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Digging at Quanterness in Orkney


Getting involved in television
Colin Renfrew Archaeologist
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Arising from the radiocarbon work, came a nice invitation to get involved in a television programme. This was David Collison who later on became a very good friend, who was part of the Chronicle Unit which was operating in the BBC then. I think it had actually come about partly as a spin-off from Glyn Daniels's programme, "Animal, Vegetable or Mineral", and Paul Johnson had, I think, been the director of that programme for a long time. And then after a while that ended and so they wanted to know what to do next and Paul Johnson set up this Chronicle Unit and the Chronicle programmes were 50 minute programmes, each developed - devoted to one theme, one question in - in archaeology. And so David Collison rang up and said it had been suggested that it might be worth doing a programme on the radiocarbon calibration so we talked about that and we thought it was a good idea and then the question came, well, where would we go for a location? And I thought about it and it occurred to me that Malta would be a very good place. I'd been to Malta and it was clear there was some radiocarbon dates coming through, they weren't very many then, but they were coming through good and early and with calibration you could see the same thing was going to happen, that the Maltese temples were definitely going to be earlier than their supposed predecessors in the Aegean or in Egypt and so the same question was going to arise, how did these strange buildings come about unexpectedly in these little islands? So we agreed that would be a good location for the main bit of filming and so Magnus Magnusson was the presenter, and he right the way through took the role of the rather sceptical sort of traditionalist, you're not really saying, Dr Renfrew, that this is earlier than that? That sort of thing, and that was very good fun. I could see the very first day it was going to be fun. The first day I went to the Ggantija and we were filming the Ggantija and I was explaining why this had to be much earlier and he was saying but surely the evidence all show - all shows the converse and didn't Gordon Childe say this, and then I had to say, well, he may have done but he may not have been completely right in every detail. And so that was really very entertaining. It was a very good crew as well so we repaired to the appropriate hostelry in the evening and dined well and so it was really all together a very positive experience. Then they went over, rather to my vexation, without me to California to film the Bristol Cone Pine in situ but they'd got the - I mean the story was clear, they filmed Hans Zeus in his laboratory and Charles Wesley Ferginson who is a tree ring expert, and then they said, well, that's very good, now will we go to in Britain to bring this closer to home? How can we sort of make this relevant to British prehistory? Well, Stonehenge was one possibility but there weren't really any radiocarbon dates then and I realised that one very interesting place to go, which I'd never been was the Orkney Islands where there is a huge abundance of very wonderfully built Neolithic tombs, chamber tombs, which had already been very well described by Audrey Henshall who'd done a great study of the chamber tombs of Scotland but there weren't many radiocarbon dates but there was one very famous one, Maeshowe, which had always traditionally been thought to be where the first colonist landed with this very sophisticated tomb. And then it all sent of went downhill and the other- the other ones would be later than Maeshowe but it was clear to me that Maeshowe must have been the culmination of a tradition that built up locally. So we went to Orkney and we filmed and discussed this. I don't think there were any radiocarbon dates available from Orkney then but it made a perfectly logical conclusion to the programme but it made me realise that some fieldwork in Orkney would be quite appropriate.

Baron Renfrew of Kaimsthorn is a British archaeologist known for his work on the dispersal of the Proto-Indo-Europeans and the prehistory of PIE languages. He has been Disney Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge as well as Master of Jesus College and Director of the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

Listeners: Paul Bahn

Paul Bahn studied archaeology at Cambridge where he did his doctoral thesis on the prehistory of the French Pyrenees. He is now Britain's foremost specialist on Ice Age art and on Easter Island, and led the team which discovered Britain's first Ice Age cave art at Creswell Crags, Nottinghamshire, in 2003. He has authored and edited numerous books, including Journey Through the Ice Age, The Enigmas of Easter Island, Mammoths, The Cambridge Illustrated History of Prehistoric Art, and, with Colin Renfrew, Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice which was published in its 5th edition in 2008.

Duration: 4 minutes, 30 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 14 May 2009