Julian Richards
[ Issue 27 ]

Emily Bronto is without doubt an admirer of Julian Richards

Bikwil honours Julian Richards

Julian Richards

It’s been a long wait, but at last Tony Rogers digs out some more for our Up-front Popularizers series.  This time the subject is British archaeologist Julian Richards.

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"One Huge Graveyard"
[ Up-front Popularizers No. 2 ]
— Tony Rogers


Let’s face it: I’ve been a stay-at-home archaeologist since my first high school year. Twelve years old, I’d just heard about Howard Carter and the priceless collection of objects he unearthed in the tomb of King Tutankamun, and was really infatuated with the idea of archaeological investigation, so one day when the class were asked to write down their career ambitions, you can imagine what I professed as my life’s dream. To my astonishment, I won a prize for something at year’s end, and lo and behold it turned out to be a book about archaeology in Ethiopia called Dead Men Do Tell Tales, by an author with the exotic name of Byron de Prorok.

However, like MASH’s Radar O’Reilly with his National Geographics, I got distracted by the photos of nubile bare-chested native women, and archaeology had to take a temporary back seat to pubescent obsessions. In later years, I did get round to looking at the text too, and began to realise seriously that Egypt wasn’t the only place in the world where fascinating discoveries could be unearthed. And once arrived at Sydney University (not to study archaeology, I should add), I was able to while away the occasional hour in the Nicholson Museum there. Not only did they have an Egyptian collection; there were also Near Eastern, Cypriot, and Greek and Roman collections, plus artefacts from Anglo Saxon times.

And now, half a lifetime later, along comes Julian Richards with some engrossing archaeological news from the Old Dart, which he dresses up in the form of television programmes he organises and presents for the BBC under the generic title Meet the Ancestors.

But, as we will see, long gone are the attitudes that in Howard Carter’s time saw archaeological excavations as little more than opportunities for treasure hunting and international rivalry.

“The British Isles is one huge graveyard”, says Richards, where every year hundreds and hundreds of burial sites are discovered by chance by construction workers or dug up with intent by archaeologists. For him every such site he visits is a chance — with the help of modern science and technology — to learn about real people of the past “not only the way they lived and died, but even how they might have looked”. And what better way, in fact, to communicate his appetite for the learning process of “unearthing the secrets behind the bones” than to present real cases on television as they are being investigated?

There have been three series of Meet the Ancestors so far, beginning in 1997. Each episode takes us to an interment spot in Britain where excavation is in progress. To date, approximately four and a half thousand years of the past (200 generations) have been covered by the sites investigated in the show, from the Neolithic period (3200 BC) to the 16th century AD. Localities represented include Cheshire, Donegal, Dorset, the Lake District, Orkney, Somerset, Suffolk, Wiltshire and Winchester.

So what do I like so much about Richards’ presentations that prompts me to include him here as an “up-front popularizer”? Three things: his enthusiasm, his professionalism and his humanity.

First and foremost, Julian Richards is nothing if not enthusiastic: from all reports, viewers of the programmes everywhere have been caught up by his infectious passion for his work, some in Britain being inspired to apply to become assistant volunteer workers on excavation sites.

For all his dynamic TV presence, however, Richards is a thorough pro. He has been a professional archaeologist for over 30 years, with experience in the survey and excavation of prehistoric burial sites, settlements and industrial areas. In the 1980s he completed a key project on Stonehenge and its landscape, and wrote about it in The English Heritage Book of Stonehenge (1991, paperback ISBN: 071346142X).

Concerning the TV shows, he was once asked whether he sometimes found he needed to sacrifice good archaeology to make a good programme. His reply was simply, “No. The archaeology always comes first in Meet the Ancestors.”

Of course, Richards is “the very model of a modern archaeologist”. Not only does he apply advanced scientific techniques like X-rays, radiocarbon dating and DNA examination, but he uses them in the pursuit of insight into the way people lived at the time. Sure, the television programmes might place heavy emphasis on facial reconstruction from shattered skulls, and yes, they might have watercolour paintings done of the site as it may have appeared in its ancient context. But at the end of the day what counts is people. As Richards himself says of the first dig he went on,

. . . I started to realize that archaeology wasn’t just about objects, or about ruins and monuments: it was about people. People had built and lived in the castle we were uncovering, had dug out and filled the rubbish pit that I was busy re-excavating, and someone, a real person, had made and used the pot that I now held in smashed fragments.

Here are a few more quotes that reveal Richards’ way of thinking:

I would be devoid of emotion if I didn't feel something when in the presence of one of our ancestors.

I can still appreciate the craft that has gone into the making of a fine flint arrowhead or the decoration of a bronze brooch.

I would have loved to have known more about her life.

And on the (Australian) ABC Shop’s Web site I found this statement:

Archaeology is about people. One thing that we must never lose sight of is that a human burial is not just something of scientific curiosity it is the remains of a person who lived, died, knew pain, joy and sorrow, and was finally laid to rest . . .

Elsewhere on the Internet, the BBC runs an educational site derived from Richards’ TV series. Apart from the great interactive Hunt the Ancestors game (“Quick, before the money runs out and the developers bulldoze in!”), there are features on virtual archaeology (how technology helps uncover and rebuild the secrets of the past), carbon dating and the Piltdown Man hoax. One of its strengths is the systematic advice it offers on how an amateur can pursue an interest in British archaeology. There is also a transcription of an enjoyable chat-room interview with Richards.

Even more useful is Richards’ book Meet the Ancestors (1999, hardcover ISBN 0 563 38458 1), another BBC product. Here he charmingly describes nine of the people whose remains were unearthed at the eleven excavation sites featured in Series 1 and 2 on television. So if you missed the TV series there’s no need to fret. This book will certainly give you a comprehensive sense of Julian Richards’ wholehearted love of archaeology and sincere respect for what he finds when he digs.

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