REVIEWS Digging for Britain
Digging for Britain Quantity vs. quality?
The title Digging for Britain conjures images of small armies of archaeologists marching up and down the country, uncovering the hidden secrets of our isles. The BBC’s latest offering attempts to capture the viewing public’s imagination by showcasing a diversity of sites across Britain, and highlighting the flurry of archaeological activity that took place over the past year. We are taken on a chronological journey by the well-known and enthusiastic presenter Dr Alice Roberts, who bounds across the British countryside interviewing experts, site directors and excavators on a range of research, community, and developer-led projects. Many of the stories – such as the baby burials found at the Roman villa at Hambledon,or the research excavations at the prehistoric site at Happisburgh – were compelling. However, on other occasions we are given only a fleeting glimpse of a site, leaving the viewer running to catch up with Alice as she moves on to the next place. This was particularly true in the case of the East Kent Access Road Project in Thanet, one of the largest developer-led projects in Britain this year. Would it not have been more interesting to see how a large-scale project like this is tackled from start to finish, and to develop the story over the four-week schedule? Instead, we are given a brief look at some Romano-British burials,
while the entire multi-period project is shoe-horned into the ‘Roman’ programme. This mammoth site is a wonderful example of British archaeology and I cannot help feeling the BBC missed a trick: this is the hidden side of archaeology, the living, breathing, coal-face of the profession – and it could have provided a real insight into major elements of British archaeology today.
The order of the programmes, based on a chronological rather than a geographical format, was slightly bewildering, too. As a result, on occasion it felt a bit clunky and haphazard: why, for example, was the episode on the Roman period aired before the Prehistoric one? It is generally the norm in ‘tellyland’ to put your strongest programme out first, and in my view the Prehistoric programme was far more interesting and thought provoking. Alice Roberts shone in this episode, possibly because she was more comfortable with the subject matter, highlighting her background as a physical anthropologist and anatomist.
The series itself was ambitious, but too often failed to deliver any special insight, or to challenge any conventional perceptions. We are given, for example, a sweeping statement that ‘the Romans would introduce a new language, a political system, buildings and a culture which still influences us today’. What about the native population? Did they collaborate with the Romans? Can you see any of this in the archaeological remains? They certainly did not suddenly start spouting Latin and installing hypocausts for those chilly winter nights! That is not to say that they were not influenced by the invading forces; but it is naive to show this one-sided view of the Roman occupation, especially as the subtle transitions and the collaboration often reveal more interesting stories. It was surely a missed opportunity not to develop this texture, and instead deliver a gazetteer of sites rather than an in-depth interpretation.
The real stars of the show were the sites themselves and the people who excavate, research, and interpret them on a day-today basis. It was an absolute joy to watch colleagues and enthusiastic volunteers relaying information on subjects about which they are clearly passionate. Archaeology is as much as about the people that engage with it as the people we doggedly strive to find out about. In this, Digging for Britain certainly delivered, giving British archaeology another platform on which to shine. For all of its shortcomings, TV is a medium to entertain and to empower – and if Digging for Britain managed to get one more individual interested in archaeology, then it did its job.
Reviewed by Raksha Dave
Archaeologist, education consultant, and
Time Team presenter
current archaeology | www.archaeology.co.uk
November 2010 |