Where is Britain’s favourite castle?

Britain's Favourite Castle
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

An uncomfortable truth?


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

TV nostalgia isn’t what it used to be

Dead television
Photo (cc) Vik Nanda

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?
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Whither Ancient History?


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.
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Sparta, View from by the Temple of Athena
Modern Sparta

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

Archaeology is a Brand! by Cornelius Holtorf and illustrated by Quentin Drew


Archaeology is a Brand! by Cornelius Holtorf and illustrated by Quentin DrewI 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.
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