The faces of TV archaeology

One of the other things from the backlog that I wanted to talk about was what looks like a case of media misattribution. I want to stress straight away that I didn’t see the TV program in question—I’ve never owned a TV and in any case I’d never tune in on time—so I may have got the wrong impression through reports on the program. [Edit: as indeed it transpires! Please note emendations below.] If so please let me know! But for the moment, there was this National Geographic programme in February about the Ridgeway Viking burial that you’ve heard about here already, a program that got quite widely reported, presented by one Dr Britt Baillie-Warren of Cambridge.

Dr Britt Baillie-Warren with the Parker Chronicle in the National Geographic program Viking Apocalypse

Dr Britt Baillie-Warren with the Parker Chronicle

On paper, Dr Baillie-Warren seems a slightly odd academic choice to present a program on Vikings in England. I haven’t met her or heard her present or read her work, so in some sense I shouldn’t judge, but the reason I haven’t is because her Ph. D. was on Vukovar in Croatia in the aftermath of the late twentieth-century break-up of Yugoslavia, and her current research is on landscapes in Jerusalem. I don’t mean to suggest that it is anything less than completely rigorous, I honestly don’t, but there’s nothing of the early Middle Ages in it [edit: although, as has been gently pointed out to me by e-mail, her B. A. was in Medieval Archaeology and she has in fact dug in Iceland]. Nonetheless, she seems to have grasped the nettle and come up with an interesting take on things, going from the isotope testing that revealed the bodies to be non-local and the radio-carbon dating that overlapped the St Brice’s Day Massacre of 1002, in which King Æthelred the Unready reportedly ordered the execution of `all the Danes in England’ resulting in the burning of St Frideswide’s Oxford as we’ve heard, the apparent equanimity with which they all faced execution and finally the fact that some of the bodies had had their teeth filed in a painful but presumably compellingly disturbing kind of group branding, to suggest that this group were, or modelled themselves on, a band of the almost-legendary Jomsvikings, whose Saga has similar sentiments about facing death and which claims Viking leader Thorkell the Tall as a member, Thorkell being one of the leaders of armies with whom Æthelred had to content at that time and who was definitely in England. (This was seemingly demonstrated from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle via a trip to the Parker Library, because we know how historical TV makers hate to point out that these obscure manuscripts locked away in ancient libraries are published and translated already, don’t we? Looking stuff up online just isn’t as telegenic.) Now, obviously Thorkell did not get executed on the Ridgeway, because he outlived Æthelred (whose reasonably loyal employee he became) and became an earl under Cnut. And, I might worry about the fact that the Jómsvikinga Saga (also well-published, but never mind) wasn’t fixed in text till the late twelfthis first preserved in a manuscript of the early thirteenth century [edit: something which I have now been told was in fact mentioned in the program], and so there’s every possibility that when it was fixed in text its stories had had recent heroes added to them. So in fact, overall, I’d rather say that the Saga was modelled on warbands like these (albeit more successful ones) than that they were modelling themselves on the stories, let alone the ‘real’ Jomsvikings. That would make these men a kind of second-rate Expendables, a group of soldiers from various places hired to do dirty work by an employer who then turned on them and whose price they paid for it. There’s a good TV program in there somewhere, too, but it’s clear that this too was a very good TV program because of the awe-struck quality of the reporting. So, what’s my problem, mere jealousy at not being invited on?

The Ridgeway burial pit containing 51 Viking-age bodies

Obligatory picture of the Ridgeway burial pit and its 51 Viking-age bodies, skulls detached

Well, no, or at least I hope not. My problem is simply with the level of contribution that the reporting all seems to have attributed to Dr Baillie-Warren because she was fronting the programme. The Daily Mail goes most overboard with this, as follows:

Archaeologists dated their bones to around the year 1,000 but had few other clues as to the identities of the men who met such a sticky end. Now a researcher at Cambridge University claims to have pieced the story together….

