Interview: Alice in Archaeologyland

9 mins read

Alice Roberts, one of the most popular presenters of archaeology on TV, discusses the bare bones of her new series with CA Editor Lisa Westcott.

How did you get involved in TV archaeology?

I started out in medicine and was a junior doctor in south Wales. But I wanted to indulge my interest in anatomy so I got a job as a demonstrator, teaching anatomy to medical students in Bristol. I enjoyed teaching but also got interested in research.

Three people there particularly influenced me: I met Jonathan Musgrave, a forensic anthropologist (who would later supervise my PhD), and through him, I met Kate Robson-Brown, a palaeoanthropologist, and Juliet Rogers, a medically-trained paleopathologist, who inspired me to take up research — looking for disease in ancient human remains. The funny thing is, when I was 8 years old, my parents took me to the Bristol Museum to see a mummy being unwrapped and I remember thinking how  fascinating it was. Years later, I discovered that Juliet and Jonathan were two of the people who had done the unwrapping!

I started to write bone reports for archaeologists, doing post-excavation analysis of human bones from various digs; this work as a bone expert got me involved with Time Team, doing some of their bone reports. Then, in 2001, I went along on a shoot as an expert contributor and one thing just lead to another — Extreme Archaeology, Coast, Don’t Die Young, The Incredible Human Journey, and now Digging for Britain.

Is Digging for Britain different to Time Team?

It’s an entirely new format, and very different to any archaeology that’s been on TV before. We set off along the length and breadth of Britain to see archaeology that is already happening. These aren’t sites selected for their potential, but sites that have already turned up fascinating evidence. We’ve visited everything from university research digs to massive commercial archaeology sites, to unique finds made by the general public. The programmes focus on the very latest discoveries and conundrums, and we’re hearing about it from the archaeologists on site. It’s their lives, their work — we don’t do the digging — and that expertise and enthusiasm definitely comes across in the programmes.

I also think Digging for Britain shows archaeology in its proper time frame. Discoveries can appear quite suddenly, but the painstaking work takes place over weeks, months — even years. And that work includes so much pre-planning and post-excavation analysis — as well as the actual excavation itself.

That’s a lot of ground to cover…

Alice with Dave Crisp who discovered the Frome Hoard

Well, we have four programmes covering four chunks of Britain’s history: Prehistory, Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Tudor. I think the chronological approach makes a lot of sense and is really the only logical way to approach it. We’re not trying to tell a comprehensive history of Britain, but rather highlight how archaeological insights help us understand that history, and shake up accepted knowledge. It’s about the dynamics of the subject and how archaeological discoveries are made, rather than a history lesson.

One of the main things we show is the interpretation that emerges during post-excavation work; and in this, the programme is again very different to Time Team because there is a lot of focus on post-excavation. Obviously Time Team produces post-excavation reports but it’s not usually part of their programmes, which focus on the 3-day digs. We were at largescale and long-term excavations when they were happening, as well as when results were coming from analysis. In fact, there was one site — the East Kent Access Road — where the analysis was happening alongside the dig. Two professional archaeological units — Oxford and Wessex — have joined forces to take on this challenge. It’s an absolutely massive dig, the biggest in Britain this year, and they’ve turned up archaeology from the Stone Age right through to WWII. Digitised plans and sections get updated on a daily basis, and there are specialists on site every week, looking at the finds. I was really fascinated to see the degree of interpretation that is happening whilst they are digging, and this is then informing how they proceed with the dig. It feels very cutting edge — maybe this is how all archaeology will be done in 10 years: Oxford and Wessex are certainly setting the standards for archaeology in the future.

Why should people tune in and watch?

I think that will be different for everyone. I know some people will be most interested in the stories that have been headline news, such as the Frome Hoard, the Hambleden infant burials, and the Westray figurine. At the other end of the spectrum, however, we’ve got some amazing material on the day-to-day lives of people for whom there are no historical records. For example, we look at Neolithic farmers struggling to live on infertile land, using manure to try to fertilise the soil. We also have evidence for the abandonment of this site, as well as for some startling new clues about their beliefs and rituals — there’s an incredible house on Westray in Orkney with cow skulls built into the walls.

What are some of the most memorable highlights from the Digging for Britain?

It has to be the new discoveries made by the team from the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain Project (AHOB) at Happisburg, in Norfolk, which have just been published in Nature. It pushes back the date for the first occupation of Britain to between 800,000 and a million years ago, which is the earliest date for human occupation anywhere in northern Europe.

Whilst I was talking to Chris Stringer and Nick Ashton of AHOB, I could just feel how excited they were, because really this is about much more than just the dates. It’s not only pushing back the envelope of when the first human arrived, but also placing it in a time when the climate would have been much colder. Chris thinks it’s likely that the species that was here was Homo antecessor — which we know was in Europe, in the region of Spain, at this time. The climate here 800,000 years ago would have been similar to that of Norway today— so, if Homo antecessor was here in a cold climate, then they must have had means to keep warm, either through clothing or fire, or both. This means we must now re-evaluate the capabilities of these early species.

So, was this a learning experience for you?

Absolutely. As an academic, I find all these programmes quite enriching. It’s a privileged position to be in.

If you could go back in time, when and where would you go?

Well, so long as it’s only for a visit, I would say the Early Palaeolithic in Britain, during the time and in the region of the culture that the Red Lady of Paviland came from. I’m from the Bristol area and I would love to see how things were when the Severn was just a trickle in the middle of a vast floodplain.

Digging for Britain first aired  on BBC Two in August 2010.