In the field, Norman Hammond’s work has focused on the archaeology of the Maya in central America
From childhood reports on his local archaeological society to archaeology correspondent of the Times, Norman Hammondhas spent a life writing about the past A longway fromBrighton andHove
I started writing when I was in Sussex, as a member of the Brighton & Hove Archaeological Society. When I was 15 I was recruited as their press secretary, and my columns appeared once a month in the Brighton & Hove Gazette and the Brighton & Hove Herald.
At university I was assistant news editor at the undergraduate paper New Cambridge (John Simpson was the news editor), and I worked on the magazine Granta. In 1967 William Rees Mogg, editor of the Times, interviewed me to be the archaeology correspondent, and I was offered an annual salary.
The first article I wrote was on Geoff Wainwright’s excavations at Durrington Walls, rather as I would an undergraduate essay: but the subs cut from the bottom upwards, and when it appeared it had a lot of introductory material and only one paragraph about the excavation. That taught me a lesson. You put your main points into the first two paragraphs, and come back to them again in detail later if you need to.
The article that probably had the most impact was about the Hacilar fakes. In the early 1970s it turned out that a number of museums, including the
British Museum, the Ashmolean, the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Louvre, had all bought supposed neolithic pots from Hacilar, but Martin Aitken and Peter Ucko separately identified many as forgeries. These major museums had bought them believing they were antiquities illegally smuggled out of Turkey.
The Turkish police then tracked down the chap who had sold them, but he said, “They’re not ancient, I made them myself!”, and they let him go. I had sat on this story for two years. Aitkin and I had been on a cruise in the Aegean, a sort of floating seminar, and one evening he’d told me about the fakes but swore me to silence until they’d finished the analysis.
Another story that made the front page was, of course, Boxgrove Man, which the Times ran before anyone else. When I learnt about this piece of early bone, nobody was making a great fuss about it. Later English Heritage said they were going to have a press conference, and it looked as if a fuss was going to be made, so I wrote the story.
Each editor has his own idea of how the paper should work, and the amount of space devoted to archaeology in the Times has gone up and down. At one point I complained to Michael Cudlipp, then the managing editor, about my copy not getting into the paper with what I thought was the right degree of speed. He said, “Well it’s been in the ground for four thousand years, another couple of weeks won’t matter!”
I studied archaeology at Cambridge under Grahame Clark and David Clarke, and anthropology under Edmund Leach and Meyer Fortes. While I was still an undergraduate I went looking for Roman roads in Libya and Tunisia, and then did a survey in the Helmand valley in Afghanistan. I wanted to go and look for the traces of Alexander in the Hindu Kush, but I got back in the summer of 1966 and Grahame called me into his room, and said, “How would you like a job? We have a research fellowship in American archaeology.” I said, “I don’t know anything about American archaeology”. Grahame said, “We’ve got the money, do you want the job?”
So I was sent off to work with Gordon
Willey on a Maya excavation in Guatemala. I found the Maya intellectually absolutely fascinating – the most accomplished of all the ancient American civilisations, with this wonderful hieroglyphic script, and art in things like vase painting and sculpture that stand comparison with classical Greece. I got hooked, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
For my PhD thesis, Willey suggested I investigate a site in Belize called Lubaantun. Four of us spent four and a half months there – Kate Pretty, who is now the president of the CBA, was running my field laboratory. We were able to show that the city had started late on an otherwise green field site in the eighth century AD, and had been occupied for only about 120 years.
I moved to Bradford, helping to set up what was then the School of Archaeological Sciences. The university was not yet thinking in terms of overseas projects. When I put the idea of going back to Afghanistan to the then head of department, he said, “Afghanistan? That’s a long way from Bradford!”
I was invited by the University of California at Berkeley to be a visiting professor. Some of my research was published in Scientific American (later I spent 16 years as their archaeology advisor), and several universities offered me jobs: I took one at Rutgers in New Jersey, and stayed there for 11 years. In 1988 Boston University invited me to come as professor of archaeology, so I moved there, and retired in January 2011.
Communicating with the public is an important part of archaeology. In this country the public pays for it and they have, I think, the right to know what’s being done with their money, and to have it explained to them in language that they can understand. Archaeological journalism has a very valuable function, reaching out to people who didn’t know they had an interest in archaeology.
Interview Mike Pitts
12|British Archaeology|September October 2011 GregBailey onbroadcasting
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.
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