Monday, October 10, 2011

Another TV show - or Two

Last week on ABC 1 there were two new shows that coincidentally connected with each other. The first was Rome Wasn't Built in Day in which a team of present day tradesmen set out to build a Roman villa in six months using only tools from Roman times. The six - five tradesmen and a labourer - had to discard all their 21st century tools (they did find that some tools are unchanged and were able to keep them) and start from scratch using as their guide a text by Vitruvius, a Roman builder from the 1st century BC. This meant they had to make their mortar from recipes in the text, shape the stone and so on, all skills that modern day carpenters, bricklayers etc have no experience of.
As I watched I began to nitpick because it seems to me that there are other factors than tools to consider. Leaving aside the irritating promos where the men are described as 'gladiators',(gladiators were not builders but highly trained slaves who fought for their lives in the circus) anyone who has studied any ancient Roman history knows that Rome functioned using an army of slaves. These might be used simply as muscle or if they were highly skilled (and many were) would be used accordingly. It seems highly unlikely that experienced tradesmen would be expected to waste their time making lime for the mortar for instance. It's time consuming, dangerous work. Would you really waste a skilled worker on this?

Then there was the fact that they had no way of transporting things like the vast amount of stone required. The likelihood of a team of builders not having such a basic item as a cart seems ridiculous but the carpenter set to work to make one according to one illustrated somewhere. Unfortunately he didn't really have the skills (and why would he? He's a carpenter and joiner) and the axle broke. A month later and they still hadn't acquired a cart.

The reason this really irked me was the other programme Mastercrafts. The first in a series, it was about green wood craft as practised by bodgers in the forests of the UK until about fifty years ago. Bodgers were highly skilled workers who cut mainly coppiced timber and worked it into furniture (mostly chairs and stools) and other useful items like bowls, cooking utensils and so on. If you ever get a chance to read The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge you can read a wonderfully evocative description of a bodger's workshop in the 1950s when they were already a dying craft. Using simple tools such as the Romans would have and a pole lathe (the Romans used a slightly different version of the lathe requiring two workers but lathes were in common use as far back as Ancient Egypt) they produced beautifully made objects from the forest.

This episode of Mastercrafts was based around one of the few green wood workers still operating in the UK who set out to teach three very different trainees how to work with green wood in a full time six week course so the practical knowledge is available. So why did the archaeologists running the Roman site not use it?

Rome Wasn't Built in a Day is a fascinating concept but it seems to me to be badly thought out. The builders are doing a splendid job but how much easier it would have been if they had been provided with the things any Roman building team would have had - a cart pulled by a donkey, a labour force and a selection of tools including technology like lathes for starters.

Addendum: I was pleased to see in the latest episode of Rome Wasn't Built in a Day someone has finally supplied them with a donkey cart and, through the efforts of their labourer, they have acquired some volunteer labour so they now have a sensible sized workforce. Why this wasn't arranged by those running the programme is another question. If it was to create drama, well, it didn't work for me. Drama needs to be intrinsic to a situation, not created by inadequate preparation and, given the number of experimental archaeologists around, it would have been more effective if some of them had been consulted before they started.

I did wonder if my irritation was caused because my degree included some study of Ancient Rome but apparently not. Pisces, who has no background in history, ancient or modern, has been equally irritated.


Anonymous said...

The episode of Rome Wasn't Built in a Day I saw hit an awkward blend of fascination/irritation for me: 1, I like seeing ancient technology in action; 2, I hate incompetence. It seemed really stupid and unfair that they had modern tradies with NO EXPERIENCE in, eg, stonecutting, when the Roman builders would've had years of experience in the various necessary skills. Now, get me a show with modern-day practitioners of the relevant trades doing it, and I guarantee I'll watch more than one episode.

Helen V. said...

It did seem silly and I'm sure we aren't the only people who found it so. There are people - not many but they certainly exist - with the skills and watching them tackle the task would have been really informative.

Rosanne Dingli said...

I haven't watched any TV for about 5 years, except for Masterchef, which was a kind of family thing. From what I read here, I'm kind of glad I don't - the titles would have been intriguing, but the reality? I would not have sat through that.

Helen V. said...

Rome Wasn't Built in a Day has been disappointing because the premise has not been well carried out. Mastercrafts is much more interesting because they are realistic. The trainees are well supported in learning new skills and all aspects, good and bad, are followed through on.
Personally I don't watch 'reality' television but I love learning about forgotten or dying skills so any programme that can show me this gets me watching for one episode. After that it has to have proved itself (which RWBIAD has not succeeded in doing) for me to keep watching.