The final programme was fairly typical of the whole weekend. The only site that was presented as having moved on a lot was Buckingham Palace.
If the earlier days at the palace has been like the final day then I’d have been won over. There was at last an obvious plan of action where the archaeology was meaningful. Using Ground-Penetrating Radar they were able to locate the position of Arlington House and Goring House, two previous buildings on site. Of more interest to me was what they found in the garden. The strata revealed agricultural use. For somewhere that’s in the centre of modern London that’s interesting. You can ask how did open fields survive to the seventeenth century or flip the question round and ask what processes led urban London to migrate into this area? Either way you have an interesting problem. They concluded the shape of the palace gardens was defined in pat by the medieval field systems that it came to be built upon.
The excavation at the Round Table was slow. They have dated the building to the fourteenth century, so it’s the right period. They also decided that the building was an arena for reenactment which was partially covered. I didn’t catch how their archaeological finds led to that conclusion. Having found the site the pace has understandably slowed.
In the Lower Ward the Great Hall was in the second location they looked at, close to the curtain wall. The wall of the Great Hall was robbed out where they dug, but a look further along revealed it was still standing to quite a height. The historian got in a nice dig that “History rescues Archaeology” in identifing the wall. In a perfect world you’d expect the two to inform each other.
I completely lost the point of this section. They didn’t find Queen Mary’s tennis court though I still didn’t understand why they’d want to. They did find tenements. This could have been interesting if they’d spent more time looking into it. The palace site became occupied by squatters who used it as a royal sanctuary to escape the law. This phase could be fascinating, how did the decline occur. How were the people evicted, when did the Royal Family reclaim the site and why? What we got was a quick comment that they’d found Victorian rubbish.
There were also missed opportunities elsewhere. There was the bath house, which wasn’t a bath house. The building was laser-scanned but I don’t know exactly what problem they were hoping to solve with it. There was James IV’s lost tower which they found. That allowed them to check some plans of the lost palace, but the implications of that were lost as they sped elsewhere.
Overall I think the three days weren’t a televisual success, though I suspect they were archaeologically successful. The usual three-day dig is frantic, but with the editing and narration done later there’s a chance to build a meaningful narrative so that with hindsight finds can be placed in their wider context. In this series of digs I never really understood what the context was, beyond “These sites are all Royal!” In the case of medieval Windsor and Holyrood that’s a really tenuous link. There could have been much more of interest in exploring the differences between the sites.
On the plus side there are grounds for optimism. This is presumably being filmed during the 2007 series schedule. The chemistry between the presenters is still there and when they identified a problem they weren’t bad at tackling it. The programme has survived the loss of one or two members of the team, and the fashion among some TV stations to take something that works and ‘update’ it. While these programmes were missable I reckon if they get their hands on a good Roman site in the new series, it’ll remain excellent TV.
You can read more about the Big Royal Dig at Channel 4.