Mary Beard’s Point of View

Mary Beard’s recent episode of A Point of View on BBC Radio 4, and the follow up article on the BBC website entitled ‘Is the archaeological dig a thing of the past?’ have led to a certain amount of outrage amongst professional archaeologists.

On the programme, Beard spoke about the research being conducted in the town of Ostia, Italy by The Portus Project, where geophysical research has shown that Ostia’s city wall extended further than was originally thought and has also led to the discovery of three extremely large warehouses.

Interestingly, the name of the project was never actually mentioned by Beard, and no reference was ever given for individuals interested in learning more about the project – surely a crime for an academic?!

For those who have not heard of it, The Portus Project is led by researchers from the Universities of Southampton and Cambridge and aims “to develop techniques that will enhance the ways in which highly complex classical sites can be investigated and recorded, and evaluate the impact of those techniques” (1). The project combines non-destructive surveys and excavations to create computer graphic representations and simulations of the areas that it is investigating. For more information of the project, see their website (link below) which has some really interesting information about their methods and techniques and also has a frequently updated blog.

The thing that seems to have caused a lot of outrage on social media is that the summary at the top of the article states “Archaeological discoveries are more likely to be found by technology than with a trowel and a torch” (2). Beard has since stated on Twitter that she did not write the title of the article, and I am assuming that she also didn’t write the summary line.

Beard does give a reasonable layman’s history of the archaeological use of aerial photography, the development of non-destructive survey techniques and their use now. She is also completely right in stating that geophysical survey “leaves the archaeological remains where they are safest – under the ground” (3).

However what Beard fails to remind people of is that much of the archaeological excavation conducted nowadays is rescue archaeology – commercial archaeology units excavate areas that will otherwise be destroyed due to construction and other land development projects. Excavations for research sake are increasingly rare, and tend to only really be run by universities.

Archaeological excavation is an extremely useful technique for investigating the past and tells us a great deal that cannot be understood from non-destructive methods alone. One just needs to look at the University of Reading Silchester Insula IX Town Life project has produced to understand the sheer amount of information that be recovered from this kind of research.

Beard stated that non-destructive survey techniques have had some incredible advances in recent years, and are developing all the time, and every archaeologist should surely agree. These techniques are incredibly useful in that they help us to investigate areas where we cannot excavate. What was not explained, however, was that non-destructive survey techniques also help us to create a fuller picture from that which excavation alone does, and could never replace archaeological excavation entirely, a message that I think Beard could have used to greater effect to promote the work that archaeologists do.

I am hugely supportive of the work that Mary Beard does, and I think it is fantastic that she has managed to get the topic of archaeological methods into mainstream media, I just personally wish that her message had been slightly more understanding of the way that archaeology works today.

What do you think? Comments on a postcard, by carrier pigeon or in the comment box below please!




2 and 3:


External Links:

To listen to Mary Beard’s Point of View:

To see the BBC article:

The Portus Project website:

Mary Beard’s Twitter:

Silchester Insula IX website:


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4 responses to “Mary Beard’s Point of View”

  1. Mary Beard says :

    Thanks for that… but can I just say that you have 1500 words in ten minutes for these programmes, for a very general audience half asleep on a Sunday morning (when most listen). I had hoped that the online version, which is not done by me, would link to the Portus Project website (but had I done the Southampton and Cambridge line, I would have been accused of doing PR for my own uni).
    There are lots of things one could have talked about.. including rescue archaeology. But the point of these programmes is their PERSONAL view point. I was quite pleased at managing to get a bit about geophysics into a 10 min. mainstream radio programme, also a tiny query about the interpretation of Carnuntum etc., and a bit of a plug for going to Ostia (which is rather under-known about).


    • kezievans says :

      Thank you for the response, Mary, I am glad that you were able to read what I had to say, and I completely agree that it is hard to get anything across with such short time and word limitations, let alone make it interesting which you have done!


  2. Iain Soden says :

    As a former classicist and professional archaeologist for the last 30 years, I am always interested when the two disciplines merge for just a moment. The teaching of classics must have been massively affected from my student days, when there was virtually no recourse to archaeology, just endless literature in the original Latin and Greek, with the occasional gobbet of inscriptions. If archaeology has not revolutionised our traditional view of the ancient world, it ought to have, even ‘rescue’ archaeology (although I think that word properly belongs to the 1980s). Research frameworks can never be static, and to even imagine intrusive fieldwork, and the characterisation of remains, might be consigned to the past is to allow the possibility of a discipline’s gradual stagnation. I for one keep digging, especially when the laws of our land require my input and enthusiasm.


  3. Martin says :

    Some aspects of excavation can already be replaced by non-invasive techniques in certain circumstances, e.g. where detection and mapping is the priority rather than recovery of accurate dates or cultural material. Given time, it seems likely that this will increasingly be the case; already in the UK commercial archaeological excavation in limited in many cases to validating the result of non-invasive research (e.g. aerial photographic analysis and geophysics).


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