Archaeology: A Secret History

The main theme of the third episode of Archaeology: A Secret History was that the ideology of the archaeologist affects not only the things they look for but also the things they see when they find stuff. Miles also continued with some of the themes of the last episode – the increasing use of science in archaeology and the continuing move from looking at Kings & Emperors to looking at the lives of the common people.

Miles used V. Gordon Childe & Marija Gimbutas as two examples of archaeologists whose ideology we can easily see showing through their work. Childe excavated Skara Brae, a prehistoric village in Orkney (which we’ve seen in a couple of other TV programmes as well). In this village all the houses are approximately the same size. Childe was a Marxist & interpreted this as being a Neolithic communist paradise. Gimbutas was an American woman who worked on prehistoric Europe, and was particularly interested in the female figurines found across the continent. You can see her feminism and the political context of the USA in the 60s & 70s (like the Vietnam War) shining through her interpretation of that prehistoric culture as a peaceful society run by women with no weapons of war – feminist utopia before the men got in charge & spoilt it all. (Miles was keen to stress that while her ideas might not have much favour now, she was a pioneering woman in what had been a predominantly male field and her work drew attention to the importance of considering women’s lives in the past.)

Other ways ideology influenced archaeology are less noble. The obvious example here is the Nazi regime’s desire to find the origins of the Aryan race (in Scandinavia) and “prove” their “superiority”. But another example is the one Miles opened the programme with: the skull of Piltdown Man, “discovered” by Charles Dawson in Sussex in 1912. This skull was claimed as evidence of a “missing link” between humans and apes, and (not so) coincidentally an older ancestor than the Neanderthals discovered in Germany. This meant Britain had the first known human ancestors, how glorious! But in the 1950s more modern scientific tests finally proved that the skull was a fake – it was constructed from human and ape bones, which were stained, painted and broken and planted in the quarry (perhaps by Dawson, perhaps he was just duped).

The revelation of Piltdown Man as a hoax is an example of a feature of late 20th Century & modern archaeology – revolutions of technique can be used to re-examine previous finds. The meticulous labelling, recording and preserving of artifacts means you can go back to something and apply your new scientific tests. Examinations are never completely finished, there’s always more to find.

There was also another thread running through the programme – PR and spin. These days archaeologists present programmes on TV (like Miles himself) or have other public out-reach things, designed both to interest people and to get funding for further projects & investigations. This can be seen as something that develops through the 20th Century – he used Howard Carter and the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb as an early example of this. Carter had a dig diary that was the real one, and another one that was written with the idea that it was going to be read. The photos from the dig include staged ones of Carter investigating, and Carnarvon sold the rights to the story of the dig to the Times.

Overall I’ve enjoyed this series, but with such a lot of ground to cover in just three programmes it’s not surprising that it feels like he painted everything with very broad brush strokes. J was disappointed there wasn’t more about Egypt, in particular that there was no mention of Petrie in the whole series. Which was surprising because he developed the technique of using pottery styles to put sites into relative chronological order. Also as a consequence of the high level view all the archaeologists got reduced to a particular quirk or one-note charicature – for instance I know a bit more about Howard Carter and he wasn’t just (or even mostly) a man with a good grasp on PR. And in skimming through the wikipedia articles for the people I’ve mentioned in my write-ups for this series I can see that all of the other archaeologists are more complex that Miles presented them as. So I think the series could’ve done with a bit more space to let the complexities of the subject shine through, but it was a good very high level overview.