Monday, 29 October 2012

All Archaeologists are Evil: 2

Most archaeologists I know (and trust me, I know an awful lot) feel as if they are the 'good guys', constantly battling property developers, motorway builders and politicians (the 'bad guys') in order to save a few tantalising morsels of history from the unceasingly ravenous jaws of mechanical diggers. They are the heroes of history, the (literally) underground resistance, the liberators of truth the....well, you get the picture. 

Sadly popular culture, as I think I've noted before, doesn't see the profession in quite the same light. Yes, archaeologists appear with surprising regularity in films, books, radio plays and TV programmes and, I have to say, they are almost always living an extremely exciting existence, solving ancient puzzles, smashing into lost tombs, discovering dead civilisations, unearthing treasure, swinging from trees, battling Nazis, combating conspiracies, avoiding alien incursions etc etc (and many geologists / geographers / anthropologists / mathematicians that I know, and trust me I know an awful lot, often tell me (sometimes quite forcefully) that they wish that their profession was portrayed in film and on TV in such an exhilarating way), but, if you watch carefully and 'read between the lines', you will discover that the archaeologists themselves are rarely (if ever at all) the 'good guys'. 

Usually they are the bad / evil / despicable / warped / malicious / unpleasant guys. The kind of guys you would not wish to meet or share a drink / expedition / tent / bath with. They are the doom-bringers; the curse-unleashers / the destroyers of worlds.

A recent discussion on an archaeological web forum became extremely heated when the topic of archaeo fiction came up. “So what?” was the general consensus of opinion “if the public sees all archaeologists as 'heroic' thieves like Lara Croft or Indiana Jones?”; “So what if the media thinks we’re only after loot / treasure / gold / life altering sums of money?”; “So what if the writers and broadcasters of fiction see us as villains and bad guys?”; “It doesn’t matter. Get a life - its not real!”.

Ok, so Coronation Street, Eastenders, Dallas, Hollyoaks, Neighbours, Doctors, Young Doctors, Pobol y Cwm, Emmerdale and other pop culture TV soaps aren’t real (well done for noticing that by the way): they are all fiction. Most people know this (at least I hope they do). Most of the people who watch and avidly follow such TV series probably prefer the fictional world created within them to the daily grind of REAL life, just as most followers of Sci Fi staples such as Star Trek (in all its syndicated varieties) and Doctor Who know that the worlds presented in these programmes aren’t real, but find them a useful substitute for reality (and why not?). The main issue is, I think (at least from my own slightly warped perspective) is that Coronation Street, Eastenders, Dallas, Hollyoaks, Neighbours, Doctors, Young Doctors, Pobol y Cwm, Emmerdale and Doctor Who regularly attract audiences (in Britain anyway) in the millions whilst Star Trek and other syndicated dramas attract significantly more through broadcast repeats and DVD sales around the globe. They have an impact - certainly one greater than any dry and factual excavation report or jolly popular, coffee-book style photo-filled take on the past.

Every long term TV series has, at some stage in its lifecycle, an archaeologist appearing in it and these archaeo explorers are, more often than not, deeply unpleasant individuals obsessed with only one thing: the acquisition of loot to the detriment of all else (including their own personal relationships and large numbers of innocent lives). More people, I guess, will watch and digest the stereotypical view of ‘the archaeologist’ as depicted in these prime slices of televisual pop culture, than will ever see the reality of the professional at work.

Stereotypes are, by their nature of course, merely exaggerated versions of reality. Stereotypical doctors, estate agents, law enforcers, fire-fighters, teachers and solicitors also all appear with great regularity within pop culture, especially within the world of televised fiction. Most stereotype professionals, however unrealistic these portrayals may be, are deeply ingrained within the public consciousness, to be regurgitated again and again by the writers of televisual and cinematic fiction. In the majority of cases, however damaging or unrealistic the stereotype, we the audience can safely acknowledge that: “REAL Doctors / teachers / solicitors / firefighters / law enforcement agents / refuse collectors etc aren’t actually like that”, because most of us encounter doctors, teachers, solicitors, firefighters, law enforcement agents,  refuse collectors etc on a daily basis.

