Right, Bonekickers is a new BBC drama series dealing with the exploits of a group of archaeologists based in the west of England. When I learned that it was being made by the people who were responsible for Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes, my expectations shot into the stratosphere for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who’s been fortunate enough to see either of these truly superlative series. Suffice it to say that the first episode, at least, was deeply disappointing, and it provoked a large and impassioned response on the internet.
Many of the comments came from practising archaeologists who felt they were being misrepresented, but more of this later. As far as I’m concerned, the best comment was published on this site and it was from someone who signed themselves Buckelberry:
Thank you for recording guys in cheap knight costumes on video while they’re hopping around in nightly, yet brightly lit forests. It makes crude amateur filmmaking so much more justified: “The BBC does it – why shouldn’t we?”
Also I’d like to thank you for presenting fresh, never before seen characters – after all that’s what the BBC is known for: innovative programming. A grumpy, witty archaeologist with a hat? Never mind Indy, it’s still fascinating. The shy intern, just starting out and eager to impress? Sheer brilliance that gave dozens of hospital shows somebody to root for. The driven, handsome professional? Whee, THERE’S a new type of hero!
Dialogue. It’s overrated. Really! So thank you for lines that made me shudder – characters talking about their view on history and archaeology just to characterise themselves for the viewer, that’s something. It really is. Well.
I could go on, but here’s a suggestion: you have a brilliant little website, the “Writer’s Room”. There are dozens – hundreds! of tips for young, aspiring writers. Tips like “Don’t write cliches”, “Keep your script tight”, “Make your characters deep and likable”; “Present us something we’ve never seen before”…
- read it. Make your producers read it. Make your writers read it. Make your commissioners read it. And then again. And again. And again.
This, dear BBC, was utter crap.
Well, I simply can’t improve on this, so I won’t try, but in all fairness, tonight’s episode was much better. Now, let’s have a look at how professional archaeological practise was misrepresented in tonight’s episode.
Archaeologists up to their chests in mud? Well, anyone who worked at Southampton during the April of 2000 will remember it was like the Somme, so that seems fair enough.
Human remains being pulled out of the ground at a rate of knots? Hmm, no one’s ever denied that the Amesbury Archer or King of Stonehenge and the “Prince of Stonehenge” were unearthed overnight, so quickly that a gold ornament was found four days later in the Prince’s mouth in the Finds room at Wessex. I don’t have a Degree in Archaeology, sadly, nor do I have a degree in geology or oceanography, but I’m pretty sure there’s not a tidal surge of 12 knots that regularly envelopes Boscombe, although I could well be wrong.
Finds being pulled out of the estuary mud without so much as a cursory examination? Ah, Seahenge immediately springs to mind, where the archaeologists took a chainsaw to the discovery first, then asked questions later. And so on and so forth.
Be all that as it may, plenty of archaeologists also contributed to the page containing Buckelberry’s comment by urging their outraged colleagues to “get over themselves” and I couldn’t agree more. Archaeology, perhaps more than any other profession, has been promoted and glamorised in films, books, and on television, but some archaeologists get a fit of the vapours when they feel a producer, writer or actor hasn’t got it “exactly right”, whether it’s on Time Team or on Bonekickers.
The blunt truth is that many archaeologists are tied to poorly-paid, uncertain careers that are a great deal less glamorous than the public might suppose, being kept firmly in place by their superiors and browbeaten into working unpaid overtime, either in the office or else on account of the time they spend travelling to and from site. Data entry, watching briefs, desktop assessments and writing reports that no one will ever read and which no one’s remotely interested in also account for a large chunk of many people’s careers. The vocal critics of Bonekickers don’t seem to be able to grasp the fact that neither the BBC nor anyone else would so much as entertain the notion of spending millions on a drama series that “got it right” by presenting and focusing on a dispirited and disillusioned archaeology student wielding a mattock in the pouring rain for day after day in the full knowledge that their valuable site was only going to be half-recorded before it was trashed and that no one would ever read their records of the excavation.
Working on site is arguably about as exciting as it gets, so can you honestly picture a dramatic storyline involving the archive department, for example?
Archives Officer: “Now, where did I put that context sheet?”
Scratches head in bafflement, leaves room, wanders into Project Officers’ room.
Archives Officer: “Excuse me, chaps, anyone seen a context sheet written by Jim Davies from Southampton?”
Project Officer: “No. Have you spoken to Jim? He’s in Finds today.”
Archives Officer: “OK, thanks.”
Leaves room, heads for stair leading to Finds Department.
I’m rapidly losing the will to live, but it gets even worse. As archaeologists are keen to point out, their profession is home to a wide variety of disciplines, most of which are supposed to involve painstaking work, so can you imagine the nation on the edge of their seats every Tuesday night wondering if Hayley’s remembered to clean the gravel from the sink in the Environmental Department?
