Archaeologists told to stop having a dig at TV

November 28, 2003

Archaeologists should stop moaning about TV's fascination with archaeology and enjoy the golden age of televised digs and historic reconstructions, a study has concluded, writes Steve Farrar.

Despite complaints about series such as Two Men in a Trench and Hidden Treasure , the threefold increase in the number of archaeology documentaries since 1998 has not eroded quality or breadth of coverage, according to Karol Kulik, a PhD student at Southampton University.

A total of 651 programmes have been broadcast on the four major TV channels in the past five years. The shows range from pioneering series Time Team to dramatic representations of the final days of Pompeii and investigations into the threatened archaeological heritage of Iraq.

Ms Kulik, who presented her findings at the "Contemporary and historical archaeology in theory" meeting at Bristol University, suggested that most of the programmes did not sensationalise research and, contrary to popular belief, were not obsessed with pharaohs, drugs or cannibals.

Ms Kulik pointed out that 48 per cent of the programmes featured UK sites, a broad spread of historical periods and often highlighted the process of archaeology.

She said: "We should be grateful that there is this much interest - it has pump-primed public awareness."

But her research suggested that the number of programmes - 201 last year - had probably now peaked and the core audience of 3 million viewers may start to decline.

"Television will wring a subject out and audience interest will fall," Ms Kulik predicted. "But with a new generation, it will come back."

Tony Brown, professor of palaeoenvironmental analysis at Exeter University, said some of the shows were poor and there was a danger of saturation.

"Each new programme requires a gimmick or twist, and one worries that archaeology will become a lifestyle niche area, losing some of its integrity," he said.

But although Professor Brown observed a national decline in university applications to study archaeology in the past two years, he was positive about increased public awareness.

His team's efforts to harness this in Devon brought together 300 volunteers to take on many of archaeology's most time-consuming tasks, from surveying to office work.

Tim Schadla Hall, reader in public archaeology at University College London's Institute of Archaeology, noted that TV archaeology was about entertainment and viewer figures, and that it was pointless criticising the content of the worst examples.

"Allowing people to access, understand and get inspired by archaeology is a good thing and, as long as TV producers can ensure decent viewer figures, this will continue," he said.

But he rejected Ms Kulik's suggestion that this was a "golden age", labelling some of the more sensational programmes as "dangerous", and observing: "I'm waiting for T he Naked Archaeologist or Celebrity Excavation Makeover ."

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