Posted by: fattaff | 31 August, 2010

Rethinking Silbury

One of the advantages of living on the edge of a World Heritage Site, is that you occasionally get to see the latest activity and research in action.  Today, English Heritage invited locals to a site tour of the new excavations at Silbury Hill.

Most of us know Silbury as that ever-elusive prehistoric monument, but during the conservation works a couple of years ago, EH took the opportunity to do some geophysical prospection on the area south and east of the hill.  It has been long-known that there was Roman activity in the area, indeed the road passing alongside Silbury is the Roman road from Bath, but what astonished EH’s archaeologists was the extent of the activity revealed by the project.

Silbury Hill Wiltshire, - Location of Magnetic Surveys S of the A4 October 2006 - February 2008 (English Heritage)

Silbury Hill Wiltshire, - Location of Magnetic Surveys S of the A4 October 2006 - February 2008 (English Heritage)

This now shows that Roman activity was far more extensive than previously thought, and seems to have formed something between a large village or small town. The settlement seems to be predominantly rural in character, with a lane running north – south, but one structure seemed immediately interesting to me (perhaps because my PhD work was on Roman temples!), that at grid ref 100,682 in the above map, which seems to show what to me looks like a religious temenos, with perhaps a temple building pushed up against the back wall.

Sadly, this structure wasn’t on the radar (!) for the current programme of work, which instead is focussed on evaluating the condition of the surviving archaeology and the relationship between it and any later agricultural activity.  The land is in part low-lying and a bit marshy, so it should come as no surprise that the first couple of trenches at the east end of the site appear to be related to drainage.

Drainage channels

Drainage channels

On higher ground to the west of the site, trenches have been sunk across some of the enclosure features shown in the geophysics and show clean, pretty deep ditches, though with no clear evidence of buildings, though these may have been ploughed away by later agricultural activity.

Double enclosure ditch with Silbury Hill in the background

Double enclosure ditch with Silbury Hill in the background

Elsewhere, the trackway which led south from the Roman Road (the modern A4) was clearly visible, and also a large, circular feature, which may have been either a well, or a large ditch for burying those pesky sarsen stones which keep cropping up all over the place!

Trench with well-like feature in the foreground (quartered for excavation) and the dark grey line of the flanking ditch of the trackway at the far end of the trench

Trench with well-like feature in the foreground (quartered for excavation) and the dark grey line of the flanking ditch of the trackway at the far end of the trench

In summary, it looks like Silbury Hill has a much more appreciable Roman history than we might have otherwise thought, and this should make us think about such issues as Roman attitudes towards pre-existing ancient monuments.

What was particularly pleasing though was that EH had bothered to reach out the local community at all!  So often these kind of projects are conducted in a vacuum and the locals never get involved at all, and for this EH must be congratulated, though it might have been a bit better organised (I for one, would have appreciated a ‘tour starts here’ sign, which would have saved me traipsing back and forth between the site and car-park). The very strong turnout (possibly helped by the lovely weather) must demonstrate to EH that these sort of little tours are well worth conducting, and I for one was very impressed by the level of archaeological literacy amongst those present on the tour – even the numerous dogs seemed keen to get involved!

Posted by: fattaff | 25 November, 2009

Close down the museums!

What is the point of a museum? In part, it is to preserve, document and research its subject. But, it also has a duty to educate and inform the public. Or does it? And at what price?

Education in so many museums (in the UK at least) is often seen as the most important function of the museum. It may not be explicitly stated as such, but in this author’s experience many small and medium-sized museums will devote an enormous amount of effort to education and outreach work, whilst the bare minimum is devoted to research and conservation. Some of this work is of course hugely valued and important, witness the Petrie Museum of Egyptology’s efforts to reach out to the Arabic communities in London. However, in other cases we really should learn to question the success of our museums’ attempts to engage with their day-to-day visiting public.

Vatican Museums

Recently, I was able to visit the Vatican Museums, notorious for the huge number of visitors which pass through their halls each day. As I processed behind these hordes, (all doing the ‘museum shuffle’) and into the Pinacoteca, I became increasingly frustrated at the attitude of the visitors. Nobody seemed to be interested in the exhibits! There was excited chatter about their friends and families back home, their dinner plans, shopping and a myriad of other subjects, all to the complete exclusion of the artworks. The few who were looking, did so only to take a quick snap and to move on. The actual number of visitors who truly made an effort to read and contemplate the artworks, and perhaps to be moved by them, was minuscule.

So, OK, maybe I am being a bit of a culture snob here; perhaps it’s not the quality of the experience that matters, but the fact that one experiences it at all. Or perhaps not. What was very clear though was that the Vatican was signally failing in its duty to engage the public with its collections. The overwhelming majority of the visitors could not care less about what they were (or were not) looking at, and as I talked informally to a few of them later, most could not recall more than two or three of the thousands of objects they had been looking at a few hours earlier.

