Category Archives: Industry

Shooting Archaeologists at WAC-8

Kon’nichiwa! Watashi wa Kokogaku-sha des. Sake wa doko des ka?

[Hello! I am an archaeologist. Where is the beer?]

Greetings from the 8th World Archaeology Congress, currently  underway in beautiful Kyoto, Japan. I’m going to give a short presentation introducing the Off The Record research project this coming Friday – perhaps if you’re at WAC you might care to come listen? Or if you have friends or colleagues at WAC who might be interested, you could be so kind as to point them in my direction? Sadly 15 minutes is barely enough to scratch the surface of the topic, but hopefully this will help wet folks appetites for more discourse about archaeology in the media!

Session: T08-E Showing Better Archaeology, Doing Better Archaeology

Room: RY321

Time: 9:00 – 11:00

The spiel (abstract):

“Shooting Archaeologists. Off the Record: Archaeology and Documentary Filmmaking”

Who calls the shots in archaeology documentaries – and why? This paper investigates archaeology’s relationship with UK documentary filmmaking. Uniquely however, this relationship is considered from the angle of film production as seen from an archaeological perspective. The first stage of results from the ‘Off the Record: Archaeology and Documentary Filmmaking’ PhD research project will be presented, including up-to-date findings from a survey of UK archaeologists working in the documentary sector, reflecting on their experiences, values, concerns and hopes for the genre. This new evidence allows us to better determine archaeology’s place within the media, and documentary’s place within archaeology.

See you there!

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Even the Okonomiyaki comes with a trowel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Beneath the Surface of Digging For Britain

So this past weekend I had the privilege of crashing a talk about archaeology documentariesAlice Roberts in Conversation with John Farren – at Salisbury Museum’s open weekend as part of the UK’s Festival of Archaeology. For those unfamiliar, Professor Alice Roberts is a archaeological scientist (her specialty is osteology) who has presented on several British factual series including Time Team, The Incredible Human Journey, The Origins of Us, Ice Age Giants, Coast and Digging for Britain. John Farren is the producer of Digging For Britain (though his company 360 Productions), as well as other factual archaeology documentaries such as Rome: The Worlds First Super Power and What The Ancients Did For Us, and he also edited Timewatch. Digging For Britain is a magazine-style factual series on BBC 4 which reports annually on current UK excavations, taking a novel approach to filmmaking by combining archaeologists’ own DIY footage of the digs with post-excavation interviews in a pop-up studio in local museums.

I love these kind of events, where two familiar experts can candidly talk shop, taking the dialogue to unexpected places, before opening it up to a regular audience Q & A. It was like Sheffield DocFest meets TAG (Theoretical Archaeology Group conference), so despite the audience being somewhat silver-topped, I happily got my geek on.

Digging For Britain Q & A with Alice Roberts and John Farren. Photo: Olivia Robson (2015).
Digging For Britain Q & A with Alice Roberts and John Farren. Photo: Olivia Robson (2015).

Here are a few essential takeaways:

– “Talent” is key to successful factual formats: when Farren first pitched Digging For Britain it was not until he dropped Alice Roberts’ name that the BBC commissioner began to take the idea for the series seriously. They wanted her so badly that they actually delayed production by 5 weeks to allow her an extended stint of maternity leave (she had initially agreed to start shooting 3 weeks after giving birth). Roberts was at pains to make the point that women can continue working soon after child birth if they wish, and the benefits of bringing her young children with her on shoots and digs. I’m really digging Roberts attitude right now.

Necessity is the mother of invention (or innovation): It was fascinating hearing about the struggles to get Digging For Britain on air and to keep it there. It was particularly revealing to hear how the program was dropped (despite high ratings), but through the changing of the BBC’s commissioner the filmmakers scored a second chance, although with a smaller budget which forced the format to adapt (hence the shift to DIY filming by archaeologists, rather than sending Roberts out as a presenter to sites with a film crew as in earlier series). These innovations changed the scope and tone of the stories, unexpectedly allowing greater intimacy and analysis. I suddenly have a lot more respect for a program that, to be honest, I was not especially sold on when I first saw it (perhaps because I’m not British, so I’m not the target audience). I’ll have to revisit Digging For Britain for another look.

– My own observation: everyone plays the blame game when sensationalism, “dumbing down” and misrepresentation appear rife. Archaeologists blame the filmmakers, the filmmakers blame the commissioners, the commissioners blame the audience. The audience however, seem to be the least bothered by these problems.

– Speaking of, the sheer joy and enthusiasm among some of the audience members during the Q & A was infectious. It was inspiring to hear the positive and very real impact of archaeology documentaries on people’s lives – particularly Time Team – again, I suddenly find I have a lot more respect for Time Team and factual formats in general. It’s nice to sit amongst a public audience and have their warmth wear away at that cynical edge you can develop in academia.

