British Universities Film & Video Council

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Chronicle: A Glimpse of TV Heaven

Commissioned by the BBC in 1966, Chronicle was a groundbreaking archaeological series that would be on the air for the next twenty-five years. Don Henson, University of York, looks at the history and heritage of the series.

Don HensonAbout the Author: Don Henson is Associate Lecturer in Archaeology at the University of York. He is also currently director for the Centre for Audiovisual Study and Practice in Archaeology, UCL, and was formally Head of Education at the Council for British Archaeology. He began his archaeological career at Sheffield University with a degree in prehistory and archaeology, and then going on to do research into the exploitation of different sources of flint and chert in British prehistory. He is currently chair of the Committee for Audio-Visual Education, the Heritage Link Inclusion Working Group and the World Archaeological Congress Public Education Committee. His publications include The Origins of the Anglo-Saxons (Anglo-Saxon Books, 2010) and Education and the Historic Environment (Issues in Heritage Management) (Rutledge, 2004).

Anyone of a certain age will remember Chronicle as their introduction to the exotic and fascinating world of archaeology. It was a television series, commissioned for BBC2 by Sir David Attenborough in 1966, which ran for twenty-five years as the flagship documentary strand for archaeology. It is still highly regarded as one of the best attempts by television at serious and academically rigorous programming on the subject. Some of the programmes released online include The Last Days of Minos (1967, on the role of the eruption at Santorini in the end of the Minoan civilization); The Great Iron Ship (1970, about the return of the SS Great Britain to the UK) and Sutton Hoo (1989). One intriguing title is the Lost Kings of the Desert (1979), an exploration by Colin Renfrew of the city of Hatra in modern Iraq, now sadly damaged by the effects of war.

The ruins of the Knossos, excavated by Minos Kalokairinos in 1878.

The ruins of the Knossos, excavated by Minos Kalokairinos in 1878.

Chronicle did not appear out of a vacuum however. It continued a vein of programming going back into the 1950s. It is noteworthy though that the first attempt at archaeology programming followed an entertainment format not that of documentary. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral? (AVM) began in 1952 as a copy of an American gameshow format. Three experts would try to identify and talk entertainingly about an artefact taken from a museum. The young assistant who tracked down and brought the artefacts to the studio was the young David Attenborough, in his first job in television. The show quickly became popular under Glyn Daniel, its Chairman, and regular panellist Sir Mortimer Wheeler, a man seemingly born for the television age; larger than life, charismatic and entertaining, yet also a respected academic archaeologist with real achievements in the profession. He was even voted by viewers as TV Personality of the Year in 1954 (with Glyn Daniel winning the accolade in 1955).

It was only the popularity of AVM that persuaded TV to accept archaeology as subject for further programming. What followed was the series Buried Treasure in 1954. Both this and AVM were produced by Paul Johnstone, the true pioneer of archaeology on television. Buried Treasure was a series of documentary format programmes, many of which broke new ground or took courageous academic stands. King Solomon’s Mines in 1958 was led by Sir Mortimer Wheeler and carefully, methodically debunked the pro-Apartheid interpretation of the ruins of Great Zimbabwe where it was claimed that the ruins could only have been built by white outsiders. Wheeler would have none of that and very publicly, on prime-time television, restored the site to its African roots. A key feature of Paul Johnstone’s approach was the belief that television could make a genuine contribution to archaeological knowledge by enabling experiments that academics perhaps could not, or would not, be able to run, such as building a prehistoric house or recreating the last meal of Tollund Man. The latter led Wheeler to exclaim, in a way that men could in 1954, that ‘Tollund Man probably committed suicide to escape his wife’s cooking’!

Pompeii, Italy.

Pompeii, Italy.

Glyn Daniel was another key figure in the history of archaeology on television. Not only an important part of AVM and Buried Treasure, he was also instrumental in getting Anglia Television to create two series led by Brian Hope-Taylor – Who were the British? in 1965 and The Lost Centuries in 1968. The BBC also branched out into more adventurous kinds of archaeology programme. Living in the Past (1977) was an early form of ‘reality TV’ where a group of fifteen volunteer adults and children lived in an Iron Age farmstead for a full year living a life of that period (albeit under the eyes of the television cameras). At the end of the experiment a real insight had been gained into Iron Age life, with the personal relationships only one aspect of the story and not its main narrative focus as would be the case in later ‘reality shows’. A new approach was to bring personal voices into delivering archaeology on television. Michael Wood began his long run of series with In Search of the Dark Ages in 1981 while John Romer’s highly personal exploration of archaeological themes began the following year with Romer’s Egypt.

So, Chronicle was not the only archaeology programme on television at the time, however it is certainly the most revered. Unfortunately, a new bread of broadcaster came to feel that archaeology was too academic a subject, too serious and not appealing to a younger mass audience. It was discontinued, and attempts to bring archaeology back on the air were resisted, with the honourable exception of Down to Earth on Channel 4 (1990-92). In the end, the wheel had to come full circle and an entertainment format was used to bring archaeology to a new audience through Time Team (1994-present), excavating a site to ‘find the answer’ in three days. Time Team reinvented and revitalised television archaeology. Its phenomenal success then persuaded broadcasters that archaeology could be a ratings winner and a wealth of new series followed – the BBC’s response was Meet the Ancestors (1998-2003), with Julian Richards attempting literally to put flesh on the bones past people while Channel 4 subsequently went on to produce its highly successful Secrets of the Dead (1999-2002).

Many of us still look back to the authoritative voice of Chronicle and see it as a time when TV took archaeology seriously…

We now have a wider range of different kinds of archaeology programmes on television. We saw Neanderthal in 2001, at the time, the most expensive non-animated documentary ever commissioned. Pompeii: The Last Day (2003) came with live action drama, CGI and archaeological commentary and attracted an audience of ten million viewers, the highest ever for an archaeology programme. The hybrid magazine programme Coast, begun in 2005, has been remarkably successful in combining archaeology, history, geography and nature together in the same programme. Experimental archaeology continued with Tales from the Green Valley (2005).

The Sutton Hoo helmet, discovered during the 1939 excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship burial.

The Sutton Hoo helmet, discovered during the 1939 excavation of the Sutton Hoo ship burial.

And yet, many of us still look back to the authoritative voice of Chronicle and see it as a time when TV took archaeology seriously, and when archaeology accepted this medium as a fit and proper partner in its attempts to communicate with the public. Its viewing figures were the equal of today’s archaeology programmes. Chronicle, under producers like Ray Sutcliffe, Paul Jordan and David Collison, set the standard that others still follow.

The online delivery of materials from the Chronicle series is a welcome initiative by the BBC, and we may hope that other programmes and series will likewise be made available in the future. The fourteen programmes on the website constitute a small but important cross section of what has been a big and popular part of television programming over more than fifty years.

Dr Don Henson

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