'Spain wasn't going to let a bunch of scottish pirates have a city there'

September 9, 2005

Archaeologist Mark Horton believes popular TV series are just as valid a way as books to share what he knows

Mark Horton, an archaeologist at Bristol University, is behind a major exhibition commemorating Scotland's failed attempt to establish a colony three centuries ago in the jungles of what is now Panama.

"It was an idea ahead of its time, the vision of a free-trade entrepot where goods could be transported across the isthmus," said Dr Horton, head of Bristol's department of archaeology and anthropology.

"But [the death toll from] disease was horrendous and the Spanish viewed the territory as theirs and weren't going to allow what they considered a bunch of Scottish pirates have a city there."

He first helped excavate the site of the Darien project in 1979, as a fresh Cambridge graduate. He spent four months on the mosquito-ridden jungle coast with the Scientific Exploration Society's Operation Drake, locating the site of the colony.

He returned in 2003, heading an international team of archaeologists, along with a BBC Scotland film crew making a documentary on the colony. The exhibition displays artefacts excavated during both expeditions, from shoe buckles and Scottish coins to musket balls and a pocket sundial. "There were vast quantities of brandy bottles. They were obviously completely sozzled," Dr Horton said.

More recently, he was one of the presenters on BBC Two's Coast series. "As publicly funded academics, we have a responsibility to share what we know with the wider world," he said. "Making TV programmes is part of the same mission as writing a book and giving lectures."

But academics' work is restricted by the research assessment exercise. "I wrote a book on excavations in East Africa, which sold 350 copies before being remaindered. Was it better to do that or a TV series watched by 5 million people?"

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