Tag Archives: Mary-Ann Ochota

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.