Britain’s favourite castle, but where is it? Photo (cc) Elvis Payne
UKTV drummed up publicity on the cheap this summer for its History channel by having a vote asking what is Britain’s Best Historic Site. Best for what is never clear. Anyway the results are in and to the surprise of, well no-one, Stonehenge won. HMS Victory and Liverpool Cathedral came behind.
But there are surprises in the list where a high ranking could make a difference. At number four in the list is a castle, but where is it? London, Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast? Continue reading
But this antiquary’s direct descendants are those bearded men in Time Team digging trenches in soggy English fields or circling in helicopters to reveal the geometry of our ancestors’ labours. Not just archaeology, but all sorts of amateur passions — brass-rubbing, architectural history, every kind of yen to collect every kind of old clobber — have their origins in the activities of these bewigged gentlemen (it seems to have been a wholly masculine business). It was antiquaries who invented local history. If you live in an English county, its first history will almost certainly have been compiled by some batty clergyman with time on his hands who corresponded with the Society of Antiquaries.
It’s received wisdom that Archaeology grew from Antiquarianism. I attended a talk at a TAG conference by Ronald Hutton who argued that this might not be so. For some reason a past is important to most disciplines. Even Computing courses have been known to start with Babbage’s Difference Engine. It’s hard to underestimate its importance in C++ programming, but it’s probably about as relevant as the phase of the moon. It may be interesting but for practical programming it just doesn’t matter.
The connection between archaeologists and their past in contrast probably does. One reason is that unquestioned assumptions made by previous archaeologists can pass on and become increasingly irrelevant. The other is that if you spend your days up to your elbows in the past of other professions you may start thinking about your own. You’ll also find, if you’re an archaeologist based in the UK, that almost everything interesting has already been whacked open with a pick-axe and plundered by antiquarians. At least physically we follow in their footsteps.
However Hutton, if I understand him correctly, argues that the reason archaeologists follow antiquarians isn’t a simple case of evolution. Continue reading
Architectural history, landscape history, even coastal history all have their place, but when they so dominate the terrain that history on television is reduced to an endless helicopter shot of the Dover cliffs, then something has gone wrong.
The title is a cheap joke but Tristram Hunt is not a happy bunny. There’s history on the TV that he doesn’t like. “Call it the Restoration effect: a factual programming schedule suffering from a surfeit of cosy, insular and often cloying television.” Yet despite this assertion Hunt, who has his own TV series to plug, is remarkably short of targets. The only TV show I can say with certainty that he dislikes is “The Trench”. From what I briefly saw of it, it was awful but surely it takes more than one programme to have a surfeit.
One short-cut to credibility is to have high standards. A top wine critic is taken seriously for the wines he rejects. Dismissing the participatory history of the hoi polloi is a route to short-term credibility, but it’s not enough. There needs to be reason behind the critique and despite his assertion “…television history, done well, should be more of an ice-bath than a comforting, warm soak.” he doesn’t say why this is so. It sounds obvious that rigorous history is superior to history-lite, but superior for what purpose?
This weekend the Guardian blogs had Tom Holland post on the proposed abolition of Ancient History. It’s lead to some debate. There’s a follow-up with letters from Peter Jones and Thomas Harrison. In the comments there seem to be defences of scrapping Ancient History, but they seem to be based on false premises.
I went to see 300 and it was quite an experience. The plot, and if you’re an ancient historian you will need this explaining, is more or less as follows.
For no apparent reason an emissary arrives from Persia demanding a minor tribute. The king, Leo Nydas, refuses and asks the council to send an army to Thermopylae to fight the Persians. A woman takes her top off. The council refuses to send an army. Another woman takes her top off. Then Leo and 300 volunteers go on a trip to Thermopylae to fight Persians for the remainder of the film in a heterosexual way.
It’s not fair to judge the film by its historical accuracy. The Persians weren’t really Orcs. However some of the inaccuracies are interesting because they reveal how badly we understand Sparta. There’s a point in the film where one of the councilmen of Sparta is angry because the Queen hasn’t taken her top off recently. He tells her he’s a politician rather than a warrior. Ouch! The film itself makes clear that to be a Spartan was to be a warrior. He also says that not all Spartans were born equal. But the Spartans, as opposed to the perioikoi or helots (slaves) called themselves the Homoioi, the Equals.
Does is work as an action movie? Continue reading
I did have some qualms about reviewing this book before it arrived. It’s a free review copy, so I was wondering what to do if it turned out to be awful. I tend not to write negative reviews if I can help it, unless something is surprisingly bad, because I prefer to spend my time talking about things which deserve attention. Fortunately this remains an unsolved puzzle, because Archaeology is a Brand! by Cornelius Holtorf and illustrated by Quentin Drew is (unsurprisingly) good.
In fact I shall be cheerfully taking ideas out of this book for a few posts in the future. The reason is that this book tackles an under-appreciated aspect of archaeology, it’s public perception. Holtorf argues that archaeology is in an enviable position compared to other academic subjects as it is one of the few fields which seems to enjoy mass appeal. Yet despite this the public perception of archaeology seems to remain a major problem for some in the profession. In one of the many quotable passages he says:
I have given up counting the number of exhibitions, educational events and publications that are shouting into the reader’s face that “the real archaeologist works practically never like Indiana Jones/Lara Croft.” Translated, that means as much as “If you happen to be interested in archaeology because of Indiana Jones/Lara Croft, then this isn’t for you!” Archaeology is thus suddenly outed as a different kind of ‘person’ that you thought and hoped it was, a person that lacks some of the traits you found most appealing.
Well so what? He continues:
It is the equivalent to Greenpeace beginning a public presentation about its work by stating that “the real Greenpeace activist works practically never in a small rubber-dinghy fighting illegal whalers.” Although true, this would achieve nothing except alienate an initially favourable audience before it has had an opportunity to hear what you actually want to convey.
Cornelius Holtorf argues that the public perception of archaeology is of huge value, and that understanding how archaeology is received by the public could be a major asset in public communication. Archaeologists simply don’t know how well-loved they are.
Via afarensis and John Hawks is this advertising campaign for an insurance company in the USA. It’s a clever way of playing on how we look at our forebears. There are also adverts at the therapist, on Fox News and at the airport.
One for Cornelius I think.