Perhaps this is even more evident at that other hugely crowded site – Pompeii. How many of the visitors ever bother to think about the site (other than to look for the gruesome bits), for most it seems that these sorts of locations form the backdrop for an afternoon’s stroll, a bit like a public park. I do, however, have to exclude one group from this comment, that of children under 10. These visitors always seem to make the most of their visits and its my firm contention that if you want to understand an archaeological site, watch the kids as they will be the ones exploring and trying to figure things out!

So perhaps, we need to play Devil’s Advocate here (and there’s nowhere better to do that than at the Vatican!). If museums are failing in their duty to inform and educate their general visitors then should they be open at all? The costs of opening a museum to the public are enormous and few museums can possibly profit financially from the exercise. If we combine this with the inevitable damage that must result from the hordes of sweaty bodies passing though each day, then we have to conclude that these precious artworks are being placed at risk for little or no real benefit. For too long museums have counted their success by the quantity of visits rather than their quality.

A simple, yet provocative, question must be posed: is the risk and the cost of large-scale general admission really worth it?

Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting that we should return to Renaissance or Victorian times with private, closed collections. Everyone should have the right to view these works, especially if the museum is state-funded. The question is whether museums can continue to support general admission? Perhaps, as is increasingly the case in Italy, admission should be by prior appointment?

Or … maybe, the flip side of the coin should be embraced. If closing museums is politically impossible, (and of course it is), then perhaps museums need to find better ways to engage with the general public. And here I’m not talking about electronic ‘resources’, audio-guides, websites and other new media, all of which consume enormous amounts of money, and are for the most part more a demonstration of the museum-director’s vanity and desire for career-promotion, than a true attempt to inform and educate.

So what would I like to see? Well, I think the museum profession firstly needs to get itself out of this costly obsession with digital resources. IT is of course vital for the day to day management of a cultural resource, but the return on investment of so many of these hugely expensive websites and digital resources is minuscule. For example, huge sums were spent developing the ludicrous Museo Archeologico Virtuale at Herculaneum, yet when I visited, this enormous barn of a building had just seven people in it – and four of them were staff! What a waste of money!

How much better could money be spent engaging real people, true communicators, people who could convey a passion for their museum or site. Imagine how effective half-a-dozen informal ‘explainers’ could be at Herculaneum or Pompeii (though not perhaps the Vatican). I’m not talking here about formal tours, or the miserable, sour-looking guards who loiter on every corner, but real history-lovers, people who might hang around in interesting places and engage the public. Perhaps they could join visitors while they have their picnics and chat with them – it’s these kind of personal interactions that people enjoy and which could truly make a visit to such a site something to remember.  What the heritage industry needs above all, is something which we all thought it had in abundance: a sense of imagination!

Posted by: fattaff | 4 October, 2009

Napoli Sotterrannea

Given the ever more banal commercialisation of the heritage industry, its refreshing to find an experience which offers something truly different. Exploring the hidden passages and tunnels beneath our streets is part of an ‘underground’ trend which seems to be gaining ever more traction. The crypts and passages of Paris have long been known and explored whilst, through the exciting work of Roma Sottarannea, the buried aspects of that city are also becoming more widely known, so it was especially pleasing to see that Naples that most secretive of cities, is also opening up its cellars and cisterns to visitors.
Entrance to Napoli Sotterranea

Entrance to Napoli Sotterranea

It was with a sense of excitement, therefore, and some relief from the incessant September heat, that I recently joined one of Napoli Sotterrannea’s tours of their underworld. What greeted me was an unknown world of Greek quarries, Roman theatres and mediaeval cisterns all displayed with a refreshing lack of excess. But what was especially refreshing was that the organisers had not succumbed to the over-exploitation of the resource – the tour was interesting, and simple with no flashy effects or fancy reconstructions (such as at the ridiculous Museo Archaeologico Virtuale at Herculaneum). The only concession to enhancement of the experience was a 100m walk along (very) narrow corridors lit only by hand-held candle-light. 
All told, a very enjoyable experience, enhanced in  my case by some very pleasant Australian company and a tour guide who was interesting and interested in her site.
Posted by: fattaff | 17 April, 2008

Buddha was an archaeologist!

Er … OK… No he wasn’t, though contemplating myself in the bath this morning, there is a certain similarity!   No, the real reason for the headline is, of course, to draw you in.  To make you read the text.  Am I being sensationalist?  Yes, and sensationalism seems to be a theme which is increasingly evident in, what we might refer to as, ‘media archaeology’.

