Thursday, July 22, 2004

Meeting the ancestors

Cronaca has a list of recent archaeological finds in England. It's not just because we have a lot of archaeology. It's also because we have a helluva lot of archaeologists. I had an interesting conversation with an archaeologist from Europe (embarrassingly, I've completely forgotten where. Germany 'or thereabouts', maybe, thinking back to his accent) a couple of years ago, and he explained that they are deeply envious of British funding levels for archaeological work.

We Brits love archaeology. We gobble it up on TV. My favourite, rather than Time Team (Channel 4), was the original format of Meet The Ancestors (BBC2). (Actually, my real all-time favourite is probably the insane spoof We Are History (BBC). But let's be serious for now.) I loved Julian Richards' enthusiasm. The programme was a perfect miniature showcase for all the things that archaeologists do, and, more than that, made it human and personally accessible. Choose one burial - one 'ancestor' from a wide range of periods - as your point of departure. Interweave the exploration of the historical context, up-to-the-minute archaeological wizardry, all centred around - perhaps the inspired bit - a reconstruction of that particular individual including what they looked like. Sometimes they used computer imaging to get the face, but it was the painstaking process using clay that won every time for me. There was something compelling about our periodic visits to the artist's workshop, watching the layers build up, until that bizarre lump of clay with its little white sticks became a recognisable human face.

Meet The Ancestors no longer uses this particular format; fair enough, you could probably only do something so simple so many times before everyone - programme makers and viewers alike, even me - would tire of it. It's become more diverse - and remains a role model, I think, for combining entertainment and education. Still, I miss the original.

Another recent TV favourite, by the way: Terry Jones' Medieval Lives (BBC2). Terry's aiming to "rescue the Middle Ages from moth-eaten cliches and well-worn platitudes". And dress up in silly costumes at every possible opportunity. Does anyone else agree that Terry is the only Python who remains consistently funny (or funny at all, in some cases: step forward, Mr Cleese)?


  1. Anonymous12:05 PM

    The archaeology department at my university appears to be very well funded from the state of the building. But . . . I've heard of some alarming cutbacks so it's not all a bed of roses.

  2. Anonymous12:13 AM

    If Gilliam is allowed to put another film out some time in the future then there'll be 2 funny ex-pythons.

    Loved Medieval lives - very holy grail. Nice to see that kings really did have shit all over them.


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