One of my all-time favourite TV shows is Time Team. I saw the Piercebridge episode last night. It was one of the best ever, but I was filled with unanswered questions, and shouting at the TV didn’t seem to help.
The dig was centered on the remains of three ancient bridges over the River Tees. The three sets of remains were within a couple of hundred metres of each other. Two sets were actually in the river, while the third was high-and-dry, well clear of the current course of the river. They explained this as due to the course of the river changing over the centuries, coupled with the bridges being built at different times. However, the earlier bridges are sited in the river, while the later bridge is on dry land. How can this be? Did the river drift away from the line it followed when the first two bridges were constructed, and then drift back again centuries after the last bridge was constructed?
Two local divers had recovered thousands of votive offerings from the river over twenty years, all found within a small (four metre) area. All of the items were just sitting on the bottom of the river, covered in nothing more than a layer of slime. The Time Team eventually concluded (based, it seemed to me, on scant evidence) that the offerings had been placed on a small island in the river, that had been washed away. But how is it possible that thousands of items have stayed within four metres of each through 1800 years of shifting rivers and disappearing islands? The landscapes man talked about the regular river inundations, with boulders constantly being washed downstream to crash against the bridges, necessitating regular bridge rebuilds. Again, how did the offerings stay put through 1800 years of that? Why have they not been pulverised to dust or at least scattered along hundreds of kms of river, or been left underground by the shifting river?
(Note that I’m not saying that their interpretation is wrong, just that I wished that they’d addressed these seemingly obvious problems with their interpretation.)
Another matter that exercised me was the matter of archaeological ethics. They sawed multiple large chunks off the ancient timbers embedded in the river to try and get dendro dates. Of course all archaeology is destruction, but no-one even raised the question of whether it was acceptable to cause such damage to the site. I’m not saying that they were necessarily wrong to take the samples (I wanted to know the dates as much as anyone), but the very fact that they never for a moment even raised the issue of how much damage is acceptable is worrying.