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Work with the Ancient Monuments Board for England


Seeing the world thanks to making TV programmes
Colin Renfrew Archaeologist
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We were invited to make film at Hatra, the Iraq government was wanting to promote tourism. This was about 1979 or 1980, and there is a strange city of Hatra in the desert, in the Iraqi desert, which was organised, set up, in Parthian times of early 3rd and 4th centuries AD, but then continued to be used by Arabs and some of the earliest Arab inscriptions known are from the site. And so I read what was known about it, described in late classical authors and so on, and it was a wonderful visit. The filming was very successful. Again it had a striking title, "Lost Kings of the Desert", but it was very appropriate and so we filmed in the Baghdad Museum, wonderful sculptures of King Sanatruk, they were all called Sanatruk, it was a dynastic name, some of which had been very sadly damaged in the looting, more recent looting, in the Iraq Museum. And then everything seemed to go very well and the representative of the Iraqi government said would I care to go on a trip down to the south of Iraq which would be laid on. So we had a car and so I was able to go down and see Ur and Uruk and some of the great Sumerian sites as well as to visit Babylon, and that was all very educational. And then another programme was made by a very enterprising director, BBC director, Dominic Flessati, who was a very interesting man, and he wanted to work on the origins of the Bronze Age, the nature of the independent origins of the Bronze Age. And so we were able to go down to film in Bulgaria at the finds from the Varna Cemetery which are really very interesting. It's the oldest gold work known in the world and because of all this radiocarbon business I'd been one of the first to realise that with the calibration they had to be older, not only then Ur, but older that Troy, older than any other gold known, which is, I think, what they remain. And so again that poses problems about the origins of metallurgy and one has to relate in one's mind, I think, the early origins of metallurgy with the early origins of rich decoration. And the metal objects in question were prestige objects, the gold decorations, but also the copper axes were prestige objects before they ever became useful objects and they didn't really become all that useful until alloying with tin was developed quite a lot later and once they were tin bronze they could be tougher and were more useful artefacts. So, it was really the television filming there that opened the way to getting good photographs of the material and doing more work, which I subsequently did, on the - on the Varna finds. And I think the last of the programmes that I made before the chronicle days ended, was at the Indus Valley civilisation of Pakistan mainly and India. I think "City of the Dead" was the appropriate title there but we were able to film Mohenjo-daro and Harappa as well as visit a lot of places, visit a village where they still have traditional local potters using the potter's wheel and so on. And so out of that experience I was able to learn a certain amount firsthand about the Indus Valley civilisation and, in retrospect, I'm coming to feel more and more that comparative archaeology is very important. It's very difficult to be a specialist in more than area so, at any rate, to be able to see seriously at firsthand the products of these different civilisations is very important. It was on that 1967 visit to UCLA that I took the opportunity of making the first visit down to Mexico before leaving and that was a wonderful experience, to go to the great city of Teotihuacan for the first time, dating from about the seventh century AD, one of the most impressive archaeological sites I know and just get some glimpse of these astonishing civilisations there in Mexico. If one wants to have some insights into the - the human experience overall, just as to see the painted caves of France at a much earlier time, these are really very important experiences, I think. So I have to thank television for, at any rate, some of those.

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, 50 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 14 May 2009