tue 11/08/2020

Archaeology: A Secret History, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Archaeology: A Secret History, BBC Four

Archaeology: A Secret History, BBC Four

Documentary about digging doesn't stray below the surface

'Here's one I dug up earlier': Dr Richard Miles and friend

“A bunch of beardies rooting around with trowels. On the lookout for shinbones and such. It’ll be knockout.” There will have been naysayers at the meeting when they first pitched the idea for a series about archaeology and yet nearly 20 years on Time Team is still with us. It seems the viewing public’s appetite for digging is not restricted to Titchmarsh. Mirabile dictu, as the Romans no doubt said when they dug up three wooden crosses under a temple of Venus in Jerusalem, thus inventing archaeology.

Hence what might be considered overdue: a telly history of archaeology. This being telly history, it is naturally called Archaeology: A Secret History. In which “secret” seems to mean “not a lot of people know this”. It’s on BBC Four, about which in one's contemptible folly one tends to nourish consoling preconceptions. Last bastion of intelligent non-condescending dissemination of info, for example. Lowest common denominators avoided and so forth. Andrew Graham Dixon etc. It seems possible Dr Richard Miles didn’t get the memo. He wandered into a German museum to have a look at the first Neanderthal man. “So excited to see this!” he hyperventilated, putting on a so-excited face. Welcome to Reithianism, school-trip style.

Call me a desiccated fossil but I quite like it when presenters don’t work on the assumption that I’m 10. Or wander around places which are intensely important to the secret history of archaeology and don’t tell you where they are. Halfway into this first ep we were quite clearly having a gander at Avebury Ring but not so you’d know it. Go easy with the facts is the diktat from BBC Factual. Don’t frighten the horses with TMI. Otherwise they’ll have nosebleeds or tantrums or switch over to Farts: A Secret History.

So yeah, this should have been on BBC One. Only they don’t put archaeologists on BBC One, even plausible ones without beards. Even ones who say “this is absolutely incredible!” all the time. You knew you were probably not going to be overloaded with information when Dr Richard Miles dropped in on Siena. Siena, it turns out, has sweet FA to tell us about archaeology, but it’s a lot nicer to wander through than Ancona, the total hole where the father of Renaissance archaeology inconveniently comes from. Next stop: Ancona - where we were shown a marble relief of Ciriaco de’ Pizzacolli - excellent nose (pictured above right) - though not subsequently told a jot about the actual digging he did all over the Med.

The story of this opener was all about how archaeology – with a bit of help from the likes of Copernicus and Newton – established that Earth is a lot older than the Bible and a certifiable Creationist rump say it is. Archaeologists digging up fossils of fish and flint axes were the ones who proved mankind has been knocking around since somewhat before the Book of Genesis. Did Rome not like that.

On we sped through the centuries, finding out about chaps who liked digging, while Dr Richard Miles treated us to the manic rictus common among youngish telly academics on a mission to entertain as they explain. (To explertain? To enterplain? To get on your tits?) At one venue in Suffolk he visited a cabinet of curiosities including an important bit of old bronze. The curator revealed that it had been found in an attic and Dr Richard Miles chuckled and rolled his eyes, twice. Crazy stuff. The early centuries of archaeology remain shrouded in secrecy.

Jasper Rees on Twitter

Call me a desiccated fossil but I quite like it when presenters don’t work on the assumption that I’m 10

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Editor Rating: 
2
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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the subject of communicating enthusiasm in what should (more or less, this being BBC4) be a subtle way is one the channel doesn't always crack right. viz Graham Dixon too, another who is no stranger to the 'wow' factor. re - the presenter not telling us where we were? the same happened earlier with Badbury Rings, and it took even longer to be revealed. the intention behind this presumably being to get audience alert on the front of their seats, thinking 'is this actually (insert at random) my local spot of historic interest on screen?'' and then ringing all their friends the next day to ask, 'did you see our local spot of historic interest on the box last night?' extra points for whoever spotted the local pub to Badbury they clearly had a good lunch in afterwards (it's a good pub), and then thought, "what the hell, it's a nice village, let's get another drive-through shot in the bag?" the BBC One approach? lovely (protracted?) shots of that schooner breaking the waves - wondered if I was on the Holiday Programme for a sec. presumably Italy's Naval Museums have all fallen victim to the economic chop? and that farcical cameo in Siena, where Miles asks his way (it's like the channel bosses are purring, we have another presenter, who can get by in passable Italian) from the Palio souvenir seller. okay, Pizzacolli in his archaeological explorations may have occasionally had to ask directions, but really... Or have I missed something here?

Loved the programme 'Archaeology. a secret history'. However, one glaring problem in the programme was this: the flint axe head he said was over 400,000 years old. My understanding is that modern man did not arrive in Europe until approx. 40,000 years ago. Is Dr Miles simply implying that there are such artefacts found in Africa? If so, he should have clarified this - or does he know something we don't?

This was trash formulaic TV with a vengeance, insulting to the viewer and calculated to be tranferable to BBC3, I assume. Jasper Rees is too kind in awarding the thing two stars - this will only encourage them to repeat the offence.

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