Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Reconstructive archaeology v reality TV – Rome wasn't built in a day

You may or may not be aware of a TV series that aired on Channel 4 in the UK earlier this year called 'Rome wasn’t built in a day'.

It featured a team of modern builders attempting to construct an authentic Roman town house using only historically accurate tools and methods at the Roman site of Wroxeter.  In case this wasn’t difficult enough, they only had 6 months in which to do it. Naturally, some concessions to modern health and safety had to be made, but apart from that, accuracy was supposed to be paramount.  The construction was overseen by Professor Dai Morgan Evans of the University of Chester.

Interestingly, there was an incredibly similar project at Butser Ancient Farm, broadcast on the Discovery Channel in 2003, which was also overseen by Dai Morgan Evans.  The Butser project was an attempt to reconstruct Sparsholt Roman villa, and I think it’s fair to say that the project suffered setbacks along the way – including rather vociferous disagreements between the academics and workmen.  Nevertheless, the project was completed and I dare say a few of the lessons learned influenced the handling of the Wroxeter project.

The reason I write about this now is because I have just had chance to visit the Wroxeter town house to see it in all its slightly wonky glory.

I have to confess that I quite enjoyed watching the programme when it was on, despite reservations that haven’t gone away since, and certainly not after seeing the finished building.  I think it best to separate my thoughts about the workmen, the design of the programme and the villa as an example of Roman ingenuity and a tourist attraction.

The workmen

The workmen in the programme consisted initially of 6 tradesmen (‘some of the best in the business’ the programme makers would have us believe).  They were:

Jim – the foreman who prides himself on never missing a deadline (even if it means the work is finished to a low standard it seems)
Kevin – the Geordie plumber
Darren – the brickie
Tim – the Yorkshire plasterer
Ben – the lazy labourer
Fred – the useless carpenter

I have to say right from the outset that if this lot were the best the British building trade could offer, then I’m sleeping outside from now on!  But herein lies the programme’s biggest problem for me - it didn’t know what it wanted to be.  Was it a history programme talking about Roman building techniques and societal housing requirements or was it a reality TV show about some fat builders arguing with each other, the viewers secretly hoping the walls fall down halfway through?  In reality, the programme fed off the mistakes and conflict rather than the triumphs, though it would present a sense of harmony and conciliation in victory at the end.  Even Dai Morgan Evans played an actor’s role – playing the big, bad nerdy wolf to squash the builders’ attempts to make their own lives easier.

The production company were insistent that the programme was all about the history - "This is the ultimate exploratory archaeology project. By doing you discover how, and we hope that by rebuilding this villa we will be able to offer a real insight into the thoughts and processes of the Roman engineers."  Yeah, right – then why not use people with some experience and knowledge of the project at hand?

As the series wore on, there was a certain amount of warming to the workmen and their antics, and it was at least possible to see that some of them were taking some pride in their work – Darren the brickie for example and his impressive hand-crafted stone columns.  Others, however, left me puzzled.  How could Fred the experienced carpenter now know how to make a square piece of wood with hand tools?  How can a supposedly expert carpenter fail miserably to make a simple cart with wheels that actually fit the axle?  Thankfully, Fred was disposed of after a few episodes, though it’s hard not be cynical and suggest that it was a scripted intention from the outset.  That feeling was enhanced by the fact that the replacement (and virtually anonymous) carpenters brought in to replace him were allowed to use electric tools to get the job done in time!

I think that the best quote to describe the process was by Kevin the Geordie plumber, who described it as a ‘Roman Auf Wiedersehen Pet’.

The villa building

Ultimately, the purpose of projects such as this is to put theory into practice.  To take archaeological knowledge obtained through excavation and the study of contemporary texts and test it in the real world.  Reconstructive archaeology is a fascinating subject, and when done seriously, adds wonderfully to our knowledge and appreciation of the past.

The town house was based on an excavated building at Wroxeter, so there is every reason to believe that, however it got there, the finished building is an accurate representation and a worthy and useful addition to the education activities at the site. 

It was interesting to see the final layout, as I didn’t feel the programme really delivered a sense of how the villa was arranged.  The images below show the completed villa, which is in an ‘L’ shape, with a square courtyard at the rear.

The authenticity

Much reference was made during the programme to the famous Roman writer and architect Vitruvius and his work ‘De Architectura’, and various on-site techniques were pointedly taken from illustrations in Vitruvius, such as the system for raising timber frames into place.

Specialists were drafted in to teach the builders subjects such as fresco painting or ceramic box flue tile manufacture and firing.  These were, for me, the most interesting elements of the series, despite the antics of the builders, and the only real times that the series discussed Roman building technology.

Actually, it is probably harsh of me to criticise the builders for their poor performance in carrying out particularly Roman activities such as mosaic building, bath-house construction and fresco painting, as this is one area of the programme where I felt that its credentials as a serious piece of reconstructive archaeology fell apart.

The building of a real Roman villa would have involved a great many people, including specialists alongside general builders and slaves.  The above-named activities would have been specially commissioned from professionals – certainly not done by jobbing builders as in the programme.  Although an interesting part of the learning curve for the builders, I seriously question the quality of the finished product, and the impression it gives to visitors as to the standards of interior design acceptable to high status Romans in Wroxeter.

When such a tiny team was doing everything from quarrying stone to building walls to painting frescos, the claims that the programme was serious reconstructive archaeology have to be questioned.  The series also failed to adequately discuss any archaeological issues with the audience – such as whether the hollow box flue tiles taking heat from the hypocaust up the walls and the smoke out of the building exited through the walls or roof, or the relative value and status of the different materials used.  For example, when we visited we were warned about the paint rubbing off and it was clear from the red handprints everywhere that this was indeed causing a problem.  The programme pretty much glossed over any such issues.

Oh, and there was no sign of the brilliant Roman penis on the gable of the building when I visited.  Did English Heritage chicken out for fear of complaints?  Now there’s a real case of historical accuracy going out the window!

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