Rex at Savage Minds has had a jaw about The Indiana Jones thing, which raises some serious questions about the image of anthropology in the US. The comments are also worth reading. Fortunately this isn’t such a problem in the UK. One is that archaeologists are thought of as grubby historians in the UK. Even in the libraries of many universities you’ll find archaeology shelved with history away from the rest of anthropology. In Leicester Anthropology is on a different floor. The other is we have Time Team, which on the whole is a good thing.
Time Team’s been going for yonks now, and it’s the biggest pull into archaeology at university level. You can ask the undergaduates what archaeology they’ve read and they’ll look at you blankly, but mention Time Team and they can all tell you their favourite episode. Even Graham Hancock doesn’t get a look-in.
For those of you that haven’t seen it, the Time Team visit a site and then excavate to find something out about it over three days. Three days is the limit, it’s just an exploratory excavation. The cameras follow the archaeologists about and film them as they dig. It sounds like it should be as fascinating as watching paint dry. Digging, on the whole is repetitive business and shouldn’t make good TV. What spices it up is that the show is one hour long and they compress everything into it. So as well as the finding things bit, you also see them arrive explain what they expect to find from previous data, what the problem they hope to solve is and then all the prospecting including various Geophysical toys. The icing on the cake is they never lose site of the problem they’ve set. If something is found then they ask what does this mean for our understanding of the site as a whole. They also show the importance of context. It’s not just that a brooch is pretty, but that where it was found allows a phase of the building to be dated, so aiding our understanding in a way that merely seeing a lump of metal can’t.
There are problems. Some students struggle to understand that you can’t solve every problem in the world in just three days. Nor do many units have the funds to throw at a site that the Time Team has. That’s no fault of the programme because it’s what happens when you treat the audience like they’re intelligent, and that’s the best bit of Time Team.
Suppose they find a building because of cropmarks. In any other programme there would be a minute lost while the presenter asks “What exactly is a cropmark?” The Time Team approach is that they’ve covered this often enough in the past that they don’t need to explain how cropmarks work in great detail. They simply say the cropmarks show whatever and talk about what it means. Because they’re not stopping each step of the process to explain the basics to a seven-year-old or someone like a Daily Mail reader, they can talk more about what is interesting about the archaeology.
So while there are gripes that you can aim at Time Team, it does archaeology in the UK a huge service because it means the undergraduates coming onto the courses at least have some idea of what archaeology is about. When drunk they’re far more likely to shout “Oi you, get out of my trench!” than “THAT — BELONGS — IN — A — MUSEUM!” And that’s a good thing.
I do wonder if Rex is showing his age slightly . The hippest archaeologist in the UK at the moment is Lara Croft, the Tomb Raider. No great improvement.