Bone Detectives

Cliffs End Farm, Burial Pit 3666 (image from http://www.bajrfed.co.uk/bajrpress/life-death-at-cliffs-end-farm/)

You might think that I’ve avoided a pun title, but in fact ‘bone‘ is a British military term for ‘not very good’. So this one literally wrote itself. I miss a lot of documentary TV these days, but I managed to catch the first episode of Channel 4’s ‘Bone Detectives’ documentary series, and enjoyed it, but a few things bothered me. Firstly, and this is not uncommon in documentary television, especially not with major archaeological discoveries, because unless you’re Time Team, these don’t happen in real time. You inevitably have to re-hash information that’s well known in the field but is hopefully new to most of your audience. In this case the human remains in question were excavated between 2004-5 and have been pretty widely reported since, even by the tabloids. They were also published in detail in 2015 by a team including Jacqueline McKinley, who (thankfully) appeared throughout the programme. The remains in question were fascinating (see above) – an older woman in a deliberate semi-flexed pose, holding a piece of chalk to her face with one hand (with her mouth open) and apparently pointing at something. For those interested (and TV never gives us any further reading or sources, because god forbid TV isn’t the only way to learn things), the book is ‘Cliffs End Farm Isle of Thanet, Kent: A mortuary and ritual site of the Bronze Age, Iron Age and Anglo-Saxon period with evidence for long-distance maritime mobility’ by Jacqueline I. McKinley, Matt Leivers, Jörn Schuster and Peter Marshall (2015). My link only provides the contents, acknowledgements etc, not the actual text of the monograph. Depending where in the world you are, you may be able to read the Google Books preview.

Anyway, back to the TV version. As a relatively sensational show, the programme wants us to think that we are discovering something new along with the presenters, archaeologists and scientists, when in fact nothing new is being determined. They go so far as to recreate – possibly even fake outright – in a lab setting, an isotope analysis of a tooth from the site, before presenting existing data on an A4 printout. No analysis is happening, but you wouldn’t know that as a viewer. All of this data is available in McKinley’s book. It’s enough to make one long for the days of Time Team (a programme with which McKinley and Wessex Archaeology were previously associated). The whole format with a fake ‘nerve centre’ studio and team of three presenters is presumably meant to evoke ‘CSI’ and similar fictional shows, but it compromises the actual archaeology, for me at least. Some of the people involved have some serious expertise (mortician and museum curator Carla Valentine is criminally underused in this first episode) – show us the finds and let them tell us what they’ve discovered. You don’t have to sex it up to this extent. Of course, once a show like this has been made, the gutter press then jump on the bandwagon and reinforce the idea that the media have somehow uncovered new evidence or some amazing new interpretation of it. 

This leads me to the other annoying aspect – the levels of speculation involved. Inevitably, when trying to make prehistoric archaeology ‘relatable’ to a modern general audience, there was a fair bit of speculation and storytelling in this programme. Some of this was taken from McKinley’s work and was therefore legitimate (if still speculative), whereas some was no doubt encouraged by the producers and over-reaches the facts or (in the case of point 1) is outright incorrect. Some points that stood out for me;

  1. The name of the Isle of Thanet has *bugger all* to do with the Greek God of death Thanatos. Even Wikipedia (referencing the Oxford English Dictionary of Placenames) has the correct, British, etymology of the name. This is invoked to strengthen a questionable hypothesis about Thanet being some sort of Bronze Age island of death and the white cliffs being somehow part of this, hence the lump of chalk see point 3).
  2. McKinley et al are upfront in the book about the significance of the chalk lump that the same skeleton is holding close to her face. It is undoubtedly a deliberate pose by those that buried her, but with no known parallel and no known significance. As they put it, its meaning is ‘currently unfathomable.’ They speculate that it could be a reference to the practical purposes of chalk, or might ‘signify origins by representing chalk bedrock, chalk cliffs etc.’ They further speculate ‘symbolism associated with purity, renewal or [that] may [it] have been ascribe [sic] healing power.’ This is already a massive reach, as the comparison is actually with white quartz pebbles found in ‘much later early Christian graves’ whose symbolism is revealed in the Bible. This likely has nothing to do with Bronze Age Britain, but at least it’s qualified as speculation. In ‘Bone Detectives’ however, the chalk piece is emphatically connected to the chalk cliffs of southern Britain, which are in turn connected to a fanciful story of how Thanet was seen as a mystical island of death by foreigners. This is based on an account by Procopius of Caesarea about the British Isles in general, *not* about Thanet specifically (he wouldn’t have known where Thanet was). This appears for some reason (the text doesn’t reference it) as an epilogue in the archaeological monograph. Once again, hearsay about Britain as an island, recorded by a 1st century CE Greek who had never visited Britain can have nothing to do with this Bronze Age site on the smaller, specific island of Thanet. This is why the programme was keen for ‘Thanet’ to tortuously derive from ‘Thanatos’, the Greek god of death (as noted, it doesn’t). This despite the fact that the source itself is talking about how native Britons see their own island, not how foreigners see it. Even Procopius himself is far from convinced that the story he relates is true. You can read a translation here (scroll down/ctrl-F ‘Procopius’).
  3. The programme claims, probably in order to heighten topical parallels with modern Britain as a country of immigrants (as earlier media coverage also did), that the skeleton is pointing out to sea, where some of the people who were buried in the pit originated (some were not native to Britain). By contrast (perhaps her thinking has moved on?) McKinley’s book points out (ha) that the sea ‘lies to the south-west, not the south’ and instead suggests that the elderly female skeleton may be pointing at the central enclosure of the site, which is thought to have been used for ritual feasts. She proposes that the connection is in terms of feasting to aid the passing of the dead. Plausible, with supporting ethnographic parallels (which she references), but ultimately, we don’t know. In any case, and regardless of the foreign people buried near her (but not adjacent to her) why would a native Briton be pointing out to sea? If she were somehow pointing out to sea, for all we know she was pointing as a warning against invasion – or any number of other explanations. Given that the pit was regularly re-opened (or uncovered) to add more remains and/or change things, the posing of the older woman could have been done unilaterally by an individual – even as a sort of prank (again, for all we know – I’m not suggesting that this actually happened). It’s also possible that the gesture of a raised index finger is what was significant here, and not the trajectory described by the finger itself.
  4. This one is down to the archaeologists unfortunately – McKinley’s hypothesis that the pit was not just a ritual deposit but evidence of a sacrifice is very sound, indeed she covers this possibility in the book as the more likely of two explanations, the other being execution. She leans toward a ritual explanation because of the other human and animal remains in the pit, its situation near a compound thought to be for ritual purpose, and because getting killed by a sword in the Bronze Age was pretty uncommon, implying that she was somehow special (along with her relatively advanced age and the care taken in her burial). It’s all suitably circumspect and academically reserved. But in the TV show it’s all much less tentative; not only was this woman definitely a sacrifice, it’s stated that she was likely a willing sacrifice, because she had no defensive wounds on her hands or arms. This despite it also being stated that injuries to soft tissue do not (obviously) appear on bone, and so are invisible. Given that the woman was posed after death, it is just as likely that she was killed unwillingly (she was definitely killed – she has multiple edge weapon wounds to the top of her skull) with her hands bound or arms pinned by a third party.

I can’t help feeling that there’s a happy medium between this fluff and tedious archaeological monographs that only specialists read. In fact, I think that happy medium is probably the internet – you can find out way more with judicious Googling than you do in this episode (see my in-text links above). 

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