but the BBC story is similar. However, we know that her contribution was the Jomsviking theory and no more, because the actual dig was nothing to do with Cambridge or Dr Baillie-Warren, but was done by a contract firm called Oxford Archaeology (and they nothing to do with the University, lest I be accused of being partisan). It was they who did or got done the radiocarbon dating, the isotope testing and the analysis of the teeth, and you know this perhaps because I reported on David Score of OA telling a seminar about this but the journalists might have known about simply because their respective organs had also published that news some eighteen months previously. But if it goes onto TV with an identifiable face for the theory, apparently, out goes that racial memory. Only the Telegraph, in a rare display of journalistic caution, gives any indication that some of this might not be new news. Now, perhaps as I say the program was clearer about this than the reporting was [edit: and again I have been told that it was, and that OA’s osteoarchaelogist featured in it heavily], and if so I’d be grateful to know, but as it is it really doesn’t[edit: the papers and indeed the National Geographic’s own site really don’t make it] look like credit where credit’s due.

This contrasts weirdly with another case from about a month before, of which I learnt through a protest campaign mounted at the Archaeology in Europe blog and about which I’d also then intended to write, the addition of a co-presenter to legendary British archaeology TV series Time Team. This hit the news, as far as I can see, partly because it was one of a set of changes that caused the long-time stalwart of the programme, Professor Mick Aston, to step down one series prematurely, but also because the company that makes the show, Wildfire Television, had if the newspapers are to be believed decided specifically to add pretty much a token woman without significant expertise, for reasons left as an exercise for the reader:

Mick Aston, the archaeologist, has quit Time Team after producers hired a former model as the programme’s co-presenter.

The 65-year-old, who has been on the show for 19 years, said he had been left “really angry” by changes which led to the introduction of co-presenter Mary-Ann Ochota and some archaeologists being axed.



He was responding to changes first proposed by producers at Channel 4 in late 2010, which included a new presenter to join Tony Robinson and decisions to “cut down the informative stuff about the archaeology”.

An email to archaeologists last year from Wildfire Television, which makes the programme, said it was seeking a female co-presenter who “does not have to be overly experienced or knowledgeable as we have plenty of expertise within the existing team”.

This is the reporting from the Telegraph, on this occasion much further into its comfort zone as you can tell and quite certain what the best way to present the situation is. Certainly, the situation appears to have been bad, as shortly after this Mrs Ochota also announced that she would not do another series and it seems that much has been rethought as to how the program will now continue. But again, ethical reporting has failed here. The first reason is of course that cheap shot, “ex-model”. By that same token you could, equally accurately, describe my current employment as “ex-barman and one-time telesales person hired to teach students Anglo-Saxon history at top university”. In fact, just as I do actually have some relevant qualifications also, Mrs Ochota, while not a research archaeologist like occasional female presenters Carenza Lewis or Helen Geake (of Cambridge both), was not academically unprepared for this gig, because she has a degree in archaeology and anthropology (also from Cambridge…1) and was and is in fact well-known already as a TV anthropologist. (I haven’t met or heard her either, I should maybe make clear.) If Wildfire were genuinely looking for a token woman with nothing of her own to contribute, though, I’d say they got the wrong one. (The coverage in the Daily Mail does quote more of whatever document this was, adding “However, they added: ‘Intelligence, natural curiosity and a passion for archaeology is a must.’” That’s something, I suppose?