At least 98% (a guess, but close to the truth I would suggest) of the population probably do not regularly encounter archaeologists in their day to day life, so the reality (or unreality) of the stereotype cannot ever be satisfactorily, or indeed objectively, assessed. The stereotype is plausible. The stereotype is believed.

If the public perception of what an archaeologist is and what they do is coming primarily through fiction, rather than solid fact, then what, if anything, should archaeologists be doing to counter such rampant stereotype negativity? Archaeologists could, of course, acknowledge the fact that their pop culture representative is a treasure hunting hero / gun toting psychopath / doom-bringing villain and perhaps work within this (although perhaps not to the extent of always wearing battered leather jackets and carrying whips), educating people through emotive imagery towards the reality of genuine discovery: “The past is a vibrant and exciting place for a modern audience, and you don’t need Indiana Jones to provide unnecessary and wholly artificial hype”. Not sure it would fact it might even  harden the stereotype, but I put it out there as a suggestion.

Alternatively, the archaeological community could openly reject the pop culture character, explain why, and attempt to create an image that they are generally happier with and which they find closer to reality. To some extent, the recent spate of archaeological and anthropological television programming is successfully achieving this particular aim, bringing archaeological discovery to the fore and altering the whole nature of the fictional pop culture persona. 

Or, archaeologists could (as the majority have traditionally done) totally ignore pop culture (staying firmly in the 1960s and 70s), only sticking their heads above the spoil heap long enough to scoff “It’s just fiction – REAL archaeology isn’t like that”.

After all:

1) The pop-culture archaeologist lives in a world of adventure and excitement

2) They are thrill-seeking egotists, obsessed with the importance of their own discoveries and their own personal fame.

3) They destroy the career of anyone who gets in their way.

4) They desire vast personal wealth through the accumulation of prized artefacts.

5) They are people who refuse to communicate their ideas and discoveries to the public.

6) They are people who care not one jot about society, and who could quite happily endanger large numbers of people just so they could dig the site / tomb / burial ground that they want.

7) They are totally dysfunctional.

8) They are scheming, violent, gun-toting, loot-obsessed alcoholics.

9) They are villains and misfits.

11) They are intrinsically evil.

And we know that, in reality, archaeologists just aren’t like that..... 

....are they?

....hang on....don't tell me, I know this....  

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Workplace jargon

So there I was in a meeting.

Seriously, I don't know why I do this to myself. Someone, and sadly I can't recall who, once said that the Roman Empire never had meetings, seminars and workplace discussion groups - they were successful because they just went out and got things done. Now, I assume they must have been referring to Rome's ability to build, create and inspire, rather than their expertise at industrialised slaughter (unmatched until the 20th century) - at least I hope they were. I kinda see their point though as, every once in a while, I feel that I really should attend a meeting, even though it means losing 3 hours of my life when I really could be doing something far more useful, and find out what's going on and how things can be improved...etc...trouble is I always leave meetings with an immense sense of dejection and annoyance. Why? Well, I can explain in two simple words:

Workplace jargon

Two words, easy to explain but far far less easy to deal with. I've previously discussed my love / hate relationship with 'double-speak' - the euphemism, misinformation and verbal camouflage deployed by officials, bureaucrats, civil servants, the military, managers and others (who evidently feel inferior to their fellow man / woman) in order to hide 'the truth' (or make it more palatable to the uninitiated). Trouble is, on the one hand, I can't help but admire double-speak (for its unabashed, naked affront), whilst I simultaneously despise it (for adding a layer of unnecessary complication to things that should be far simpler to comprehend).  

