Joe Flatman: ‘Two Thumbs Up For DigVentures’ First Archaeology Documentary!’

DigVentures’ first archaeological documentary is an elegy to the seductive pleasures of archaeological fieldwork that so many archaeology TV shows somehow miss.

I’ve known the team at DigVentures for a few years now, and still vaguely remember the moment in 2012 (to be fair, it was late and we were in the pub) when they first told me their plans to install a bouncy Stonehenge at Flag Fen as part of the London 2012 Cultural Oympiad.

Things have progressed in pretty much the same vein since then, and I am pleased to report that DV’s’ new documentary, ‘The Monk, the Midden, and the Missing Monastery’, filmed on location at their project on the island of Lindisfarne in 2016, is a welcome new product of the team’s entrepreneurial zest.

Anyone who has paid even the scantest of attention to archaeology over the past few years has watched DigVentures grow from modest beginnings into a force to be reckoned with. They have brought with them a welcome breeze of fresh thinking that has challenged many established approaches to, and even people involved, in archaeology. On that basis, it must be hoped that this film is the first of a series of such documentaries from the team that break the mould of archaeological filmmaking as much as they have already done for archaeological practice.

Charting the progress of fieldwork on Lindisfarne’s Anglo-Saxon monastery and associated settlement in 2016 (undertaken in partnership with the University of Durham), the documentary has a pleasingly low-tech, ‘fly on the wall’ style that comes over as honest and heartfelt. If there is one criticism that can be aimed at the documentary, it is that for modern audiences so used to virtual reality models and other digital graphics, the almost complete absence of such techniques here may put some viewers off.

An opportunity was also missed, in particular at the beginning of the film, to give more context about the site, ideally a map indicating where Lindisfarne is in relation to north-east England and its North Sea context. There is an unusually high expectation here from the filmmakers of an awareness of where Lindisfarne lies and its historic significance. But this is a minor gripe.

Lindisfarne map

For future reference…

Overall, the film is an elegy to the seductive pleasures of archaeological fieldwork that so many archaeology TV shows somehow miss. Consequently, the film’s best moments are its most informal elements, especially those with some of the youngest members of the team – bright-eyed with enthusiasm and bubbling with energy – who inherently ‘get’ archaeology as part of an instinctual human desire to explore and investigate the world.

The natural skill of the DigVentures team as communicators with a passion for sharing their knowledge – and above all with an ability to listen to and respect the views of others – also comes over loud and clear here. The children involved in the project visibly relish being taken seriously and not patronized or talked down to, and it is so refreshing to see a mix of ‘professionals’ and ‘volunteers’ working alongside one-another on the project, with no po-faced ‘experts’ flown in, just real equality of thought and opportunity.

As a digital journey alongside a dedicated, predominantly young field crew in their element, perhaps the highlight of the film to me comes, quite unexpectedly, at 55 minutes in, and off- rather than on-site. This is when DigVentures co-founder Lisa Westcott Wilkins is the subject of a candid interview about how she herself became involved in archaeology. Her eloquent and emotive call to arms is incredibly strong. If every archaeologist showed this kind of humanity then things would be oh-so-different for our profession.

I’m giving the film two thumbs up, and I encourage everyone to tune on on 23rd May to watch it!

Head to the Lindisfarne project website to see what happened and what the team 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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Joe Flatman

Written by Joe Flatman

Dr Joseph Flatman is the Head of Listing Programmes for Historic England and the author of 'Becoming an Archaeologist'. He likes public archaeology, piña coladas and getting caught in the rain.

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