Take, for example, the coverage of the excavations which have been occurring at Stonehenge over the past couple of weeks.  For the most part, the press coverage has been balanced and even.  However, one headline from an article filed on the BBC website on 9th April, did stand out: “’Breakthrough’ at Stonehenge dig”.  Wow, I thought, when I saw this on the front page of the BBC News section.  They must have discovered something special.  Well, no.  In fact what had happened was that the dig had merely ‘broken-through’ to the previously un-excavated levels.  Was this deliberate sensationalism aimed at spicing up an otherwise bland story?  Probably, and I’m pretty sure that the journalist knew exactly what she was doing, though at least she had the courtesy to put ‘breakthrough’ in inverted commas. 

I guess that to many of us, trained in academic archaeology, such extravagant use of language is difficult to reconcile with the traditionally staid and understated approach we’re used to.  

Another example of this kind of exaggeration came earlier this week, with a programme broadcast on Channel Four entitled “The Quest for the Lost Ark”.  This covered the work of Tudor Parfitt, Professor of Modern Jewish Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.  So, a respectable academic, with an intriguing remit.  The thesis was scoped out at the start of the programme; this was to be a quest for the Ark of the Covenant (so not jumping on the Indiana Jones bandwagon then?).  As the programme progressed, we travelled from Jerusalem, to the Yemen and on to South Africa, variously dismissing biblical accounts and relying on them depending on whether it reinforced the thesis or not.

Of course, the Ark was never found.  We all know that it’s really in a huge warehouse in America!.  But that wasn’t the point of the story.  The true revelation was that Professor Parfitt and his colleagues were able to prove through genetic analysis that the Lemba,  a black South African tribe numbering about 70,000 people were, as their oral history had always claimed, one of the lost tribes of Israel.  Not only was the genetic evidence able to prove their semitic origins, but it was also able to show that they had dwelt in the Yemen, and then migrated to South Africa.  Even more amazing, the evidence showed that a relatively small group had been involved in the migration – just seven or eight adult males.  Precisely what the Lemba’s own tradition asserted when it claimed that fourteen people had left, but that their boat had split and only half made it to South Africa.  As if that wasn’t incredible enough, the geneticists were able to identify a sub-group in the tribe who were descendants of the priestly pharisees – presumably the leaders of the expedition.

This could, and should, have been ample material for a fascinated documentary in its own right.  But sadly, Parfitt insisted that the tribe were the bearers of the true Ark of the Covenant, in the form of a artifact called the ngoma lungundu, a drum-like object.  Quite why this should be the Ark of the Covenant was never convincing argued; many cultures when embarking on migrations will take something of their motherland with them – witness the story of Aeneas and his bringing of the Palladium to Rome.  However, Parfitt scored another success in that he was able to track down this artifact, which had been lost for most of the last century, to a museum storeroom in Harrare.  Another great story which could have made a documentary of its own.  Where the whole programme was let down was by Parfitt’s insistence that this artifact was the lost Ark.  And when scientific dating showed that the object was only six hundred years old, he continued undaunted to assert that it was the Ark’s replacement!  A bit like Trigger’s insistence in Only Fools and Horses, that his broom was fifty years old – and in that time it had only had six new heads and eight new handles!  Clearly this part of the thesis was tosh. 

Parfitt’s programme could, and should, have been a fascinating documentary which could have raised the profile of ‘world archaeology’.  It contained tremendous discoveries and could have been used to demonstrate the value of genetic archaeology and the incredible contributions it can make.  Instead, by hanging on to the Ark hypothesis, the programme became sensationalised, and a transparent attempt to capitalize on the forthcoming Indiana Jones movie.

Archaeology, is in many respects, a fragile subject, and one which is often at the whim of broadcasters and journalists.  But sensationalising news stories like these does little to promote the discipline.  As with the Lost Ark programme, it can obscure truly fascinating stories, but at worst it can lead to archaeologists being accused of crying wolf and eventually losing the interest of their audience altogether.  


Thus wrote the 2nd century AD Greek orator Aelius Aristides in his ‘Sacred Tales’ (Hieroi Logoi).  The place he was describing was a town in Western Turkey, called Allianoi, which was rediscovered just ten years ago.  This settlement was a centre of the healing cult established and personified by the demi-god Asklepios (Aesculapius to the Romans), and as such is comparable to the religious complex at Epidauros, another Asklepion.

Allianoi - General View

Allianoi – General View

Sadly, as the BBC reports, the site of Allianoi is in the path of another Turkish dam construction project – the Yortanli irrigation dam.  Some may recall Turkey’s long and ignominious history of dam construction, most notably that of the Birecik dam and its subsequent destruction of much of the famous ancient city of Zeugma.  The Ilisu dam controversy also continues, and so it is desperately dispiriting to hear of another of these projects and the threat they pose to Turkey’s cultural heritage and the World’s patrimony.