Anyway, there I was in a meeting. I knew it was going to be awkward from the start, for the chair (a person rather than an inanimate wooden object) was asked a difficult question and instantly reverted to the default setting of extreme jargon. The following examples are recorded 'as they were spoke': 

We need to maximise blue-sky thinking

I hear this one a lot, but am ultimately none the wiser - I think 'blue sky thinking' is supposed to relate to some form of creative process, but to me the words 'blue' and 'sky' when added to the word 'thinking' convey a deep sense of relaxation; perhaps lying on my back in thick grass staring up at a clear, blue summer sky and drifting slowly (and contentedly) off to sleep (preferably after a large and deeply satisfying lunch involving a vast quantity of cheese). This is, I'm guessing, not the meaning that practitioners of double-speak intend. Sleep can be remarkably creative, it is true, but I'm not sure that any of my dreams would be particularly useful in the workplace (as they usually end with me chasing a Disney cartoon character (generally Donald Duck) around a shopping centre with a baseball bat covered in trifle shouting "eat it you pathetic excuse for an animal" or some such). If they really want to harness the creative potential of sleep, however, then I'm more than happy to clear my desk, set out a blanket and doze for the larger part of the working day....suits me.

Thinking outside the box

I don't know about you, but I never think that I'm in a box to start with. The only time I ever feel particularly claustrophobic is, surprisingly enough, when I'm in the middle of a meeting (especially if it's held in a room with no natural light or air circulation). Under such circumstances I am more than happy to 'think outside the box' if that is taken to mean 'leave the meeting immediately, climb the nearest hill, lie down for a bit and engage in all that thinking about a blue sky).

Create the storyboard

Sorry, are we in the middle of a scripted scene? Is what we perceive to be reality in reality false? Are we, in fact, employed to write fiction in order to sustain this false reality? If so, for whom? About what? Will it have a beginning, middle and end? Will it be filled with mindless violence involving a trifle? Will there be cheese?

Joined-up thinking

You mean thinking...just thinking, plain and simple. Show me an employee who doesn't think and I'll show you a cat in trousers - in fact show me a hill to lie upon and I'll climb up there, lie down and think with the best of them.

Cover all points of the compass

Presumably as I attempt to find a suitable hill to lie down on?

Off the shelf

To be honest I don't get to take stuff off the shelves much - in fact what I need are more shelves to put things on. Anyone who has been to my office can testify that I although I am apparently in possession of a desk, three chairs a side table and 2 square metres of carpet (red, I think), all these items of furniture are liberally scattered (or deeply buried) in research work (current), research work (on hold), research work (abandoned because I can't find it under the other research work), student assignments (marked), student assignments (being marked), student assignments (double marked), student assignments (awaiting moderation), books (read), books (unread), books (awaiting to be returned to the library) and other general bits of paperwork requiring my urgent attention (going back to July of last year). Never mind all this talk of 'paperless offices', I need far more shelf space, or, failing that, more space (so that I can get halfway close to my existing shelves in order to see what is there before I even consider taking anything off them). 

Keep me in the loop

Why, don't you want to get out of the box (where, I presume, the loop is kept) so that you can climb a hill and think about blue skies? I know I do.

Singing from the same hymn sheet

Do people not sing from the same hymn sheet and, if they don't, surely that's tantamount to religious suicide (guaranteeing hasty removal from the church)? Given that I can't actually sing, I really have no intention of joining in anyway - I can mime quite well though, does that help?

Pushing the envelope

I've never 'pushed' an envelope before - is this a drug reference?

Academic under-pinning

Like a building? Why didn't anyone check to see what the geology was like before anything academic went up? Sounds like shoddy research to me.

Get our ducks in a row

Seriously? We have to arrange ducks now? Isn't this the responsibility of the head of water-based life form coordination? 

The helicopter view

Of the blue sky? Surely if you're in a helicopter, all you can see is the green grass / grey concrete below, the blue sky being something that you inhabit (thus ruining both the view and the thought processes of those lying on their backs on the hill below you).