TV presenter Mary-Ann Ochota

Mary-Ann Ochota, before her slot with Time Team

Now, when I first read of both these stories I cynically assumed that what we were looking at was TV companies trying to `sex up’ what they saw as a dull subject dominated by men in jumpers (though Professor Aston’s jumpers surely deserve star billing by themselves, even if only as some kind of warning), such as has been complained of about other programs on the Middle Ages. That certainly seems to have been the take of the Telegraph (of whom we might expect no better) and the Daily Mail (of whom we might expect worse and who recorded Mrs Ochota’s arrival with the headline, “‘What’s she got that I haven’t?’ Veteran quits as Cambridge beauty joins TV’s Time Team”; this quote was apparently ‘expressive’ rather than factual, you’ll doubtless be surprised to learn). That should have been enough to warn me, really, if I’m in agreement with the Mail I’ve probably missed something. Nonetheless, the difference in reporting is weird: in the first case we have a bright, young and, yes, female, archaeologist, having other people’s work attributed to her despite an apparent lack of relevant expertise[edit: statements to the contrary], and in the second a bright, young and, yes, female, anthropologist whose archaeological and anthropological training was basically overlooked because the journalists decided it made a better story to focus on her looks. I would guess that it was more the “archaeologists being axed” and the threat to “`cut down the informative stuff about the archaeology’” that made Professor Aston angry, myself, but the actual issues do not seem to be what got the journalists’ attention. As the saying goes in some places, “We ent arrive as yet“.

Time Team at Salisbury Cathedral, 2009

Time Team, including Helen Geake, in 2009, jumpers mainly made safe


1. I grant you that there is possibly a question to be asked here about why every woman I can mention in this post works or studied at Cambridge, but the answer is probably simply “Catherine Hills” so I’m not going to worry about that just now.

23 responses to “The faces of TV archaeology

  1. Pingback: The faces of TV archaeology | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe | Archaeology News | Scoop.it

  2. Thanks for this Jon. The media storm (and obligatory subsequent barrage of online vitriol) over Mary-Ann Ochota really made me grind my teeth, given that the main underlying assumption seemed to be that it was offensive for an intelligent woman also to be good looking. Apparently model = airhead, irrespective of how many letters you have after your name. It’s a little like the reporting choices associated with any allegations relating to children: if any association, however slight, with a religious or scouting organisation can be dredged from the accused’s past, this is what’s going to make the headline. As far as one can tell from the outside, Mary-Ann was the unfortunate fall-guy (or fall-chick?) for the even more unfortunate production choices in the most recent series of Time Team – an old guilty pleasure of mine which I ceased to watch after it seemed to be wrung through an editing process more appropriate to a Jason Bourne thriller than a documentary. I doubt her experience in modelling had much to do with that. I’ll stop there, because I might blow an artery or something, and that could be messy…
    Anyway, your bringing together of these two tales points up the important problem that the TV-consuming public (aside from its questionable gender-based judgements) has very little awareness of the production processes behind these things, and hence no proper basis for attributions, positive or negative. Rather simplistic cause-and-effect relationships are being predicated and perpetuated left, right and centre, and the internet acts like a giant sounding board to amplify them. Thankyou for being a small voice of reason.
    P.S. If anyone needs copy on me (God help them), I’m a former sales assistant, a lapsed catholic, a swinging voter and a member of the MCC. Make what you will of it.

  3. The concern of TV producers’ ideas with ‘good television’ in factual programming rarely coincides with the expectations of interested parties outside the TV world, does it? But I wonder if in the UK we’re beginning to see a new ingredient in documentaries of this sort: the assessment of non-academic impact in the new UK university departmental research auditing system (forgive me if I’ve raised this before). I don’t claim to have paid attention to all the ins and outs of all this, but I suspect that any academic department stands to profit that can claim to play host, however loosely (in some cases the more loosely the better), to a young researcher or member of teaching staff who’s been picked up for TV. As I understand it, academic quality is not necessarily important in the demonstration of impact (I hope I’m wrong, and can be corrected by someone who understands this better than I). So we have a situation where a university department can benefit materially from the activities of junior associates — in some cases /very/ loosely associated — in ways that were never before possible. It won’t matter if the presentation is dodgy if the viewing figures are good, and /something/ original in the interpretation can be identified. And of course, unestablished juniors will cost the production company less, and needn’t cause embarrassment if it doesn’t work out. If it does pay off, the profile of esoteric academic subjects can be raised very successfully. So everybody looks to win, and it’s not in anybody’s interests to point out that the intellectual content of these programmes may often leave something to be desired.

