Excavating the CA Archive: archaeology and the media part 1

12 mins read

Joe Flatman explores half a century of reports from the past.

A selection of articles mentioned by Joe Flatman in this month’s column below can be accessed for free for one month via Exact Editions, starting 3 May. Use the links within the text to jump to the individual articles, or click on the covers below. Print subscribers can add digital access to their account for just £12 a year – this includes everything from the last 50 years, right back to Issue 1! Call our dedicated subscriptions team on 020 8819 5580, quoting DIGI327, to add digital access to your account, or click here for more information.

Joe Flatman is Head of Listing Programmes at Historic England and the former County Archaeologist of Surrey. You can follow him on Twitter @joeflatman

When Current Archaeology launched in March 1967, the media was a very different thing from the panoply of options that we are used to nowadays. There was a narrow range of television and radio stations, alongside the major newspapers – and, of course, no internet. These were halcyon days, many might feel. Nevertheless, British archaeology had good media presence, as they say. Mortimer Wheeler had been voted TV Personality of the Year as long ago as 1954, an accolade that Glyn Daniel also later enjoyed: both won thanks to the success of the TV panel show Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? that they starred in between 1952 and 1959. Archaeology was a regular feature of many newspapers, with major sites and discoveries arousing extensive popular interest.

CA both contributed to and later benefited from popular interest in archaeology. Without some sense of the potential market for ‘popular’ archaeology news that was ready to be tapped, the Selkirks’ publishing venture might never have got off the ground. The first ever CA editorial sums this up: ‘Archaeology is a growing subject. Every year more and more people visit or take part in excavations, hear about archaeology on the television or radio, or try to find out more about their past, how we come to be what we are. And as this curiosity is growing, it is time there was an archaeological magazine for the general reader. For although there are many professional journals dealing with every period of time and every area of the country, there is no general magazine that gives an overall picture of what is happening in archaeology. Indeed, even full-time professional archaeologists are often overwhelmed by the sheer volume of specialist publications, so Current Archaeology hopes to provide a guide for everyone to just what is going on in archaeology.’ This month’s excavation of the magazine’s archive is the first instalment of my two-part exploration of CA’s relationship with the media over the years.

On the airwaves

The first media archaeology story that CA covered was in issue 6 (January 1968). It is worth quoting the report in full: ‘It is not often that we have the pleasure of watching television, but we did manage to get to see four of the five programmes of Groundlevel on BBC2. These were produced by the BBC’s educational department, as an introduction to archaeology, and consisted of three half-hour programmes broadcast every night, Monday to Friday, on the 8th to 12th January. The big surprise to me was the consummate performance of Peter Fowler who acted as “link-man” for the second and third programmes of the series. Dressed with his customary informality, he leant nonchalantly against a bench and chatted to us at our firesides as if to the manner born. I have no doubt we shall be seeing more of him on TV.’ Fowler is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Newcastle but he has had a long career in archaeology, including a stint as CBA President. CA 8 (May 1968) was the first issue to cover archaeology in local radio, with the regular appearance of news stories on BBC Radio Leicester by the local CBA Group. If anyone has any copies of either the TV or radio shows, or reminiscences of watching or working on them, do get in touch – the CA team would love to hear more of these early ventures in media archaeology.

CA 38 carried the story of the central Dover bypass, demonstrating the power of the media. (Photo: Brian Philp)

Across the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, updates on media archaeology crop up sporadically in the pages of CA. An interesting example comes in CA 38 (May 1973), showing the growing power of the media in the then lively world of ‘rescue’ archaeology, when the construction of the central Dover bypass led to many discoveries and losses. As CA reported at the time: ‘[they] began by putting up a notice on the bastion saying “Unique Roman Tower needlessly smashed by Steel Pipe, 8th September 1971”. Twenty minutes later a Southern Television team “happened” to go past. That evening the mayor of Dover heard about the bastion for the first time from the television news. The following morning there was an interesting confrontation in the Town Clerk’s office, as a result of which a new principle was established: “If the archaeologists say stop, you stop; we don’t want any more publicity like that.”’

Time Team triumphs

It was only in the 1990s that more regular reporting of the by then more regular appearance of archaeology in the media began to occur. A note in CA 137 (February/March 1994) sets the tone and the key determining factor of this rise in media reporting: ‘The Time Team: the latest attempt to provide a television programme for archaeology is called Time Team, which went out on Channel 4 on Sundays from 16 January. The programme is based around the ebullient character of Mick Aston who, despite his current eminence as Reader in Archaeology at Bristol University, has succeeded in maintaining more or less intact his splendid Birmingham accent, and he has assembled a team who flaunt their scruffiness like an emblem.’ So began a new age of TV archaeology for CA, as it did for us all, not least for the presenters themselves – especially Mick Aston, who became, and arguably remains, the most famous British archaeologist among the general public since Mortimer Wheeler. CA 141 (December 1994) reports on Time Team winning the first of many awards, in this case the best TV programme on archaeology at that year’s British Archaeological Awards. CA 143 (June 1995) shows how quickly Time Team drove the media archaeology agenda, reporting on a public archaeology session at that year’s Institute for Archaeologists conference with the Time Team producer Tim Taylor and some of the presenters in attendance to discuss the role of the media.

Led by Carenza Lewis, the ‘big dig’ project – first mentioned in CA 185 – prompted many letters.

CA 160 (November 1998) brought news of the era of TV archaeology ‘wars’ – especially of Channel 4’s Time Team versus the BBC’s Meet the Ancestors in the late 1990s and archaeology and – coincidence or not – the boom years for student recruitment to archaeology degrees. Both shows – and their stars – crop up repeatedly in the pages of CA in this period. CA 185 (April 2003) is worth revisiting in this light, as it contains the first mention of the contentious ‘big dig’ project led by Time Team’s Carenza Lewis. The project involved 1m × 1m sampling of hundreds of sites across the country, an approach that Lewis subsequently used to tremendous effect as part of her work at the University of Cambridge on medieval villages. CA 186 (June 2003) contains one of – I suspect – many letters received in criticism of the approach. CA 187 (August 2003) explored the matter in more detail in a dedicated column and on its letters pages. The letters kept coming in to CA for a good length of time after this, both in criticism and support of the big dig concept.

By the early 2000s, archaeology in general was enjoying what we now know to have been an exceptionally buoyant period in all regards, with record student recruitment, cross-sector jobs, and a media profile that was the envy of many other subjects. Alas, those days were not to last. In part two of this excavation of CA’s reporting on media archaeology, I move on into the 2000s proper, looking at – among other things – the highs of TV archaeology and the lows. If I whisper the word Bonekickers, some of you may feel a chill down your spines.

Discover old issues
Read articles discussed by Joe for free online via Exact Editions – you can find the links to the individual articles in the text above, or click here to see all issues of Current Archaeology. A selection of articles mentioned in this column will be available for one month, from 3 May.  Print subscribers can add digital access to the entire back catalogue of CA for just £12 a year – simply call us on 020 8819 5580 and quote ‘DIGI327’.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.