Thursday, 30 August 2012

Why History should not be written by the BBC

Sometimes the venerable BBC, usually considered the Queen of Journalism, gives a rather skewed -- not to say plain unbalanced -- view of archaeology. This week saw Caesar's celebrated siege of Alesia in the news again, 2,063 years after the event. The reason is surely the recent opening of the grand visitor centre, MuséoParc Alésia, at Alise-Sainte-Reine. However, like all the best journalism, there has to be a controversy to make the story interesting.
Dodgy dealings in Burgundy
The story told by veteran reporter Hugh Schofield, the BBC's Paris correspondent (who can be heard here), claims that the identification of Caesar's Alesia with the village of Alise-Sainte-Reine in Burgundy "was all too, well -- convenient". The implication is that it is not only a falsehood, but a fraud. The site's continued identification as the battle scene is, says Schofield, "one of the biggest acts of archaeological imposture ever committed in the name of political and financial expediency".
Strong words from the famously impartial BBC. So what are poor BBC listeners, perhaps unversed in the niceties of French archaeology and Roman military studies, to make of this sensational claim?
Schofield tells us that "no-one knows where the Battle of Alesia took place". He is being slightly disingenuous. Of course, in archaeology, one-hundred-percent certainty is rarely possible, but there are degrees of likelihood. Alise-Sainte-Reine is quite likely to have been Alesia.

A Ridiculous Decree
Schofield tells us that, "in 1864, Napoleon issued an imperial decree stating that Alesia had now been officially identified as Alise-Sainte-Reine". By inserting the word "officially" at just that point in the sentence, he mischievously creates the slightly comical impression of an emperor's ridiculous flash-in-the-pan brainwave: "Today, we shall officially identify the town of Fingringhoe as the scene of the Battle of Flodden. And fish will all now be christened Rodney."
Of course, the truth is far less ridiculous. And far less suspicious. Schofield's version -- "when archaeological evidence began to emerge that possibly linked Alise-Sainte-Reine to some kind of Romano-Celtic confrontation, Alise-Sainte-Reine in Burgundy became the officially designated site" -- implies that something underhand was afoot. "Excavations carried out in the 1860s brought to light a wealth of remains that seemed to lend further proof." Again, the word "seemed" has been inserted to maintain the atmosphere of suspicion.
In reality, the archaeology that Napoleon's workers unearthed bore a more than striking resemblance to Caesar's own description of his siege-works. Coincidence? Possibly. (Remember that archaeology can rarely be one-hundred-percent certain.) But it would be very odd if a town whose name is reminiscent of Alesia, and whose remains match Caesar's description of his siege-works at Alesia, turned out not to be Alesia!

An axe to grind
In 1962, archaeologist Andre Berthier proposed the site of Chaux-des-Crotenay in the Jura region as the true site of Alesia. It is Berthier's fifty-year-old theory, now championed by Sorbonne Classics professor Danielle Porte (author of the provocatively titled L'imposture d'Alésia), that is the basis of Schofield's disparaging of Napoleon III's identification of Alesia.
Surely alarm bells must have been ringing in any BBC-trained journalist's head at the prospect of a crackpot theory with a book to sell using the BBC as a platform for renewed publicity?
Thankfully, Schofield finally gives the Alesia museum people their chance to reply and to restore some balance to the report. However, Schofield chooses to end his report with more of Professor Porte's unorthodox views, leaving the unwary reader with entirely the wrong impression, and with the specific parting thought that Napoleon III might have planted the evidence for Alesia at Alise-Sainte-Reine.

Restore the balance
In response, I can do no better than to quote the words of the expert archaeologist Professor Colin Wells, now sadly deceased, written in the Journal of Roman Archaeology vol. 22 (2009), referring to the extensive modern excavations carried out in the 1990s (on which Schofield is oddly silent):
"The work carried out at Alise-Sainte-Reine in the 1990s should remove all doubt (it is no longer "un débat pertinent pour un archéologue") -- I should have said "all possible doubt", but for the evidence that a work entitled L'imposture Alésia can still be published in 2004(!), arguing for a new site called Syam/Chaux des Crotenay near Champagnole in the Jura, complaining about the official refusal of funds to test this new and wildly eccentric theory, and denouncing "les instances officielles" and "l'archéologie sous influence". Wonderful are the weirdities of local chauvinism ..."
And wonderful is the weirdity of the BBC touting a bizarrely eccentric version of reality.

Related posts: Why History should not be written by Film-makers | Why History should not be written by Journalists | Why History should only be written by Historians |


  1. I'm still reeling from their assertion that the ancient Olympics took place on Mount Olympus...

  2. Most mid 19th Century archeological digs were more like treasure hunts than scientific 'digs'. The 'Great' Henry Schliemann employed hundreds of men with pick axes and shovels,in the search for Troy, who carted away vast quantities of 'debris' each and every day while hunting for good 'stuff'. Tragically in Schliemann's case he literally destroyed the very citadel he was searching for (The site of Troy had been leveled by Alexanders' engineers and had changed the topography such that Troys VI&VII were literally just a few feet below the surface).Schliemann was so sure of himself that not even the discovery of a Mycenean battle axe in the upper strata failed to slow him down.Additionally many of Schliemann's more interesting artifacts have long been 'suspect' and more recently precious objects from Arthur Evans dig of Knossos have been scrutinized more closely.The possibility remains that both men were being duped on occasion by enterprising locals who produced some excellent 'antiquities' in their spare time. While I do not question the identification of Alesia .... I would naturally give pause to digs which took place prior to Schliemann and Evans and a re-examination every hundred years or so is sometimes a good idea.
    One last thought comes to mind. Some years back(15?)I read a small news item in the NY Times.It seems that some dusty 'old' crates had been found in the basement of the Worcester Art Museum.No further documentation was available other than the 'tags'. They stated briefly "purchased from Frank Calvert" with a late 19th century date.Frank Calvert was an 'eccentric' who told Henry Schiemann that all the 'experts' were wrong and that Troy was to be found under the hill of Hisarlik. He had owned half the site and had been looking around the site for many years.... with 2-3 workmen digging small trenches.I never found out what was in those found crates but the irony is that while I had studied the subject with great enthusiasm for many years..... The 'truest' artifacts of Troy may lie less than a mile away from me!..... in a basement.They weren't precisely what people had been searching for (probably clay cups)and so had been set aside and forgotten.