TV is no longer the dominant paradigm: according to Farren, who is shifting his efforts to online distribution, such as his new Youtube series Dig Diaries (which I discovered features my mate maritime archaeologist Dan Pascoe – it’s a small world!). This gels with both my training back at film school a couple of years ago and the general vibe at documentary conferences (eg. Sheffield DocFest, AIDC). The obvious benefit of digital distribution is that it provides an alternative to relying on broadcasters, who tend to be “risk adverse” to the speculative nature of both archaeology and traditional documentary. The short of it: the freedom of digital means we can go back to shooting stories that we don’t yet know the ending of, something broadcasters kind of stopped doing a while ago. The challenge however, is to still pull comparative ratings and to be able to measure success.

– Roberts asked the audience if they felt there was too much emphasis on ‘treasure’ on television – surprisingly, only about 20% agreed. And I suspect by the speed of their hands flying up that they were archaeologists or heritage professionals. I think it’s time for a few new audience surveys.

Roberts and Farren covered a lot of ground and although I can’t do justice to their whole conversation here, thankfully it was filmed, so I assume Salisbury Museum or the Festival of Archaeology organisers will be posting the whole thing online soon – when that happens I’ll be sure to share it here.

Aboard the Liminal Express

I’m writing this post from the Cross Country railway service between Southampton and Sheffield. It’s a beautiful afternoon: the sky is a hazy blue and the ivy clad trees rush away on my right. There are not enough words to describe all the shades of green in this country. I’m on my way to the Sheffield Doc/Fest – one of the leading documentary conferences and film festivals in the world – “Cannes for documentary filmmakers” as Indiewire described it. This is where documentarians go to talk shop, market their wares, brush up on their skillz, debate ethics and legals, and pitch their new ideas to producers and commissioners. BBC, Getty, ITV, PBS, Vimeo, Indiegogo, Channel 5, National Geographic, VICE, Dogwoof, NHK, Al Jazeera, Discovery, Channel 4, Arte France, SBS, the Guardian – all the big boys come to the table in the hopes of hearing that perfect pitch, or nabbing that promising new talent. It’s not all business though, Sheffield Doc/Fest also has an attached public documentary film festival showcasing classic docos, BFI archival films and the latest premiers – many with Q&As with the films directors, producers and/or key participants. And parties. There are also the parties – where the real wheeling and dealing happens.

In short = heaven.

But hold on – aren’t I an archaeologist? Two days ago I was troweling chalk rubble off an bronze age hut at Cranborne Chase – and now I’m going to a documentary festival?

Am I lost?

Well, I am a little. My research is liminal: I have one foot in archaeology and one in documentary. One in an academic discipline, and one in an undisciplined industry (Is it an Art? Is it a Business? No! It’s a Documentary!). (And yes – I had to look up ‘liminal’ in the dictionary just now to make sure I wasn’t talking about some kind of flooring). It’s an uneasy place to be – although I know I’m hardly the first to take this ride. Angela Piccini (ermagahdsuchafan) in her experimental film Guttersnipe: A Micro Road Movie found herself in the same position a few years ago (I’ll revisit Guttersnipe in depth in a later post – it deserves full spiel). Early in her film Piccini narrates:

‘This is not a film. I wanted to explore how to practise an archaeology through a video practice but I am not a video practitioner. I work in a university drama department but they think I’m just an archaeologist. I work in a university archaeology department but they think I’m just a drama type. What I do once a week is research and teach archaeology for screen media, thinking beyond the standard broadcast expository documentary. I don’t know about available light and white balance, but I am there in the shadows, on those screens, here now.”
(Piccini, 2009)

Piccini – and many of those archaeologists who have also doubled as documentary presenters, writers, researchers, producers and directors – have found themselves too, at this threshold where I now stand. As archaeologists we learn to see the world in a certain way – in particular, I think, time and space look and feel very different from our perspective. But added to that, those of us who moonlight in “public archaeology” also have this instinctive drive to test our boundaries and share our perspective with an audience – and we can’t shake it. It’s an itch that must be scratched. And for some of us, we decide that film really is the perfect medium for expressing such a multi-sensorial inquiry as archaeology. But which team should we bat for? Can we really play for both? And how should we go about doing it?

I wonder how many archaeologists have also ventured into a place like Sheffield Doc/Fest, and engaged with documentary filmmaking from its beginning? Certainly the directors and producers of archaeology docos have openly discussed their work there, and scientists, economists and other academics have previously led panels discussing their experiences of documentary filmmaking, good and bad. Surely Neil Oliver has downed a few pints at the Scottish Delegation Drinks? And will I see the Time Team gang at the Channel 4 party? Maybe I should just attached a massive trowel balloon to myself with an arrow pointing down saying ‘Archaeologists: Assembly Point Here,’ and see who comes my way.

I love these long English evenings – the sky is soft now and streaked with clouds above a patchwork of vivid green meadows full of yellow wild flowers. Sheffield draws nearer and so too the promise of answers. Or just as likely, more questions. Stay tuned.

Refs:
Piccini, A. 2009. Guttersnipe: A Micro Road Movie IN Holtorf, C. and A. Piccini (eds.) Contemporary Archaeologies, Excavating Now. Peter Lang: Frankfurt).

Piccini, A. 2010. Guttersnipe: A Micro Road Movie. Online at: https://vimeo.com/30077905

Sheffield Doc/Fest Online at: https://sheffdocfest.com/