Archaeology on Television: Missing that je ne sais quoi?

The arrival of 2016 has brought more archaeology programmes to our television screens with two new series airing this week. The BBC brings us Immortal Egypt and Channel 5 10,000 BC: Two Tribes. The BBC’s Immortal Egypt is a 4 part series written and presented by Prof. Joann Fletcher of the University of York and is shown on BBC2, one of the corporation’s mainstream channels. It is ‘a history’ of the culture of Ancient Egypt, and that is what it began to show us last night.

The first episode, as you might think, took us back to the beginning and the earliest signs of a culture developing some 19,000 years ago. What was this sign? It was a sign that has been clearly seen across the world at that time – art. In this case rock art, or petroglyphs depicting cattle, people and boats. So, there was nothing unusual in this, nothing to signal what was to come? Perhaps not. What Prof. Fletcher did was to take us through the development of a culture which had many similarities with what we have discovered happened in prehistory here in Britain. There were stone circles, monoliths, ceramics and houses. There was also a strong presence of cows. Cows were very important in both pre-Dynastic Egypt and Neolithic Britain it seems – something that the both of us were surprised to discover last night!

Like the reviewer in the Independent, we found it fascinating stuff, but unlike Sally Newall we were watching it as archaeologists and were not put off by the lack of visual impact – the bling of King Tut’s death mask etc. Rather, we missed more in-depth exploration of the early period and less emphasis of the balletic poses of kings smiting their enemies in artwork from subsequent generations. As Ian said at the time, it was on BBC2 and would have perhaps had a different script if it had been shown on BBC4. That, we will never know. The programme just seemed a little flat, perhaps because much of it was already known to us, and that there were a few points at which one might say there was just a slip in academic rigour. For us, the first part was the most interesting as it covered the roots of the culture. What we do know is that we’ll probably watch some more of the series as we’re always open to new ideas and information.

On the way to our screens later this month is the second series of Channel 5’s 10,000 BC. Very different to Immortal Egypt, this is a ‘reality’ show in which participants are asked to live as prehistoric people would have done, well, 12,000 years ago. This would put them in the transition between Palaeolithic and Mesolithic at the end of the last Ice Age. So, that’s the setting. Of course, there had to be something different about a second series and this time its the tension posed by another ‘tribe’. Hence the addition to the title – Two Tribes (I couldn’t help thinking of Frankie Goes To Hollywood here!).

Whilst it is likely to face the usual criticism of many that such a show faces (21st century people and ideas in prehistoric setting among them) it does give some insight into life in prehistory that might often be overlooked in text books. What do you do when your stone tool breaks? How do you skin an animal? Life was very different back then and it is sometimes very difficult to convey this to children. Sadly, if the programme airs after the watershed younger children may not see it, but hopefully a few teachers may. Again, we will be watching to see just how the past is interpreted and how that might feed into our narrative on prehistory.

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