The format of bbc1’s Planet of the Apemen: Battle for Earth (June) was familiar, but I wondered why this time it made me quite so grumpy. When dramatising episodes from our remote past, TV convention is for human ancestors to speak a pretend language while gesticulating meaningfully (handy for overseas sales, with no need for translation). In part 2 of Apemen this is what we got, at least from native neanderthal speakers.
As in a recent French series depicting great moments in human evolution, the tall, modestly brow-ridged neanderthals were light skinned, and grunted. Homo sapiens intruders were played by black actors with dreadlocks and every bit of palaeolithic kit in the book – and spoke clearly enunciated Queen’s English.
“Why can’t we hunt?” complains proto-feminist Byana (gamely played by Rebecca Scroggs) during an innovative, bone-needle sewing workshop. “Men do the hunting”, comes the admonition, “women stay”. For surely, as Byana’s dad informs a prospective son-in-law, “She will bring you many children”.
To which the suitor, eyeing an atlatl and dart suggestively, replies, “They go together... like man and woman”. For a moment forgetting the advantageous evolutionary adaptation of symbolic language, Byana decks him. Meanwhile, what has happened to the huntsmen? “They should be back, where could they be?” “Where’s Jala?” Unfortunately, “Jala is dead!” He has been murdered by “monsters... monsters like us!”
The dramatic segments of Planet of the Apemen were designed to set up interpretations of archaeological evidence for neanderthal demise: the incomers’ adaptable response to climate change; superior weapons technology;
extended exchange/communication networks; division of labour; larger group size; and evolved vocal tract.
So the story frequently paused to allow explanation, the transition signalled by now traditional whizzy graphics and buzzy swooshy music. But Chris Stringer’s contribution was spread a little too thin to suspend disbelief. With many other TV viewers I take a passionate interest in the twists and turns surrounding knowledge of human origins; but we learned little new here. Never mind the inter-species warfare or potency of Venus figurine as mother goddess which drove the storyline, where was sapiens on neanderthal sex, where were the (relatively) gracile seafooddining neanderthals of Iberia, and where oh where the Denisovans, a species found in Siberia who apparently interbred with sapiens? And if we can’t have cutting edge archaeology, let’s have daring drama using archaeological knowledge to inform rather than constrain the action.
Amazon (bbc4 June 23), the final episode of the Unnatural Histories season, put me in a much better mood. While the format was conventional enough, a mix of early colonial history, archive and documentary film and expert opinion, here was something fresh. Prehistoric geoglyphs, enormous structures seemingly connected by road networks revealed by the commercial exploitation of the Amazonian jungle, provoked a reconsideration of political ecology led by, and not imposed on, archaeology.
Did I suggest that bbc1 is dumbed down? The new series of the art show Imagine is smart enough for bbc4. In The Pharaohs’ Museum on Liberation Square (July 5), we pondered identity, politics and heritage. The backgammon player Omar Sharif and novelist/sage Ahdaf Soueif offered hope on the place of the “greatest museum in the world” in the Arab spring. The main event, however, was Alan Yentob sparring with Egypt’s antiquities minister Zahi Hawass. I would (just) award it to Hawass on points. Byana was not on hand to deck anyone.
Greg Bailey researches TV archaeology in the Department of Archaeology & Anthropology, University of Bristol
The last issue featured neolithic pots splashed with modern paint by the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, whose work we described as “deeply archaeological” (Jul/Aug/119). At the time, Ai was under government arrest without proper explanation. After 81 days’ detention, he was released on June 22, thinner, quieter, and facing an enormous tax bill. Meanwhile in Egypt (feature May/Jun/118) Zahi Hawass lost his job as antiquities minister in a reshuffle designed to rid the cabinet of Mubarak cronies.
The pioneering underwater archaeologist Honor Frost, who died in September last year (Requiem Mar/Apr 2011/117), left what Sotheby’s called “the greatest collection of 20th century British art ever to come to the market”. The auctioneers sold it over three days in June, with an estimate of over £12m. In one sense they were right on the price: it fetched a total of more than £41m. The proceeds will benefit charitable causes relating to marine archaeology, a landmark gift. Having lost her parents in childhood, Frost became the ward of Wilfred Evill, a London solicitor and art and antiques collector, whose collection she inherited when he died.
In 2008 (News May/Jun/100) we reported how English Heritage had listed a derelict 19th century atmospheric pumping house in Totnes (Devon), used to power an abandoned type of train. This helped to improve relations between Dairy Crest, who had begun to demolish the Brunel building, and others who sought to preserve it. Things have moved on, and now Dairy Crest is working with local groups in the Atmos Project to convert the site into a community asset, with business offices, a possible
Brunel exhibition, restaurant and micro-brewery.
British Archaeology|September October 2011|13