  3. Well, one think is obviously prouved: there have been two, maybe three seeds by roman army around Alise Ste Reine and the first one took place between -60 and -20. If you read french, I suggest you to make yourself your own opinion with those few reports:
    - Reddé Michel, Schnurbein Siegmar Von. Fouilles et recherches nouvelles sur les travaux du siège d'Alésia. In: Comptes-rendus des séances de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 137e année, N. 2, 1993 : in this one, M. Redde himself explains how what he found in Alise was far less than what he expected, comparing to Caesar's BG description, but also compariring to XIX th century excavations that provides many more weapons and coin, from a very little space, supposed then to be the North Camp (it is now prouved it is'nt a camp at all);

  4. - REDDÉ (M.), VON SCHNURBEIN (S.) dir. - Alésia. Fouille et recherches franco-allemandes sur les travaux militaires romains autour du Mont-Auxois (1991-1997). Mémoires de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, t. XXII, 3 vol., De Boccard, Paris, 2001. This one confirmes what he said 10 years before and add many new informations: "The fact that the respective positions of the three series of obstacles-ICPIP, lilia, stimuli-appears nowhere in the order described Caesar should not raise too many difficulties". No matter. It's Alesia. Roman camp I, in the plain, is confirmed as a 1rst century camp...after christ! So the K camp! Well only two camps remain to possibly be republican (not sure). No matter, it's Alesia. Ah, yes, in one off them, they found two fronds bullet with T.LABI written on it: T(itus) LABI(enus)? Caesar's legat, eureka...try to found any clear photo or reproduction of it if you can...on the all those I could see, who does'nt read LARI ? ( No matter, it's Alesia
    What else? Many metal working in the gallo-Roman city and Pline said something about bronze working in Alesia...but nothing definitely gallish! No matter, it's Alesia. (Michel Mangin et Philippe Fluzin, « L'organisation de la production métallurgique dans une ville gallo-romaine : le travail du fer à Alésia », Revue archéologique de l’Est, 55, 2006)

  5. What else? Moneys ? Some affirm their has been found moneys from all the gallish tribus and that it matches exactly with the number of warrior each one send ? In fact, not at all...essentialy moneys from the neighbourhood and some, from arvernes, reliable to usual traffic. And not a potin on the oppidum, where Vercingetorix was bloqued more than a month with 80000 arvernes ! What about the orichalc coins supposed to be siege monney, made on the oppidum where gold missed! First, no orichalc monney had never been attested in Gaul before -20AD, and they are now supposed to have invented the process, while bein besieged? Why not? Secondly, those ones where found on the Mont Rea...where not any galish from the oppidum could have ever been as they where besieged on the other side of romman lines: do you think they used it as a sort of weappon ? Whu not ? No matter, it's Alesia!

  6. Horses bones (4kg), supposed to be roman (great ones), german (smaller) and gallish (the smallests)...In fact, many studies show now that roman and german horses where yet currently used in Gaul! But also, these bones were found inside the roman lignes... where no horse fight took place! In fact, read the study: you will see they dont even seem to have been neither hurted nor eaten... And do you knox what has been found, recently near? A Gallo roman cemetery with human and horses tombs! Could the horse bones presented as a proof have no link at all with the battle, but rather with the cemetery ? Why not? No matter, it's Alesia!
    And do you want watter? This is a marvellous study: J.Vidal et C. Petit, « L’eau sur le site d’Alésia : la contrainte hydrogéologique lors du siège de 52 av. J.-C. », Revue archéologique de l'Est, 59-1, 2010 ! It's now offical: ther wasn't enougth watter on the Mont Auxois for Galish army, its slaves, Alésia's citizen and the cattle they were supposed to have gathered here! Then what ? Well, now they suppose that galish had to kill the cattle, so they finaly had'nt food enougth and that's why they had to expel the civilians! How stupid they were, gathering cattle in a place where they could'nt give waterdrop to it ! Ok Caesar did'nt talk about that...No matter, it's Alesia!
    In fact, It's many studies you should read before you criticize: maybe you will realise that every one refers to the consensus to justify that he does'nt contest the location, despite what he founds in his studyes results does'nt match with Alésia. Everyone then modify something in Caesar's text, or, even worth, in scientific knowledeges to make it convenient! No matter, it's Alesia!
    Just read all this studies and just look at Mont Auxois on google earth: just try to imagine 80,000 warriors, slaves, civilians and cattle on this 97 ha oppidum during more than a month! I really dont know wich romans besieged this place neiter when exactly! But the more I read studies on it, the less I think this was Caesar's Alésia! Resume it to a question of "local chauvinism" reveal a certain arrogance. I am not "local" at all in Alise, neither in Chaux des Crotenay. I believe Alise is a very interesting place. But I don't understand why it is such a problem to critise it as so many supoosed prooves are finaly not very strong! Bosworth battlefield, in great Britain, was officially locate on Ambion Hill during decades...Some contested it and finaly could proove recently they were right: Why should it be forbidden to contest Alise ?

  7. Very interesting blog. A lot of blogs I see these days don't really provide anything that attract others, but I'm most definitely interested in this one. Just thought that I would post and let you know.