The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 101

Issue 101

July / Aug 2008



Early Scottish gardens unturfed

Axes could be 0.5m years old

In the press

Listing lobby was no hot air

Kent Anglo-Saxon cemetery could be royal

Poetry to assist transfer of Hadrian's Wall collection

In Brief & Phase 2


The Copper Age
Special: did Britain have a fourth age?

Portable Antiquities
The Scheme must go on

Drawing Stonehenge
A major fieldwork project is explored by six artists

Severn estuary
Martin Bell describes the unique world of ancient mudflats

Gin Drinker's Line
Insights into WWII Hong Kong defence system

A Professional Mockery
Gary Lock on difficulties in obtaining "grey lierature"

on the web

Recommended websites
Caroline Wickham-Jones explores the realms of archaeological fiction and a look at Barwick-in-Elmet Historical Society's website


your views and responses

CBA correspondent

Campaigns, comment and communications from the CBA
Mike Heyworth says it's time to think big – The CBA at Discover Archaeology LIVE, London Olympia


An exhibition to make you think (and a bog body)

Mick's travels & more travels

Mick Aston goes to Glamorgan in search of monasteries, and Jon Cannon tours south-east Wales

in view

New columnist Greg Bailey probes a coming major TV series – BBC's Bonekickers

my archaeology - NEW!

Neil MacGregor: The accidental archaeologist and new director of the British Museum


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts

in view

Making a drama out of a dig

With an exclusive interview, Greg Bailey introduces a new series that might just transform the public image of archaeology

BBC1 will soon screen a major drama series set in a fictional university archaeology department, somewhere in the West Country. Whatever you make of it, Bonekickers, with a team of heroic archaeologists solving an iconic historical mystery over six weeks, will be an event for broadcast archaeology. This six-figure budget production was scheduled for the spring, but as I write the transmission date also remains a mystery. I talked to co-writer and producer Matthew Graham, who with partner Ashley Pharaoh created the cult TV series, Life on Mars (one episode reached 7.1m viewers with a 28% share of the total UK audience) and its sequel Ashes to Ashes. Where did the idea for Bonekickers come from?

It is an adventure quest, but it supposedly owes more to Time Team than Indiana Jones: inspiration grew from Graham's declared passion for medieval history, and family viewings of Mick Aston, Phil Harding and the rest. This is "heightened reality rather than outright fantasy".

And that name? Says Graham, "I was talking to a son of a friend who was an archaeology student. I said I was doing the show. He said, 'What are they doing? Are they out there, digging and kicking bones?' It was just the way he said it. [Bonekickers] was a kind of funky and intriguing title. I would have liked Time Team", he adds, laughing, "but it had been [taken]".

The narrative challenge was that, while Time Team was an "incredibly popular show, stimulating a huge amount of public imagination", a "bunch of people going into a field to dig holes was not necessarily the stuff of exciting drama". What did enthuse Graham "enormously" however, was that "you didn't have to get on a plane or a boat to Africa or central America for archaeology, you just had to go into your own garden. The adventure is under your feet". And there already existed a related, wildly successful television genre, which "tapped into an almost fetishistic fascination with forensic science". Perhaps then, Bonekickers could do for archaeology what CSI, Waking the Dead and House did for physical anthropology?

"What audiences love", says Graham, "is to be allowed into a rarefied world where characters reference things outside everyday life... the feeling that they have to run to catch up". With this philosophy, "as much intriguing archaeological detail as possible" was written into each Bonekickers script. The characters might even be permitted technical or interpretative argument in the course of their adventures. (Will theory reach our living rooms?). More, we are told that each plot line will hinge on some different scientific technique or archaeological method for its resolution. The detail of history was also in the mix. Script meetings with BBC commissioner Polly Hill, saw any obscure historical aside that met what TV executives colourfully describe as the "bugger me I never knew that effect" (BMINKTE), being enthusiastically received.

While the writers confess that Bonekickers will be "more entertainment than education", a genuine concern with knowledge seems to underlie their efforts, even to "go beyond Time Team". With Mark Horton of Bristol University and BBC's Coast recruited as sympathetic technical advisor, how these competing objectives are reconciled waits to be seen.