    • Well, the UK impact agenda is hideously badly-defined. The guidelines for submission seem to imply that anything which reaches outside the Academy is `impact’, in which case TV is an obvious win! But I’ve been told by someone on an impact assessment panel that that’s not what is meant at all, and that only things which demonstrably affect public policy count. In which case, TV about the past would only count if it brought about a syllabus change, I guess. It all looks like the natural sciences closing ranks, to me. But the fact that that isn’t what the ‘rules’ say seems to me to be trouble waiting to happen…

  4. The Eng lang and lit case studies at the REF website indicates that a simple demonstration of ‘enhanced public awareness of and engagement with [the] issues [raised]‘ may be adequate in the humanities. In which case one can be certain that every smallest segment of TV time might be recorded and used as evidence, whatever its worth. If someone can just find a way of combining public interest in vikings and reality TV, they’ll be minting pure REF gold. As in: I’m a Jómsvíkingr, Get Me Out of Here (with your host, Jon ‘Jazzy-Js’ Jarrett, and historian Cheryl Cole).

    • I’m a Jómsvíkingr, Get Me Out of Here (with your host, Jon ‘Jazzy-Js’ Jarrett, and historian Cheryl Cole)

      You sir are an evil man and I must buy you a drink, in the hope that it drowns that idea humanely.

  5. Please note edits above in the light of new information, some of which I should already have had, my apologies for that. Hopefully now fairer and more accurate!

  6. Joking aside, this issue has been bugging me since I read your blog. You’re right that it’s important not to make the mistake of directing flak at the young graduates and academics who have the good fortune and the initiative to get involved in projects like this. All power to them (although I do wish they’d work harder on interpretation: it doesn’t matter what your training is, someone claiming an u/g background in the field should have seen that, yes, the Jómsvíkinga s. passage offers a colourful textual reference point, but that it is very far indeed from providing a reliable interpretative model for the Dorset material, even if the archaeology represents the remains of an unlucky Scandinavian war-band from the right period. Had it been possible to adduce English origins for the dead, you might as well have argued that they died in a drunken effort to reenact Gawain and the Green Knight.) What I’m left wondering is why we don’t hear more from all you good-looking and energetic /established/ scholars, the blistering lecturers and practised crowd-pleasers who’ve actually published major work in their field and cut their teeth as skilled professional educators. Yes, there’s a bit of popular-market stuff by mature academics out there, but not enough in the early medieval sphere. If there /is/ an REF angle here (and a quick scan of relevant university websites indicates that this is the case), then impact should surely be about what the mature scholars do, not only the least experienced people on the departmental list, or those few who have specifically made their name as populists. There’s no lack of public appetite for it, and we have a public broadcasting corporation which I for one believe has a responsibility to coax you to perform. It’s almost as if nobody wants to go first. So, come on Peter Sarris et al, get yer ya-yas out.

    • Well, see the previous post including Thomas Asbridge’s Crusades series, and of course there’s always Michael Wood (who has published major work, in his own way). But absolutely, it would be nice to see more of this, and surely not everywhere can have the Oxbridge distaste for the `TV don’ institutionally built-in (even Oxbridge, by now, I’d say). One thing that I will be keeping track of is whether any of the unestablished scholars I notice fronting programs like this actually manage to transition into permanent academia or if, as I suspect, this is actually seen as `trouble’ by selection committees. It’s noticeable that even people like Janina Ramirez are in some sense `on the edge’ of their institutions, with an affiliation to Continuing Education in Oxford but no actual faculty post. The temptation must be, as with Mary-Ann Ochota or Bettany Hughes, or indeed Michael Wood, to take up television etc. full-time; the money must be better and the job security probably is too!

