The voice of archaeology in Britain and beyond

Cover of British Archaeology 102

Issue 102

Sept / Oct 2008



Windfarm dig finds boat in style of Sutton Hoo

Prehistoric village under Isle of Man runway

Rare house continues first farmers debate

In the press

In Brief & Phase 2


Hadrian in London
The 'Hadrian: Empire and Conflict' exhibiton is impressive

Hadrian's Wall
Abandoned after three centuries, but still alive

New WHS, the Antonine Wall
David J Breeze tells how to make a successful bid to UNESCO

THE BIG DIG: Stonehenge
Mike Pitts sorts out the technical data

additional content
Reading about the Archaeology of Stonehenge

The Stonehenge Olympics
Plans for the stones to get the new facilities ready for 2012

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


a piece about Bonekickers with no archaeological puns!


Seeking what is best for buried bones, Sebastian Payne looks at new leglislation

CBA correspondent

Campaigns, comment and communications from the CBA
Gill Chitty on the stones, the bill and beyond


ISSN 1357-4442

Editor Mike Pitts


Warning: this piece about Bonekicker smay shock you!

Exclusive: Bonekickers comment with no archaeological puns

Well, did you see it? Nearly a third of the television audience – 6.8m people – watched the first episode of Bonekickers, BBC1's "take history and archaeology and make it sexy" drama. To put it into perspective, that's two or three times a typical Time Team reach.

But numbers aren't everything, as comments on the web revealed. Bonekickers caused a critical firestorm. There hasn't been so much anger vented in cyberspace since Donald Rumsfeld compared Iraq war critics to Nazi appeasers.

Within a day, websites such as BBC News, the Guardian's Organ-grinder and the fan site had drawn hundreds of comments (260 on the latter alone). Most were critical, many verging on the abusive. Nothing was spared: the writers, the actors, the archaeological advisor (some wondered if Mark Horton exists: trust me, he does), the BBC, the commissioners, the dialogue, the plot, every scene in the plot, every archaeological and historical detail, were torn apart.

The web attracts people who mistake their own vomit for thought, but this seems more than that. Many press critics were also damning. What's going on? You might say it's because Bonekickers is drivel (indeed, some of you are saying exactly that). I suggest one cause is the popularity of archaeology. People really wanted an archaeological drama, and with so much advance publicity, they had enough time to imagine what it would be like (typically, a cross between Time Team and a doctoral thesis). But it wasn't boring! It was entertaining! And! Bones! Don't! Show! In! Geophysics!

How bad was it really? The creators have a good record (see In view, Jul/Aug), the cast was strong and it looked fabulous. It knows its television archaeology: the first film referenced any recent series you can name. Julian Richards's Landrover from Meet the Ancestors; the excavation tent from Two Men in a Trench; some Extreme Archaeology that really was extreme, it was all there (with other references galore, from The English Patient to the X-Files). When Gillian Magwilde held up a coin at the start and proclaimed, "We have a medieval riddle to solve: so we start digging", you wondered if Tony Robinson had got a new jacket, it was so like the opening of a Time Team programme. The whole thing is a TT homage (or parody), with its core team of four, its small, urgent excavations, its visitors behind the fences and its blokey joshing. And the archaeology is good. Profoundly good.

Yes, we know it takes more than a few hours to get a radiocarbon date back froma lab, but this is drama (when kings soliloquise in iambic pentameters, that's drama too, or so Shakespeare thought). Look at the bigger picture. When I was a student I read a book called The Directing of Archaeological Excavations, by John Alexander. Step back from the potsherd in your ditch section, he said, and imagine – it may be – the whole Roman fort: then try and explain the ditch. Bonekickers does this. Title sequences show historic scenes morph into their modern archaeological traces. They could stand in for undergraduate lectures (and goes further).

There are some good lines. "Let's not get carried away", cautions Gregory Parton when the team is faced with a sensational discovery. "There has to be a key", says Magwilde, at which Parton shoots back, "Why do people always say that? No, there doesn't”. In an important respect, this is no Indiana Jones: its core values should please the Institute of Field Archaeologists (by contrast, said president of the World Archaeological Congress Claire Smith in a serious loss-of-humour moment, "Indy's cavalier approach undermines attempts to instil ethical archaeological practices and diminishes archaeology's hard won standing as a legitimate science").

As Eddie Izzard said, archaeologists find small walls. Not on Bonekickers, they don't. They find a large chunk of the Cross. Or George Washington's fob watch. And when they lift a stone slab, underneath is a cavern they can enter, as if they'd fallen back into the past.

This is archaeology as romance, the big vision thing, what in our dreams – if we have any soul left – we want it to be. It is the equivalent of the US medical drama House, where a maverick doctor almost literally achieves miracles: medically suspect, of course, but what doctor who still cares wouldn't want to be there? We're in the Illustrated London News and Look & Learn, where heroic explorers unearthed lost civilisations, found missing links and changed what it is to be human. And if we can't, just for a few hours, identify with that, then we should leave the digging – and TV – to those who can.

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