Excavating the CA Archive: archaeology and the media part 2

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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 1 June. 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 DIGI328, 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

In the first part of this excavation of CA’s reports on media archaeology (CA 327), I tracked the early days of TV archaeology and the extraordinary impact that Time Team had when it first appeared on our screens early in 1994. For the second part, I turn to the media across the 2000s, before and after the global economic crash, which had a serious impact on both archaeology and TV finances. In both cases, the consequences are still being worked through.

Back in the summer of 2004, CA covered the arrival of a new TV archaeology offering: Extreme Archaeology. CA 192 (June 2004) introduced the concept and CA 193 (August/September 2004) dealt with what the magazine termed ‘the aftermath’ of a show that, with the benefit of hindsight, had good intentions but was less surefooted about what sexing up our discipline would mean in reality. As CA 192 explained, ‘the new series puts the “extreme” into “archaeology” by dealing with physically tough sites around Britain – the fact that many of the sites chosen in this eight-part series are under threat of demolition, from the elements or from the ravages of time, provides an added element of intensity’. The letters pages in CA 193 offered many strong opinions on the show: that from reader Jonathan Ray (politely) sums up what seems to be the view of most CA readers: ‘while the programming concept is fine and the archaeology worthy, the delivery is hammy and the approach to the access difficulties overblown’. It is, however, worth remembering that Extreme Archaeology was the first time that most of us heard of Alice Roberts, who has since gone on to great things in media archaeology. In fact, she has arguably assumed Mick Aston’s mantle and become the TV archaeologist of the current era.

In 2003, Extreme Archaeology hit our screens. CA previewed the show in issue 192.
TV personalities

Talking of Mick Aston, CA 200 (November/December 2005) took the opportunity to interview him as part of their celebrations of reaching that milestone issue. Mick discussed Time Team’s impact on archaeology and on him personally, in an extensive section that I would urge all readers to revisit. Mick’s humanity shines through here, as it did in his TV appearances, and the interview is a reminder of how much we as a community owe him.

CA’s media pages remain a consistent but quiet feature in the early 2000s – until, that is, CA 222 (September 2008), when the word Bonekickers pops up. For those of us who remember (or who have tried to forget), this was a short-lived slice of ‘archaeology’ (I use heavily inverted commas here) fiction over which CA pulled no punches – nor did virtually every other critic. Suffice it to say, the letters came thick and fast in CA 223 and subsequent editions. Reader Val Bannister put it neatly in ‘It’s a load of rubbish, but what a giggle!’.

CA 237 (December 2009) provided a very different perspective on media archaeology, with an in-depth exploration of the Cambridge University ‘Personal Histories in Archaeology’ project and the role of David Attenborough in helping forge a path for TV archaeology both through his later appearances as a masterful scientific populariser and through his early days at the BBC, especially as Assistant Producer on the show Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, mentioned in last month’s delve into the archive. (To read more about the ‘Personal Histories’ project, visit www.arch.cam.ac.uk/personal-histories.)

Alice Roberts reappeared in CA 246 (September 2010), this time at the helm of what rightly became a phenomenal success for TV, archaeology, and Alice personally: Digging for Britain. A new approach to televising archaeology helped this show become the archaeology TV programme of the period, particularly with Time Team at that time in abeyance due to internal politics at Chanel 4 (on which there’s more below). Shortly after, CA 248 (November 2010) saw Digging for Britain given a detailed review by a longstanding member of the Time Team crew, Raksha Dave.

Continuing on the theme of Time Team, CA 252 (March 2011) celebrated a serious milestone for British archaeology in general, TV or otherwise: Time Team’s 200th episode. Like it, loathe it, or merely be indifferent to it (many archaeologists always were), 200 episodes of any TV show is an extraordinary achievement, especially so for a show with a relatively high cost-to-audience ratio. Elsewhere in CA 252, Andrew Selkirk took the opportunity to add his own – reliably forthright – reminiscences of the show’s birth and impact on archaeology.

CA celebrated its 200th issue by interviewing Time Team‘s Mick Aston.

Another past issue likely to appeal to fans of Time Team and its lead archaeologist, Mick Aston, is CA 271 (October 2012). This carries an in-depth interview with Mick in what was an eventful year: he resigned from Time Team after disputes about a new format, and received a lifetime achievement award at the British Archaeology Awards for his contributions to the discipline. In the interview, Mick is candid in the extreme about his perspectives on both the show and his wider career as an archaeologist. It is a bittersweet read, passionate and pessimistic in equal measure. CA 274 (January 2013) perhaps explains some of Mick’s pessimism at that time, reporting on the cancellation of the show in late 2012 after 20 seasons and 230 episodes. Sadly, worse news was to follow not long afterwards: CA 282 (September 2013) contains a long tribute to Mick Aston after his death at the age of 66 in June 2013.

Modern media

What of media archaeology in the last few years? The cancellation of Time Team and the passing of Mick Aston marked the end of the longest continuous run of TV archaeology, but not the end of media archaeology in or out of the pages of CA. The medium has evolved – winds of austerity have hit everywhere, including TV-land, so budgets are not what they used to be – but so have both the consumers of media and the formats it takes. The rise of social media, the growing consumption of media (especially video) online, and other social and technological changes have all had an impact on our world. CA 302 (May 2015) reflects this change, looking at the crowdfunding work of DigVentures (a team partly comprising former CA and Time Team employees), who have been particularly good at tapping into new approaches and changing types of engagement. The future of media archaeology may well lie in such approaches, where the archaeologists have more control, even if they cannot call on the bigger budgets of traditional TV programming.

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 31 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 ‘DIGI328’.

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