  7. Not sure about that ‘Oxbridge distaste’ for the TV don, since the programmes I’ve seen (all of the ones you mention, but also several more) seem rather to have the problem that they don’t go much beyond Oxbridge for their ‘experts’ (TT often being an honourable exception). But I think the answer is quite simple and is found in this article in the Guardian the other day: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/aug/15/new-art-of-underbragging?INTCMP=SRCH. We live in a society where those who promote themselves the loudest get the furthest. Even quality newspapers, I have discovered to my cost, don’t apply basic journalistic standards in making sure that the ‘experts’ they cite are actually what they claim to be, nor do they make much effort to find the real experts who, admittedly, are a bit jaded with this culture of impact and self-promotion, and would actually prefer to be getting on with the research which underpins the superficial opinions of the TV dons. JJ, I think you are just old before your time, you should be out there self-promoting with the best of them – you’re too young to be a grumpy old man!
    BTW, although you maintain that ‘the Jómsvikinga Saga … well-published’, it isn’t really. Did you know for instance that it survives in 5 distinct versions, the relationships of which are by no means clear? And only two of those have ever been translated into English, and only one of those (the one you cite) is what most people think of as Jómsvikinga Saga. When will that kind of detail get into TV programmes? Probably never. Along with the fact that although the saga is ‘late’, like all sagas, the different versions have interesting mixes of skaldic verse, at least some of which is, I would argue, genuinely ancient.
    Although I’m enough of a grumpy old woman to complain about the likes of Janina Ramirez (and I have done, as I think you know, see http://norseandviking.blogspot.co.uk/2011/05/viking-week.html), I can’t help thinking that on the whole anything that gets people interested is fine. Television is not University for the Common Man, it’s only journalism after all, after a good story. But someone has to man the bastions of truth, facts, evidence and expertise, and surely that is the role of universities. Though how long they’ll manage this in view of the pressures of ‘impact’, I’m not very sanguine.

    • Thanks for the corrections about Jómsvikinga Saga, to start with. Are all the versions preserved in manuscripts subsequent to the date I picked? because if not I’d better edit some more…

      I commented in your Janina Ramirez thread, I now remember, but at least with some of what she’s done (the programs in support of the British Library’s Royal Illuminations exhibition for example) she is on her home subject. I’ve not seen her either, obviously, so I can’t say whether that makes her any better as a TV presenter.

      The Oxbridge distaste for the TV don is supposed, legendarily at least, to be internal rather than external, but I suspect that in that perhaps now-vanished ideology the idea that someone should go elsewhere for expertise was as distasteful as providing it in that fashion. presumably the correctly donnish medium is radio… But as I say, I am not myself quite comfortable that this is a good thing for an unestablished academic to do. Celebrity status is not something many people want to pull into their departments at a junior level, I sense, it threatens “fit” (which I usually take to mean quiescence). Mind you, the damage is probably done by the blog already! But when you say:

      JJ, I think you are just old before your time, you should be out there self-promoting with the best of them – you’re too young to be a grumpy old man!

      I can answer only, I’m not yet `old’ enough to have job security and so I’m not inclined to chance it, sorry, even if it were offered.

  8. Trouble is, the broadcasting will only get better if better people get involved. My limited experience (as one who has already turned down a couple of media projects in order to do some ‘proper’ work) indicates that more senior colleagues, with heavy administrative workloads, who value their research time, will often bat inquiries (often from former students or their contacts, now employed in the media) down to steerage and the likes of me. This pattern might well explain the ‘Catherine Hills effect’ you’ve identified, and indeed another aspect of the Oxbridge connection (since Oxbridge is so heavily represented in TV and print media).

    Viqueen may know better, but I believe that the earliest Jómsvíkinga s. manuscript dates from the very end of the C13th…

    • JPG: I don’t think JJ was implying that there was a late 12th-century ms of Jómsvíkinga saga, only that it had first been fixed in text then, and he might well be right, though it is an interesting question for discussion. It is a common and deplorable tendency among certain medievalists (you know who I mean) to claim that no text is older than its oldest manuscript – this would make The Battle of Maldon 18th-century and The Book of the Icelanders 17th. Huh. One of the reasons I love Old Norse literature is that you can spend hours discussing the pre-history of the surviving texts and their manuscripts. Unlike Old English texts, where there is so little to go on other than the minutiae of Michael Lapidge-style palaeographical analysis, with ON texts there are so many different ways in which you can approach the question ‘how old is this text’, and of course before you even start doing that you can spend many happy hours defining what you mean by the text the prehistory of which you are trying to determine. The New Philology is all well and good, but the archaeology of texts is much more fun. Well, that’s my view anyway. But then I did once, in the mists of antiquity, write a PhD on the lost literature of medieval Iceland….so I’ve been a bit loopy right from the start.