Aware of format constraints, Horton remains enthusiastic about the chance to promote a better understanding of archaeology, "to showcase scientific method, even post-modern interpretation, within the framework of a drama". The archaeologists seem to come off well too: "there's humour there, a bit of scandal, but we're shown in a very sympathetic light.. as people you would like to get to know". He tried to ensure however, that while the series might "embellish history", it would never transgress "archaeological or historical evidence". The narrative was to be situated in "real archaeology, real place, real time and real people". Horton will present short online web-films, which will back up each Bonekickers broadcast.

Research for the series was exhaustive, even compulsive. Graham and Horton went on pilgrimage to historic sites, while producers, writers and actors, introduced to mattock, shovel and wheelbarrow, got their hands dirty in excavation. Bristol's archaeology students noticed media types sketching, measuring and photographing their notice boards, offices and laboratories. A barrow-load of weighty archaeological tomes was spotted being wheeled out of the departmental front door. Historians were heard translating dialogue into Boudiccan vernacular Celtic/Latin and the archaic French of the Knights Templar (whether for mood or quiet, this last was conducted among bones in the department's dry-lab).

The heroic archaeologists as outlined by Graham seem slightly less authentic. A well-known character might be that of the "terminally louche" though "charismatic, witty and avuncular" professor Gregory Parton (played by Hugh Bonneville). This middle-aged archaeologist "stomps around the field in chinos and denim shirt, but can't wait to get to the pub". Working archaeologists might, at a pinch, even recognise team leader Gillian Magwilde (Julie Graham) as the treasure-seeking "feisty Celt", in the words of the BBC press office. Forensic archaeologist Ben Ergha (Adrian Lester), "an urban black guy in his mid-thirties", is less familiar. Apparently Ergha was visualised as a black Londoner from the script's first draft. Gugu Mbatha-Raw's character, however, developed after an exceptional audition played by this well-respected actor of mixed race (she was Jenny in Spooks). She plays Viv Davis, "an eager young post-graduate intern from Durham".

So with half of its protagonists originating from a British ethnic minority, Bonekickers hardly reflects the current state of UK archaeology. During script development, the creative team became aware of this anomaly, which they did take into consideration. I suggested that popular drama such as theirs had the potential to affect change, benefiting public perceptions, declining student recruitment, even archaeology at large.

The producers claim no such attempt at social engineering: "we would be too big for our boots if we imagined wemight alter people's career (life) paths", says Graham. He does, however, feel "duty bound to reflect our multi-racial audience". Mark Horton agrees that "it's a good thing, shows the way we want to go... appeal to a wider range of audiences, people that I think should be involved in archaeology".

TV producers have unsuccessfully pitched the concept of fictionalised archaeology over the years. If, with Mark Horton, we think that communicating archaeology to the unconvinced is a good idea, then we might be thankful that this particular team got the green light. Even the original BBC brief had ambition for the project beyond mass entertainment. The show should have "contemporary relevance", be "a window into how we used to live and a reflection on how we live now". Before all else though, I must fulfil its primary role, as drama. We will see.

We will return to Bonekickers: please tell us your views (write to Letters or Coast (BBC/Open University) returns in 2009 for two further series.

A first-generation TV viewer and veteran TV worker, Greg Bailey now researches TV archaeology in the Archaeology & Anthropology Department, University of Bristol

Bonekickers episodes, as told to British Archaeology by co-writer Matthew Graham

  1. Army of God: Knights Templar are back
  2. Warriors: The Ashanti people, the Maroon uprising and the American War of Independence
  3. The Eternal Fire: The Boudiccan Revolt
  4. Cradle of Civilisation: The modern looting of Babylon (as readers know, a huge American helicopter base)
  5. Lives of War: The "war crime" that was WW1 ("This isn't ancient history, we're standing on the edge of living memory")
  6. Follow the Gleam: The series denouement: will Gillian reach her goal?

Producer Rhonda Smith
Executive producers/writers Matthew Graham, Ashley Pharaoh (Monastic Productions), Michele Buck, Damien Timmer (Mammoth Screen)
Director James Strong
Designer Brian Sykes
Consultant Mark Horton
Principal cast Julie Graham (Gillian Magwilde), Adrian Lester (Dr Ben Ergha), Hugh Bonneville (prof Gregory Parton), Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Viv Davis)
Commissioned by Jane Tranter (controller, BBC Fiction) and Polly Hill (commissioning editor, BBC Independent Drama)

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