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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.”
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.
a few more quotes that reveal Richards’ way of thinking:
be devoid of emotion if I didn't feel something when in the presence of
one of our ancestors.
still appreciate the craft that has gone into the making of a fine flint
arrowhead or the decoration of a bronze brooch.
have loved to have known more about her life.
ABC Shop’s Web site I found this statement:
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 . . .
on the Internet, the BBC runs an
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.
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.