Hayley: “Right, I’m off now.”
Bill: “Before you go, have you emptied the gravel from the sink?”
Has Trev moved the purple bin in Finds back to where it’s in a convenient spot for him to drop burnt flint into, but highly inconvenient for Jan who needs to walk around this bin when she leaves the room? Did James remember to wash the dried ink from his pen when he left Finds?
No. It’s just not going to happen. Just about every other profession, from dinner ladies to judges, has had to suffer the indignity of being dramatised and/or documented, but I’ve never heard of any group of people making quite such a frenzied song and dance about being misrepresented as some archaeologists do, so we have to wonder why this should be.
As anyone who’s visited my site before will know, I try to concentrate exclusively on Stonehenge, but it’s fair to say that during my archaeological career, I’ve been a keen observer of people and events. Some of these people and events have made me laugh out loud until tears were pouring down my cheeks, some have intrigued me, some have saddened me, some have truly horrified me and some have stunned me.
The best-written dramas and comedies, for example Ashes to Ashes, Life on Mars, The Office and Extras, possess a skilfully blended mixture of grim reality, humour and tragedy. It’s extremely ironic, because in a perverse way, the detractors of Bonekickers have actually got a very, very good point, because if a series were ever made depicting commercial archaeology as it’s really practised in Britain today, it would be without equal.
I must confess that a few days ago, when I posted up the previous entry, I was rather looking forward to practising whatever vituperative arts I might possess by lambasting the members of the Facebook Group “Bonekickers is an embarrassment to Archaeology” for their rudeness to fans on the fan site, but I had a change of heart when I saw that the group’s moderator had urged members not to post unpleasant comments elsewhere. It was hardly a fulsome apology, but it was better than nothing and the simple truth is that I’ve sometimes overstepped the mark myself, so I’m not in a position to judge.
That aside, I looked through the group’s members and with the exception of a few frankly repulsive, gurning faces from my recent past, I felt like someone watching the doomed Pals battalions going off to The Great War. All these fresh, optimistic, idealistic young faces staring a recession in the face, so if the building trade continues to collapse at its present rate, there’ll be a few people writing to the BBC asking to be extras or advisors on the next series of Bonekickers. In case anyone thinks I’m amused by this, I’m not, because you can absolutely guarantee that the first people to lose their jobs will be the actual diggers; as I write this, the various up-titled collectors of paperclips and other members of middle management throughout the country will be scheming furiously, working out how to present a convincing case why they should keep their well-paid jobs shuffling paperwork and why keeping an eye on the bills for coffee and air-freshener in the toilets makes them absolutely indispensable.
Still, while I have a large degree of sympathy for the people in the trenches, the principal aim of this post is to explain to the members of the Bonekickers fan site on Facebook why they found themselves subjected to such a degree of vitriol from some archaeologists that the moderator of the site had to almost literally plead with them to go elsewhere.
In my experience, there are a lot of clever, experienced and shrewd people working in commercial archaeology, although there are also some startling half-wits whose ineptitude beggars belief and these sorry individuals most certainly aren’t confined to the lowly Digging Classes. I can honestly not recall a single day when I was bored, so simple logic suggests that someone working in what you might reasonably term an exotic profession like archaeology would have a great many things of interest to discuss, especially if they’re regularly working out on site, although I’d say from personal experience that working in Finds, Environmental or even Archives could also produce a great many surprises. The Communications Department most certainly did, but that’s for another time.
So, your average digger, after about six months working out on site, or on a number of sites, should by rights have a good many engaging things to speak about. Does he or she have the means to report this? Well, I’d say that most archaeologists in Britain in this day and age have access to a computer and to a digital camera, while they should also be able to post all this fascinating information up on a blog if they so choose.
Is there an audience out there for such things? Well, a few million people have been watching the Indiana Jones films for the past few decades, while there’s also fifteen years or so of Time Team as well as Two Men in a Trench, Bonekickers, Past Finders, Horizon, Timewatch, the History Channel, the Discovery Channel and God only knows what other productions that only come into being on account of the public’s intense interest in archaeology.
So, why are there so few archaeological blogs? Why are we not spoilt for choice in Britain? Why aren’t archaeologists regularly posting up their findings for all to see? The immediate answers would seem to be either apathy or pressure of work, but aside from regularly working unpaid overtime, a practise that’s certainly not exclusive to archaeologists, there has to be a more convincing reason why so few people in such a highly regarded profession write blogs, when the means is available to all. Caroline Wickham-Jones recently addressed this question and as you’ll see, she has several degrees in archaeology, but despite her thirty years in the profession, she seems unable or unwilling to provide a convincing answer. You can read her thoughts on the subject in this issue of British Archaeology, where she lists a number of quality sites, but amazingly enough, not this one! Oh, it’s sooooooooooo unfair!