Its not too late to save Allianoi, a vigorous campaign is underway to save the site, or at least to adequately study its remains, and the cause has been highlighted in the European Parliament (which Turkey is eager to join), but these objections are failing and time is running out for Allianoi.

The Nymph statue, which has become a symbol of the campaign to save Allianoi.

The real question has to be: what of the role of international conservation organisations in cases like this?  Shouldn’t organisations like ICOMOS be more visible and proactive in pressing regional governments to meet their cultural obligations?  What about UNESCO?  A search for Allianoi on their website shows no interest in the site whatsoever. 

If governments continue to be allowed to destroy their cultural heritage in this way, the future is truly bleak for the world’s patrimony.

Sites such as Zeugma, Allianoi and others can be used, with a little imagination to kick-start economies and to encourage cultural and historical tourism to regions which otherwise might have little to offer. 

However, as the cases of Zeugma, Allianoi, and many other sites around the world, seem to demonstrate, regional governments cannot be relied upon to value their own historical resources.  We all need the international bodies like ICOMOS and UNESCO to be more active, not just in preserving the more famous sites like the Colosseum and the Pyramids, but also the smaller, more remote and less glamorous sites.  

If these organisations are not going to take a lead in cases like this, then what is the point in them existing at all?

Perhaps what we need is some kind of global listing, along the lines of that used to identify endangered animal species?



Posted by: fattaff | 9 April, 2008

Stonehenge: physical engagement or simply seeing?

So, 2008 sees Stonehenge undergoing a new series of excavations.  A rare event indeed.  Professors Wainwright and Darvill have been granted the opportunity to investigate a small area within the stone circle to gain a better understanding of the role and date of the bluestones – the earliest of the megaliths at Stonehenge, and the ones which appear to have been sourced from the Preseli Hills in west Wales, 150 miles away.  The excavation is happening during the first two weeks of April, and is being filmed for BBC’s Timewatch programme, who are also keeping a nicely up-to-date website, and have broadcast several items on the regional and national news.

Visiting the site yesterday, the question that arose in my mind was less about the academic goals of the excavation, and more about the strength of the engagement with the visitors to the site.  Stonehenge was fairly busy yesterday, helped no doubt by the recent TV coverage, and what was especially heartening was the level of conversation that these visitors were having – at least 60% were discussing archaeology and many of these were displaying a pretty good knowledge of the subject.

Sad it is to record therefore, that on this day English Heritage (the government agency charged with the site’s care and interpretation) had signally failed to grasp the opportunity to engage with this audience.  Though a small interpretation ‘marquee’ had been erected to inform, this was poorly done and clearly an afterthought.  Most of the tent was taken up with yet another shop and the only indication of what was occurring on the site was a pair of plasma screens, one of which was showing a live feed of the dig.  Nowhere was there anyone around to interpret what was happening for visitors, and nowhere was there anyone from EH or the dig team engaging with their public.

The dig \'interpretation centre\'

The ‘Interpretation Centre’ at Stonehenge

Inside the dig \'interpretation centre\'

Contrast this with the situation last year when EH were carrying out consolidation and conservation works on Silbury Hill, a Neolithic site about 25 miles north of Stonehenge.  On this occasion, a small portakabin was set-up to display the latest results of the work, and staffed with people who were actually part of the dig team, and who were excited, enthused and most importantly communicative about their work.

At Stonehenge yesterday, there was a distinct sense of ‘them and us’, the public were reduced to peering at the dig from a long way away or standing in front of a screen in the interpretation centre, with no idea what was happening.  The Stonehenge wardens didn’t seem to have much of an idea what was going on either.

As I sat down in the all-too-rare April sunshine to eat my lunch, it seemed a real shame that no EH staff were there to engage, inform and turn-on what would have been an already receptive audience.  What could a little imagination have done here?  What would have happened if this site was in America?  With a little more thought, we might have had dig team members sitting down with the public during their picnics, talking about the latest finds, or perhaps by bringing the barriers a little closer we might have been able to see the dig itself.  The wardens all seemed pretty miserable, and were clearly not in the loop – couldn’t it have been part of their role to inform the public?

There is a tremendous appetite for history and archaeology in this country.  Television viewing figures, attendances at historic sites, and on other learning opportunities have never been higher, and its vital that agencies such as EH engage effectively with this audience if they are to secure their own future.

What it seems to me was happening yesterday was that all the planning and resources dedicated for public engagement had been expended on producing TV slots, websites and other non-personal resources. What people really want is personal interaction, the opportunity to talk with experts, and understand the work of those whose privilege it is to dig at Stonehenge.

Digital and broadcast resources are great, but no substitute for true, physical engagement.