The list goes on for another two pages, but my patience, sadly, does not and, in any case, I'm afraid that I'm already seven hours late for a meeting.... 

Friday, 12 October 2012

Factutainment: an archaeological quandary

It's getting very difficult to differentiate fact from fiction at the moment. Maybe my critical facilities are failing or, perhaps more likely (and indeed far more hopefully) it's the clear lack of distinction on TV between documentary / factu-mentary / docu-drama / dramamentary / factutainment / edutainment the days of old everything was far more effectively differentiated.

Documentaries used to be serious affairs, all big music and big statements and were usually hosted by big if rather dull types (usually men) with big beards (again, usually men) into which they mumbled incessantly about the price of cod, whilst posing manfully in big brown suits (or big jumpers), corduroy flares and kipper ties. Fictional dramas, on the other hand, had big men with big accents, big hats and big sideburns and big women with big hair, big dresses and big cleavages striding around big panelled rooms, colliding with big furniture and hitting small servants round the head. Occasionally they waggled a naked buttock at each other and / or fell off a horse whilst saying 'arrrr'.

The distinction between FACT based tale and FICTIONAL drama was, therefore, relatively clear cut. You knew what you were getting when you pressed the brick-sized button on the bottom of the wall-sized television and awaited the flickering pictures as the TV began the 15 minute process of firing up. Today I feel that the distinction between fact and fiction has become ever more blurred and that sometimes it is not always clear what, precisely, it is that you are being presented with. There are, for example, significant dramatisations embedded within serious documentaries (taking the 'story' into a poorly defined world of actor-based fiction, 'recreating' a series of historical (or archaeologically interpreted) events that may not even have happened). There are also pure dramas which harness and exploit the 'feel' of serious news in order to provide their own peculiar brand of fiction a greater degree of 'realism'.

Let me explain.

Last week I settled down in front of the idiot's lantern and was confronted by, what I assumed to be, a new documentary on Roman Britain. The piece started well enough, a dramatic recreation of the druids last stand against the might of Rome (on Anglesey?), although the small numbers of actors on screen (two) suggested a somewhat limited budget. Cut to a modern school playing field in Essex where development appeared to have struck an undisturbed Romano British site. Investigation is low key, probably, I muse, because the local council has done a deal with the developers who, in turn, are building 'sustainable, affordable housing on brown field land' or something and, therefore, there is no automatic budget for archaeological works nor is there a serious attempt to consider environmental impact. Typical. Still, at least two archaeologists are at hand to monitor the investigation and, as far as I can see, they've harnessed the potential of the school environment, developing some sort of community project involving a number of interested locals. Good...warms the heart.

We are told that a 'Geofizz' survey, conducted out of shot, apparently suggests the presence of "a well or shaft" of some kind close to the main area of investigation. Annoyingly the results (resistivity? magnetometry??) are not presented in front of the cameras nor are they explained in any kind of detail, presumably because the documentary director felt that such datasets would be too boring for the TV audience. Irritating when that happens - we, the viewing public should be credited with at least some intelligence.

The excavation itself was being funded by ‘University College Texas’, who seemed to have brought some pretty impressive kit with them, their lead operative working with a "3D info cam" apparently "the latest hi tech camera". It certainly looked impressive. There was no explanation of how it worked exactly, but the detailed way in which every millimetre of the trench wall and floor was being instantly recorded and rapidly interpreted made my mouth water. I made a mental note to check how much was left in our own university field equipment budget and see whether anyone was selling discounted 3D info cams online.