I can’t help feeling that Caroline’s being slightly disingenuous here, because any number of credible reasons why more archaeologists don’t write blogs spring immediately to mind.
There’s no real precedent, to begin with. When Silbury Hill was excavated last year, there was a golden opportunity to present a daily, detailed blog, but instead we received weekly updates that were better than nothing, but which left a lot to be desired. No one was paid to chronicle events on a daily basis, but the project still went God only knows how many pounds over budget, so we had the worst of all worlds. As I wrote last November, Pete Glastonbury and I managed to record something like 90 minutes of our extensive visit to the place, including the voids above the tunnels dug by treasure hunters over the centuries, but it doesn’t make sense to release this film until such time as we can do it properly.
Then there’s the hideous prospect that some young, enthusiastic archaeologist on a dig somewhere in Britain might actually write something of interest and put up some intriguing photos as well. If this were to happen, then there’s every chance the local or even the national media might take an interest, because the reporters think that a large number of the general public might also be interested. This just wouldn’t do at all, because Managers and Management would have to be consulted beforehand, which means in turn that any interesting discovery risks being “appropriated” by an official spokesperson, although no one’s going to lose any sleep over that.
Letting local people know that something of interest has been discovered in their backyards isn’t usually a top priority, and where would we all be without these findings being subjected to interminable peer review beforehand? It has certainly been known, when spectacular finds and discoveries come to light, for the media to be invited along before exhaustive scientific tests and even more exhausting arguments among archaeologists have taken place. These discoveries regularly make the news the world over, because there’s an intense public interest in such things, but if archaeologists working on site were to regularly publish informative blogs, then there’s no doubt whatever that civilisation as we know it would collapse.
The main reason, however, why there are so few archaeological blogs, is because of fear. There’s the fear that someone further up the ladder with the power to make your life uncomfortable or even terminate your employment will very easily find the means to do so because of some ill-chosen words or photographs that could be deemed to be bringing archaeology into disrepute have appeared on your blog.
There’s the fear of inadvertently transgressing some other ill-defined code of conduct or contract with the site’s developers, which would enable them, if they so chose, to claim redress. A good example of this is the obsession with Health and Safety, that sometimes necessitates the wearing of PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) even when to do so is uncomfortable at best and completely unnecessary at worst. I remember working on the Stonehenge A303 Project, digging test pits in a vast, empty field somewhere to the north of Winterbourne Stoke, and having to wear a hard hat. If I’d been watching a trench being dug by a machine, this would have been reasonable, but no hard hat would have saved me from either a cow or an army shell falling from the sky, so it was pretty much superfluous. However, if a photo of A Digger minus Hard Hat on an important site accidentally surfaced on a blog, it could well mean the end of A Digger’s employment, so it’s not really worth taking the risk.
There’s also the fear of wilful misinterpretation or ridicule from others in the same profession, and this can be incredibly wearing to some people, while it also means that everyone’s denied any insights that may have occurred to someone in a blinding flash of inspiration, or else in a carefully thought-out original approach to a problem. I’ve certainly disagreed with many people on this site, but it’s simply beneath my dignity to stoop to wilful misinterpretation as it doesn’t get anyone anywhere.
There are plentiful examples of this on the internet, but we need look no further than this site and the “Bonekickers is an embarrassment to Archaeology!” Facebook group to provide a perfect illumination of my point, not that I’m remotely bothered by being assailed by the wilfully illiterate. I simply think that deliberately misinterpreting what others have to say has become second nature with many people to the extent that they probably don’t realise they’re doing it.
At no point have I ever said that I actually liked Bonekickers, nor have I written that I’m a fan of the programme, although that point of view’s changing after watching tonight’s episode, as I particularly enjoyed some of Prof Parton’s dialogue. I’ve simply written, both on this site and on the Bonekickers fan site, that I thought that Bonekickers showed some archaeologists in an extremely flattering light, which is a completely different thing from saying that I thought the first episode was a quality production. And just in case anyone’s in the faintest doubt, I wasn’t remotely concerned by the amount of members in the respective groups. Nonetheless, this didn’t prove any kind of an obstacle to the creator and moderator of “Bonekickers is an embarrassment to Archaeology!” writing the following:
11/07/08 -We have 200 members, congratulations guys on successfully spreading the word about this group. I am pleased to see so many people defending the honour of our profession and getting so passionate about its portrayal in this farce without letting emotions get the better of them. It appears we have ruffled a few feathers among those who thought the show was good (probably because their numbers don’t come even close to ours), check this out:
So, on that smug yet rather weary note, I rest my case, M’ Lud.
And in the fullness of time, back to The Ruin.