Some of the things you dig up from underground can be explosive, a point that Richard Miles was at pains to make at the beginning of Archaeology: a Secret History. "What we believe about the stories that they tell us can be very powerful indeed," he said, a point that hardly needs underlining for some BBC executives right now.
Their decision to pull an archaeological programme about Jerusalem at short notice last week, with a somewhat foggy explanation of the editorial reasons for the switch in schedules, has already provoked ricocheting accusations of political naivete and propaganda from different quarters. The film called into question the exact nature of the exile of the Jewish people from Jerusalem, which is the kind of history that doesn't even need a detonator to go off in your face. And that, as Miles's new series explains, has been a hazard of archaeological curiosity almost from the very beginning.
According to his account, the science began in superstition, St Helena earning her status as one of the patron saints of archaeology after being dispatched, at the age of 80, to rummage around the Holy Land looking for the remains of the true cross. In Trier, Germany, Miles was allowed to open a display cabinet and pick up one of the fruits of her expedition, a nail from the Crucifixion (though the fact that he was allowed to handle it without white gloves suggested that not everyone is convinced about its provenance). In England, too, Henry VIII used his chief antiquary to look for proof of what it was convenient for him to believe – that early Christian England offered a direct route to the past that didn't pass through Rome.
But there were also pioneers driven by a disinterested curiosity about what lay in the past. Inevitably, archaeology not having yet been invented as a profession, they were all hobbyists and amateurs, though one of the pleasures of Miles's programme was its evidence of just how potent a private obsession can be if you share it with like-minded enthusiasts. In Italy a merchant called Ciriaco de' Pizzicolli began cataloguing Roman, Greek and Egyptian antiquities on his travels, with an accuracy and comprehensiveness that helped transform the remnants of the ancient world from a handy source of building stone into the cultural treasures they are today.
And in Britain a manufacturer and farmer called James Hutton pursued his interest in geology to the point that it buckled the biblical literalism of many of his contemporaries. They thought their faith was founded on rock, but he pointed out that the rocks themselves would undermine it.
Miles finished in Germany again, almost brought to his knees by the contemplation of the bones of the first Neanderthal man to be unearthed, a shattering discovery that suggested that Adam and Eve couldn't be the beginning and end of human genealogy. He'd confessed to being a little awed when he lifted the nail from the True Cross, but that wasn't really a match for his reverence in front of these relics, which had the advantage of actually matching the label written on the case.
Alex Polizzi – the Fixer Returns offered an update on her business clinic/family therapy series, revisiting two of the small firms she covered to see whether the Polizzi medicine had worked. It had, of course, and one wonders whether they'd actually bother to tell us if a firm had spiralled into deeper trouble as a result of adopting her solutions. In both cases, monumentally stubborn parents had been persuaded to release the death grip they'd exerted on family run businesses, so that fresh blood could flow to the affected parts, and, while there were tiny signs of backsliding, in both cases, the prognosis looked more hopeful, with the younger generation being allowed to make some decisions. So, with any luck, they'll be tormenting their children with their stuffy resistance to new ideas in another 20 years' time.
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