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 |