You want the truth? (The ethics of television archaeology, Part 2 of 4)

by Karen Martin-Stone

Do archaeology documentaries tell the truth? Whose truth do they tell?

Understanding what ‘non-fiction’ means, in a television sense, is important because these programs are expected by their audience to impart a ‘truthful’ message. Yet, a non-fiction television show (or book or film) is a constructed reality (Eitzen 1995:82). It has a point of view and selects its contents to argue that point of view. Fundamentally, it tells a story – and it uses this story to pull the viewer through from the beginning to the end, to convince them of the argument.

This can be a problem for archaeologists who expect documentaries to report their research findings journalistically. Cornelius Holtorf has done a lot of research into archaeology in popular culture (both fiction and non-fiction). He looked into why archaeologists weren’t happy with their image in the mass media, and found:

“Many archaeologists still think that the most important criterion for the way they are depicted in the mass media is the degree to which these representations conform to their own perception of being an archaeologist – “but in reality it’s not as shown in that program”; the extent to which the information conveyed would be academically defensible – “but you simply cannot put it as simplistically as that”; or whether it might harm their own professional interests in society – “but this implies that anybody could go and retrieve ancient artefacts.” (emphasis in original) (Holtorf 2007:31-32).

It seems that, for these archaeologists, there is one way of presenting archaeology – and it is a serious business.

Television archaeology often uses reconstructions and dramatisations to re-enact the past human culture the archaeologists are studying. These creative aspects of television archaeology are often the most troubling aspects for archaeologists, as shown by Fagan:

“With TV programs involving dramatizations [sic] or reconstructions, you are usually not going to win. All you can do is ensure that the science is compromised as little as possible, realizing that some loss of integrity, some overstatement, is inevitable.” (Fagan, in Fagan & Rose 2003:165)

But what do the audience want?

It seems they don’t want a serious lecture from a po-faced academic. Hill (2005:60) found that audiences are “more likely to trust dramatized reconstructions than documentaries”, and that “viewers place more faith in the accuracy of these overtly dramatic performances than in the academic or expert performances provided by presenters and interviewees”.

So filmmakers are stuck between a rock and a hard place – on the one hand, they have an audience who are engaged by dramatisations, and on the other, they have archaeologists who resent dramatisations as ‘compromising the science’. It is also difficult to tell a story of past human culture in the audio-visual format without dramatisations or reconstructions.

I think debating the nature of truth and authenticity in television reconstructions of the past is a conversation worth starting – because both archaeologists and filmmakers are trying to educate an audience about past human culture.

Reference list:

Eitzen, D., 1995. “When is a documentary?: documentary as a mode of reception” in Cinema Journal 35:1:81-102

Fagan, B. & Rose, M., 2003. Ethics and the media. In Zimmerman, L.J., Vitelli, K.D., and Hollowell-Zimmer, J. (eds), Ethical Issues in Archaeology.

Hill, A. 2005. Reality TV: Audiences and Popular Factual Television, London: Routledge.

Holtorf, C. 2007. Archaeology is a Brand! The meaning of archaeology in contemporary popular culture. Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, California.

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