards may reflect multiple people, or the collective efforts of multiple people for one person. Objects in a hoard often belong to the same culture. Because they are often well made and haven't rusted too much, they often lend themselves to presentation in a display cabinet. It is also easier to illustrate the individual with this shiny object rather than with the landscape, like the field I mentioned above. "This coin was produced by the Romans during the rule of Emperor Severus" conjures a more vivid image than "This field would have produced crops in a 4-field system, an idea taken from Dutch farmers, that would have kept the local area well fed...", for example. The individual is easier to illustrate than an entire community.

This brings me to the hairdo archaeologist and the dolphins. While she has no shiny objects, her knowledge is like a shiny object- it glitters in the light of the media, and it provides a unique perspective on individuals back in the classical period. It can also be put in a display cabinet and be taken to various places. In contrast, the dolphins, while displaying a frankly astounding level of intelligence to find a 19th century torpedo, will probably not get the same coverage. Why? Does the BBC's North America editor have a hair fetish? Surely with military considerations on the top of the list at the moment with the unrest in Syria and terrorist attacks around the world, surely being able to use animals to find bombs is going to have more value in society? A simpler explanation is more likely to be the uniqueness of the woman's discovery. Even though it addresses individuals specifically, these hair styles were being used all across the Roman and Greek empires. 

The bomb in contrast is much more difficult to relate to an individual, despite it's relevance to modern day scenarios. Perhaps the US military has kept records of the suppliers of military hardware from the 19th century, but less work has gone into identifying individuals, nor are dolphins good at talking in English. With a relatable modern day person to relate the skills to as well, it can be argued that these skills can now be replicated, preserving this knowledge. I haven't even mentioned King Richard III, who has captivated the imagination of huge numbers of people, who have now visited his skeleton. I would like to contrast this with the very few people who visited the site of the Bosworth battlefield, where he died. Leicester University are missing a trick here! This landscape, as bloody as it is, represents an excellent opportunity to illustrate a landscape with famous individuals, especially since we know the story of Richard III; where he stayed the night before, where he died, where he was buried and so on. These could all be linked into a "heritage trail", and tied into the major exhibition that occurred a while back. 

Ultimately though, going back to my main theme, it is, or course, how the news articles get media attention that often dictate how much of the public see these archaeology stories. A lot of the news stories I see on my internet feeds are archaeology, because I signed up for groups, newsletters etc. about them. Alas, these are often specialist groups, and not to everyone's taste. But that's not all; news reporters are human; they too only have 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to get the news to write into their papers etc. Their biases will be distorted towards their personal likes, political agendas, and how good their sources are at following up major discoveries/events. So a number of things stop a good news story from getting into print. Also luck.

So the public like individuals. They also however like objects which display great organisation, such as Stonehenge, Hadrians Wall, or natural wonders like Ayers Rock, or, before 2001, the Bamiyan statues of Afghanistan ( These often involve entire communities, usually multiple communities, and over time, multiple cultures, like today's landscape of the Baniyam valley, with a mixture of Buddha statues (now destroyed) and Muslim buildings. Who made these decisions to build these monuments? Would this tell us any more about the cultures? The contrast between the monuments I have just described and the ridge and furrow I have described above are huge, but mainly that it is likely that your local field is not protected by international law from development. What I am saying is that any landscape can provide a new perspective on your local, or in some cases, national history/heritage.

The Bamiyan statues destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 for representing a different religion. Considered to be one of the Asian wonders of the world for their sheer size and skill of the craftsmen (the holes are c.60 and 35m high respectively, which held massive statues!) The buildings are Islamic in origin.

I believe that the public can't take too much information in about the past, which limits the detail somewhat. Individuals are easier to remember than landscapes, but that doesn't mean archaeologists and heritage specialists should stop trying. Indeed, in the last 60 years or so, landscape studies in archaeology and history have become considerably more popular. Populating this landscape is one way to bring the archaeology to life. However, this article is far too short to cover all of the aspects of the "individual" against "the landscape", and in academia, we tend to make the distinction between sites (arbitrary areas of archaeological activity) and landscapes (vast sweeping areas with varying degrees of archaeological activity), which until recently, was uncritically accepted.

So my recommendations for the public? Embrace the landscape, but don't forget the individuals who lived there! As you can imagine, this is much easier to do for any period that contains writing, and this is the challenge I accept; to populate the landscape as far back as I can go. Knowledge can be your shiny object, illuminating the lives of those before and around you.

Please leave any comments below and I will endeavour to respond!

P.S. I admit that the sources I chose here are biased; the two more "obscure" ones come from specialist archaeology sources, and the other two come from a mainstream news site! But it still serves to prove my point.


BBC, last accessed 08/12/2013, "Hairdo Archaeologist" Solves Ancient Fashion Mystery,, Last updated 26/05/2013

Archaeological Institute of America, last accessed 08/12/2013,Dolphins Discover Ancient Armament, http:// last accessed 08/12/2013,, last updated 21/05/2013

BBC, last accessed 08/12/2013, Remains of 18 People Found on Dig Medieval Dig in Durham,, last updated 30/11/2013

Durham University, last accessed 08/12/2013, Archaeological discoveries confirm early date of Buddha’s life,, last updated 5/11/2013