Growing up I always thought archaeology was cool. Then I discovered space and decided that was even cooler. Consequently, a ‘space archaeologist’ might just be the coolest thing on TV since a Roman spaceship with an invisibility cloak. Alternatively it might be a terrible gimmick. It was with some trepidation, therefore, that I tuned in to Dan Snow’s latest BBC documentary Rome’s Lost Empire on Sunday evening. I like Snow – he’s certainly one of the best presenters of history on TV at the moment – and I’ve enjoyed his previous documentaries. I really wanted to enjoy Rome’s Lost Empire, I just wasn’t sure that I would. On reflection, I’m not sure I did.
The basic concept of the show was straightforward: Snow travelled around the Roman Empire in the company of the aforementioned space archaeologist, Sarah Parcak (incidentally a Cambridge grad and football Blue), on the hunt for hidden structures which might shed light on how the Romans controlled their empire. Along the way, the pair encountered a series of historians, all of whom were faced with a particular problem and in desperate need of assistance. Think Heracles, or a late-90s videogame. At this juncture Parcak would deploy her special power, space archaeology. This, it turns out, is utilising satellite imagery to identify structures buried beneath the ground, enabling archaeologists to map terrain and target excavations more effectively. Parcak had successfully used this technology in Egypt for a previous BBC documentary and she was not disappointed in her attempts to utilise the technology in the Roman Empire.
The show explored the outer limits of the empire – Dacia, Arabia, and North Africa – but returned at regular intervals to Rome itself. In a sense, this was a nice juxtaposition of centre and periphery, emphasising the relationship between the two, but this was more an accidental by-product of an attempt to create a narrative to Parcak’s exploration of Rome. Thus, we began with Parcak struggling to find anything of interest in Rome due to the urban setting, then we moved to Dacia so we could see a positive result, then returned to Rome to discover something minor, then moved on to Arabia, and so on.
This mundane narrative development was a tiresome aspect of the programme. At the outset, Parcak was set the challenge by Professor Simon Keay to find out how the harbour at Portus operated. He also mentioned a great lighthouse, which people have been attempting to locate for centuries. Finding that, he alleged, was “too much to ask”: there are no prizes for guessing how the programme finishes.
In a sense this is a forgivable attempt to create a headline discovery and maintain a hold on the audience, but it contributed to the strange ‘feel’ of the programme; it became a triumphant procession towards a defining find. Indeed, the historians featured seemed to have been told to fawn over the new technology, which produced cringe-worthy moments where scholars pretended to be surprised by pictures they had clearly seen before. This seemed too much for Keaywho regularly muttered “well done Sarah” through gritted teeth. In that sense, the programme was just a little too self-congratulatory. Not, I hasten to add, the presenters, but the overall tone that the structuring of the show created. “Let there be light” they declared, and, lo, there was light.
At the very beginning of the programme there is a reference to Parcak working all night without finding any results. She said on twitter earlier this week that ‘late nights under fluorescent lights [are] not Telly-worthy’, but I wonder whether a little more emphasis on the problems of deploying the technology might have helped combat this flaw. Admittedly, the satellites couldn’t be used in Dacia due to the wooded landscapes, but a plane was immediately on-hand, equipped with the latest military reconnaissance technology and results were quickly forthcoming. Furthermore, beyond a brief line at the opening of the show and a short animation whilst the pair on in Dacia, there is very little information about how this technology works. How, for instance, could she tell which hidden buildings were Roman?
My second major gripe with the programme was that I’m not convinced by the overarching argument that Snow attempted to make. He claimed to be interested in how the Romans maintained control of their territory. As such, a ditch in Dacia and a fort in North Africa provided evidence of a greater military presence than had previously been expected, whilst some buildings in Arabia indicated prosperity. This latter point was used, somewhat unconvincingly, to argue that the locals willingly traded their sovereignty for the prosperity they could enjoy under Rome. Perhaps there is further evidence for this, but the structure of the programme meant that there was too little time to delve beyond the surface implications of the archaeological discoveries. Thus, we learnt that a wall in North Africa was a clear sign that the Romans aimed to control migration rather than keep people out full stop. I don’t doubt that this is true, but time-pressure produced a clear jump in logic; surely a gateway would have been a better visual indicator of this policy?
Whilst a little irritating, these issues are at least explicable – more problematic was the desire to see the lighthouse at Portus as an embodiment of Rome’s approach to controlling her empire. No doubt this stems from the fact that finding the lighthouse doesn’t actually fit with the aims of the programme and the inclusion of this show-piece requires justification. Thus, the programme ends by tying the ideas of ‘prosperity’ and ‘security’ to the notion that Rome made a psychological impact, symbolised by the lighthouse, upon the subjects of the empire. For me, this is questionable and produces a solution which is too simplistic. Snow is much more familiar with his audience than I am, but it strikes me that the BBC viewers of the programme would be able to grasp the idea that, actually, there isn’t a single answer to the question ‘how did Rome control her empire?’ and that there was change through time and space. That said, at least the attempt to produce a unifying thesis is thought-provoking and creates debate.
Writing this review, I have found myself trying to start each paragraph with the phrase “the thing that most annoyed me was X”. This time I actually mean it. I know nothing about archaeology, I’ve never been on a dig, and all that I’ve gleaned about archaeological methods come from chance conversations or the TV. In comparison to Tony Robinson rooting around in a randomly located trench, space archaeology seems like an incredibly exciting and useful technology. But the tone of the programme was so irritating that the potentially revolutionary nature of the technology is obscured. I found myself almost hoping that the satellites wouldn’t work, and, instead, a man with a trowel would find some pottery and so change the world. This is incredibly frustrating and a real shame as the documentary itself is well worth a watch. It gives a real sense of the breadth of the Empire and the challenges that Rome faced in attempting to control such a widely varied territory. Clearly, some fascinating discoveries are made. It is interesting, engaging, potentially illuminating; it just isn’t enjoyable.
Rome’s Lost Empire is available on iplayer until 16th December.