Addicted To Archaeology: We Made A Documentary, And Here’s Why

DigVentures Lindisfarne

Our trenches in Sanctuary Close, immediately in front of the later Priory. Image Adam Stanford @Aerial-Cam

‘We’re not just glorified garbage-men standing in the way of development…’

I can’t even remember saying those words, but clearly I did – because I’ve just watched myself saying them, during a rather impassioned interview at the 55-minute mark of the documentary film we made last year during our dig on Lindisfarne.

I hate watching myself in videos at the best of times, so imagine the horror of being on film, two weeks into a gruelling excavation, emotionally drained by several remarkable discoveries and dealing with thousands of tourists stopping by the trenches (literally!) as well as the neighbor’s recalcitrant bulldog. Don’t even mention the carbs. Cringe.

On the island of Lindisfarne, located in the North Sea off the wild coast of Northumberland, you are never more than a few steps from history. Time feels very elastic. I fully expected to return to the mainland after the dig to find that 100 years had passed! As I sat watching the film for the first time alongside the rest of the team, all of us felt the moment come rushing back: seals barking in the distance, tides cutting us off from the rest of the world, the people of Holy Island village sharing their lives with us. Most of all, the constant awareness of what we had gone there to find and what it would mean if we were successful.

Perhaps I should start at the beginning…we made a film! With the wonderful Kate Rogers, a documentary filmmaker, in 2016 during our excavations on Lindisfarne. It’s called ‘The Monk, the Midden and the Missing Monastery’, and it’s an insider’s view of our crowdfunded search for the island’s very first monastery: founded in AD 635, where the Lindisfarne Gospels were written, destroyed by the Vikings on their first landfall in Britain in AD 793. And no – I’m not going to give any spoilers! You’ll just have to watch to find out what happens.

The film will be released online, free, on 23rd May at 8:00pm UK time on the DigVentures YouTube channel. We hope that EVERYONE will watch it with us, and join us on twitter from 7:30pm for the online ‘red carpet’. We’ll stay online for the duration of the film and be there to answer your questions, listen to your comments, and hopefully have a bit of fun in the process.

Here’s Kate, during the honeymoon period of being embedded with our team. Fun times.

We’re archaeologists, not filmmakers – so why did we make a documentary?

This film is yet another experiment in the grand tradition of basically everything we do at DV. We’ve always shared daily videos from our sites, and in the past year had switched things up to focus more on short, snappy clips for social media. We found ourselves bursting to tell a deeper story, and also, we just finally had enough of production companies hounding us to death wanting to make ‘The Only Way Is Essex – In A Trench’ and call it an archaeology programme. We miss Time Team too and would love to see something new come along to fill to hole left by the show, but surely that kind of uninspired junk is not the answer. And who would be crazy enough to try digging in skinny jeans? Ouch.

We can’t claim that our film is the answer, either. The mission was simply to show archaeology as it really is (funny bits, stressy bits, magical discoveries and mundane moments) rather than twisted out of shape to chase a fabricated ‘story’, or focusing on how much money you can make using a metal detector to harvest precious metal out of the soil, or the hunt for yet another dead celebrity. Don’t even get me started.

The film is a bit longer than we had originally planned, coming in at an hour and twenty minutes (more on that when you see Joe Flatman’s film review next week!). Kate and I tried to cut it down, but we just couldn’t, try as we might.  Bottom line: archaeology takes TIME. Which is the one thing it is never allowed, when you watch it on telly. There’s some serious irony there.

Lisa with the police

So, this happened

And this

Lindisfarne DigVentures

But mostly I just stayed REALLY CALM.

Is the length a bit self-indulgent? Maybe. But there were a lot of voices on this dig. We wanted to hold the space for viewers to be inside the experience, and for the dig to tell its own story rather than being set by artificial agendas. The attraction of Lindisfarne itself as an iconic place was a huge part of the stunning success of the project. But there is also much, much more that comes through in the film about what motivated people to be there, and to do archaeology. Those are the voices we want to be heard. Roar!

As archaeologists, we all know why we care so much and why the work is so important. It’s something we are constantly forced to justify in our professional lives. There is simply no single answer to this question, and our point with the film is that there doesn’t have to be. There are many answers. Above all, we wanted to show that archaeology is important because PEOPLE CARE. Lots of people. All over the world. Those in power should realise that funding and protecting the historic environment, and culture sector generally, should not be viewed as optional.

The film was made at the very beginning of ‘Digpocalypse 2016’, which was step change last year for DigVentures and massive undertaking and learning experience for our team. It was one of those crazy, special moments in life that you look back on and think: ‘how did I ever survive THAT?!’ So I need to say a huge thank you to our DV peeps, David Petts, and most of all to our Venturers, funders, and everyone else who makes our digs, and this film, possible. You guys are the best!

Hope to see you all online May 23rd, and DEFINITELY see you in the field this summer! Our team will be back in the trenches on Lindisfarne from the 11th – 27th July, 2017. Come and see us while we’re there, or follow the dig online on the project website! I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to get my dig on…

DigVentures uses Digital Dig Team to record all the data from the trenches, LIVE, as it happens on site. It’s the next best thing to actually being in the trenches with our team!  Head to the Lindisfarne project website to see what happened and what we found last year.

‘The Monk, the Midden, and the Missing Monastery’ will premiere on May 23rd at 8:00pm on the DigVentures YouTube channel. The team will also be hosting an online twitter ‘red carpet’ event from 7:30pm. See you there!

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Lisa Westcott Wilkins

Written by Lisa Westcott Wilkins

Co-founder and Managing Director of DigVentures, Lisa makes sure the boxes are ticked, the diggers run on time, and that everyone has a *really* good time along the way. She is responsible for the Americanisms, ridiculously strong site coffee and early morning DV dance parties.

Read more from Lisa Westcott Wilkins +

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