Digging the dirt on Bonekickers

"There is always something down there," says serious but sexy archaeologist Dr Gillian Magwilde (Julie Graham) at the start of the new digger drama Bonekickers.

"Oh no there isn't," she should be told.

No prime time series about anything is going to do serious justice to the real world. Was Morse an accurate take on police work? Is Casualty a good snapshot of the NHS? But Bonekickers is baloney of a timeless kind.

Archaeology has always had a patina of glamour that most other "ologies" would give their left test tube for. From the real life Howard "King Tut" Carter to the protruding pixels of Lara Croft, the combination of mystery and treasure has managed to sell books, cinema tickets and university courses for decades.

This mystifies a lot of those who actually do the job. I took a degree in archaeology and worked on excavations in the UK and abroad for five years.

Dead people's rubbish

Sure it is fascinating, in a nerdy sort of way, but glamorous? It's not the word that springs to mind as you squelch towards a chilly shed, scraping as much 13th Century cesspit as possible from under your fingernails before you munch a cheap sausage roll pretending to be lunch.

Adrian Lester in Bonekickers

Adrian Lester has called Bonekickers "CSI meets Indiana Jones"

Truth be told, cesspits rate as a highlight. Most modern archaeology is of the "rescue" variety. Making sure sites are clear ahead of building work - digging holes with nothing in them.

In dictionary terms, archaeology is the study of past human activity through its material remains - in effect, going through dead people's rubbish.

Adrian Lester's little speech about "layers" is basically true, if delivered with a reverential intensity that would get him put away somewhere secure.

Field excavation deals in stratigraphy, the idea that some activities leaves a trace and those traces (a wall, a fireplace, a mud floor) generally stack up to make a heap.

That heap can be pulled apart from the top down, effectively going back in time, activity by activity, event by event.

Julie Graham in Bonekickers

Julie Graham plays a serious but glamorous archaelologist

What it doesn't do so well on is detecting eye-catching little incidents like ambushes in woods or somebody being nailed to a tree.

So that's the opening ploy of Bonekickers. If you want to grab the archaeological attention of the world, then mention religion. It worked for the super-archaeologist Indiana Jones.

And our new heroes have found what could be a bit of the cross.

Now how likely is that? Considering the Romans (and a few other empires) used crucifixion like we use Asbos, the chances of finding a significant cross are tiny.

And despite its popularity, the evidence for how it was carried out is slight - a handful of vague literary references, a couple of clumsy drawings and a controversial skeleton or two. So no-one really knows what a cross looked like, or even if there was a single design.

Plus the first Christian Romans turned the Jerusalem area upside down in the search for relics a thousand years before those pesky Templars turned up.

Chunky jumpers

Paul Rhys in Bonekickers

Roman communities built many crosses, Greig Watson argues

Dozens of digital channels and the evergreen Time Team mean the public are more savvy to what real excavations look like.

Bonekickers certainly ticks some of these boxes, with neat trenches, heaps of dirt and students in chunky jumpers. But the rest is like being sold archaeology by a motivational speaker.

When Dr Magwilde purrs "Looks like we have a medieval riddle - so let's solve it!" you expect the diggers to high five and start whooping.

Dirt is brushed off skeletons and swords like dust in a furniture polish commercial, rather than mud being scraped from different coloured mud and splinters of pot being scrubbed with an old tooth brush.

The writers - Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah - have Life of Mars to show


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