In contrast to the UCT team, the British excavators on site seemed to prefer a more basic set of equipment, their lead digger sarcastically noting (apparently, so she thought, off camera) that they had only a K.O.S or 'knackered old spade' (which she called 'Sam' - nothing really unusual in that I thought, my favourite spade, with the less friendly name 'brain-biter' and mattock, 'flint-gnasher', sit happily in my office just waiting for action). Transatlantic tensions were clearly the main focus of attention for the director, again to my annoyance - this 'Big Brother' style format - the desire to concentrate on social conflict at the expense of anything remotely educational is something that I increasingly find irritating - take Rome Wasn't built in a day the four part TV documentary about building a Roman townhouse in Wroxeter using traditional Roman techniques and materials which swiftly descended into a slice of 'fly on the wall' Big Brother socio-mentary, whole scenes comprising builders swearing at each other and lying face down in a ditch...

It wasn't until the eagle standard of the ninth legion came tumbling out of the section edge, followed very closely by 'druidic metalwork' that I began to feel a little bit uncomfortable...this was all a bit too good to be true wasn't it? The denarius finally dropped with the arrival of international crime organisation SKUL and a unit of school-age super spies....I realised with some horror that I was watching an episode of M.I. High on the CBBC channel....


Two days later I awoke from marking induced stupor (happens a lot I'm afraid) to find the TV on, but the sound down. As my eyes focused I realised that there was a news reporter on screen with some sort of medieval helmet on his head, gurning wildly at the camera. The man was manically waving his arms about, clearly in a state of heightened excitement. Behind him lay a deep trench, evidently archaeological, cut through what appeared to be a car park (it was).

I turned the volume up.

"Geotechnical magnetism" the man was enthusing "led the archaeologists to this spot and here they dug and here they found the remains of the King". I groaned inwardly. Not another King Arthur / search for the Holy Grail type archaeo-spoof. 'Geotechnical Magnetism' indeed; why couldn't script writers even try to make things sound remotely plausible? Still, they'd got the look of the news cast right, and the mock trench had been peopled with actors that actually did look like archaeologists (and who were wearing, beneath  reflective jackets, exactly the right sort of faded T shirt and mud splattered, multi-pocketed camouflage trousers). The set designers had even dressed the location up realistically with plausible looking survey equipment as well as wheel barrows that looked as if they had seen considerable action (some of which even had the appearance of having died in action) and there were shovels, spades and mattocks. Trowels were worn down to satisfyingly small shapes, not the long and pointy types freshly acquired from the nearest builder's merchants or DIY store.

The tireless reporter was now speaking to someone about whether or not this "could be the mortal remains of the King". I had a momentary fear that he would suddenly declare that he'd found Elvis, but luckily those fears proved unfounded. "Could be" the interviewee smiled somewhat cryptically, "he certainly seems to have sustained a number of injuries to the head and upper body and, intriguingly, appears to have had some sort of injury to his back resulting in one shoulder being higher than the other".

There was a pause in which I felt I ought to be impressed.

Obviously I had missed an earlier part of the documentary - probably a CGI gore fest showing King Arthur being struck down by Mordred, sustaining a series of head and back injuries in the process, in a climatic battle scene (Camlann probably), his sword falling to the ground in agonisingly slow motion. I half expected to see an Indiana Jones type in fedora and leather jacket emerge from behind the spoil heap with the sun blazing dramatically behind him, sword in hand whilst he breathlessly announced to the world that he had "found Excalibur"...

But no.

Instead we cut to straight to a church interior and the reporter, now in tweed jacket, clasping a picture of...wait a minute...that's Richard III isn't it? Hang on....

Realisation dawned. This was REAL LIFE (or as real as could be established under the circumstances) and these were REAL PEOPLE (not actors)...this was a piece of non fictionalised archaeo facto-tainment.

I turned the TV off and went to bed.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

No decorum in the forum: 2

I still don't speak Latin (but then, to be fair, it's only been a few months since my last confession), and now everyone seems to be speaking it, or at least talking about it, or at least taking about two people in particular who were caught out by their use (or misuse) of a few words of it.