      • No, you do me too much credit, your Majesty, I’m afraid I just grabbed the date from Wikipedia, which should warn me against writing things in a hurry (as with quite a lot of this post, it’s beginning to seem). I will amend.

      • I couldn’t agree with you more, Viqueen: I’m not entirely comfortable with New Philology in Old Norse and Viking studies, despite its blandishments. But there are still problems in other camps, particularly those impinging more on the popular domain, where the trickle-down from scholarship sometimes seems in some case either not to have reached the C20th — or not to have left the 1930s. This is a case in point. It’s telling perhaps that the latest developments in archaeology are far more likely to find a purchase on TV than the latest bit of textually-based theory. So it’s still salutary to reflect on the dates of the extant Norse manuscripts, just so one knows what one is dealing with at the outset… As regards the gender issues raised by Jazzy-Jay (as I must now call him), one of the things I’ve always liked most about Norse and Viking studies is the fact that female scholars have had a comparatively strong position in recent times. Or am I being a complacent male?

        • An important question to ask is how far up the structure that gender balance gets. But I have to admit that I can immediately think of several women in established posts in the field even without including Dawn Hadley again, so you may be right…

    • Well, as to the Catherine Hills effect, what I mainly meant is that she has for a long time been a substantial proportion, if not a one-woman majority/totality, of the women employed on an established basis in academic research on the archaeology of the early Middle Ages in England. (I can also now think of Dawn Hadley and of course Helena Hamerow and I’m sure there must be more, but how many and for how long?) One might expect, therefore, a lot of the women wanting to study that period to have studied with her. (Of course it’s not just women; even I was taught by her for part of my M. Phil., and ironically, I’ve since been informed that Dr Baillie wasn’t.)

  9. Oh poor mis-informed Jonathan Jarrett, perhaps the fact that the brillant Dr. Britt Baillie is danish and worked at the Danish Viking Museum had something to do with it. Or perhaps that when contacted the Danish Viking Museum recommended her because of her wealth of knowledge and experience.

    • You may have missed the point of the post, which is about the reportage. Otherwise, I have missed the point of your comment. How would Dr Baillie’s Viking Museum experience justify the papers’ attributing Oxford Archaeology’s work to her? (I also don’t see how her being Danish is relevant, except in as much as it must have made getting that experience slightly easier. I’m mostly English but you shouldn’t put me in the front of a programme about the Civil War or the Industrial Revolution…)

  10. I think a lot of discussions about TV history presenters and their qualifications (or lack of them) slightly miss the point because they’re ignoring the issue of continuity. What programme makers really want, if they find the “right” presenter (defined by a mix of factors including good looks, personality and authority) is to keep on using them, so that they become a brand. For example, Stephen Baxter from KCL did a well-regarded programme on Domesday Book, on which he’s an expert. The next TV programme he did was on medieval children, about which he’s not an expert. But he’s an excellent teacher and looks good striding around in a leather jacket, so he’s likely to get used again.

    Because TV uses up material so quickly and wants programmes on broad topics, you can’t make a TV career out of your own narrow research specialism. One programme about early medieval Catalonia or Carolingian women perhaps, but not a series. So what is really needed is someone who can mug up quickly on an unfamiliar topic and then sound authoritative for a short period of time while the camera is rolling. Is it any wonder that an Oxbridge education is such good training for this?

    Time Team is interesting because it’s one of the few programmes that at least partially gets round this issue of academics talking on subjects outside their main field of interest, by having a team with different specialisms on which they can draw, plus a front man who doesn’t claim to be an expert. Maybe that’s the reason it’s survived so well, whatever some of its other problems.

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