Government Chief Whip and Conservative Party MP Andrew Mitchell last week gave a virtuoso performance of how not to use Latin when he allegedly berated members of the Metropolitan Police who had stopped him from cycling through a ‘please don’t cycle through this’ security gate (rather than walking through a side entrance like a normal human being). Mitchell (who does not appear to be a normal human being) was understandably aggrieved (probably at those who thought he was a normal human being) and proceeded to download a few choice expressions. The Sun (not always the most reliable of British newspapers) reported Mitchell as saying: "Best you learn your [Anglo Saxon expletive deleted] place. You don't run this [Anglo Saxon expletive deleted] government. You're [Anglo Saxon expletive deleted] plebs."

Funny thing is, it wasn't the choice use of Anglo Saxon expletives that upset everyone, nor, apparently, the vitriolic attack upon the group of public servants just doing their duty, no: it was the use of the word 'pleb', the shortened version of the Latin term 'plebeian' that is generally applied to the unwashed mass of normality in the Roman world. 

I've got no real concerns about a Tory MP calling anyone who isn't a Tory MP a ‘pleb’, in fact I rather like the idea of being thought of as plebeian and it would be a mark of honour to be called one by a self-important, puffed-up, port-swilling, patrician, bum-faced, public school Conservative baboon. No, what I object to is the unadulterated string of Anglo Saxon expletives that  one such self-important, puffed-up, port-swilling, patrician, bum-faced, public school Conservative baboon hurled with unjustified vitriol at members of the police who were manning the aforesaid security gate. No one seemed all that bothered about these particular words and that particularly bothers me. Mitchell claims that the Anglo Saxon expletives were not expressly directed at the police, no, he was merely expressing his frustration in more general terms at the world around him.

Quite right.

In fact whenever I get frustrated at work, say by the photocopier that seems to possess the singular inability to photocopy anything onto A4 without first chewing the paper up and then spitting it contemptuously at my feet, or perhaps the drinks machine that can't seem to serve you a cup of tea without first liberally dusting it with dried tomato soup, I can often be seen (and heard) remonstrating with it in the following terms "Best you learn your [Anglo Saxon expletive deleted] place. You don't run this [Anglo Saxon expletive deleted] University. You're a [Anglo Saxon expletive deleted] piece of [Anglo Saxon expletive deleted] inanimate machinery."

It doesn't never does.

With immaculate timing, the UK Prime Minister managed his own Latin clanger when he dropped in on US television's The Late Show with David Letterman. Letterman, bizarrely, took the opportunity to quiz the PM on British history, which wasn't strictly fair, given that the British do have about 2,000 years more history than the US, but I have to say it was very entertaining (and simultaneously stomach-churningly gruelling) to watch.

The quiz included Mr Letterman asking Mr Cameron what 'Magna Carta' meant, to which Mr Cameron did his best to appear perplexed. Looking at the interview again, I'm not sure whether Letterman was asking what Magna Carta meant in the greater sense of democracy and the development of civil rights OR if whether he was simply asking 'what it is the literal translation', but David Cameron huffed and puffed and admitted that he simply didn't know. Now I wasn't educated at Eton (can you tell?) and neither am I running the country, but I think that even I could have a stab at answering 'er..does it mean Great Charter David?' (or even 'Big Charter' would have done).

Boris Johnson the jabberingly inbred lozenge-shaped gibbon / Major of London (delete as applicable) later commented that Mr Cameron had undoubtedly faked ignorance in order to make himself appear "more down to earth". Yeah, I do that a lot now you come to mention it, feigning ignorance on geography, football, physics, chemistry, football (again), biology, popular culture, cricket and football to the point that I must appear to be the most solidly down to earth of blokes. "It was a brilliant move" the toffee-nosed blond-moppet / potential next prime minister (delete as applicable) added "in order to show that he didn't have Latin bursting out of every orifice."

Every orifice….? All eleven of them?

Perhaps, if Latin is indeed an ancient orifice-busting language, then it really is something that is best avoided.

Cave quid dicis, quando, et cui