Friday, September 3, 2021

Filming & presenting an archaeological excavation: Thoughts on Must Farm

The photos and videos that came out of the excavations at Must Farm, near Peterborough in Cambridgeshire, during the most recent excavations (2015-16) were some of the most exciting prehistoric images I’ve seen in years – the incredible preservation of features and artefacts stunned both professional archaeologists and the interested public alike. Those excavations uncovered the remains of several Bronze Age houses – set on stilts above the water surface - and an associated defensive palisade and walkway. The evidence indicates that the site was destroyed in a catastrophic fire and that the settlement was abandoned. Wikipedia notes of the excavation that ‘Objects recovered include pots still containing food, textiles woven from lime tree bark and other plant fibres, sections of wattle walls, and glass beads’ [here]. Between the BBC documentary, the innovative use of legacy and modern social media, along with a variety of engagement strategies, the operation has garnered a well deserve shelf full of awards and accolades as well as expanding our understanding of Bronze Age life. I’d also recommend checking out their dedicated Must Farm website [here].

Still from 360-degree video

As regular readers of this blog are aware, I have a long-standing passion for what I term ‘niche’ photography. This has included the production of 3D anaglyph images and, more recently, 360-degree video. In terms of the latter, I’ve been going around sites on the island of Ireland with my camera and taking video to create immersive moments where you can (hopefully) get a feeling for what it might be like to stand in these sites for yourself and look about. As well as making my own videos, I frequently search for other archaeology-related 360-degree video from other creators. Thus it was a few evenings ago I was wearing an Oculus headset and searching through YouTube when I encountered a video on the main Cambridge University YouTube channel [here]. The setup is incredibly simple – a 360-degree camera has been placed on a tripod in the approximate centre of the excavation area and for almost five unbroken minutes the viewer gets to experience the archaeologists just going about their jobs – no discussion, no voice overs, no talking heads. Instead you get to see the archaeologists digging in the soil, hear the occasional scrape of a trowel, hear the background hum of chat punctuated by a sporadic burst of laughter. Spoil buckets, environmental samples, and finds trays festoon the site and we see notes being written and scale drawings being ... well ... drawn ... At one end of the site there’s even a cameraman apparently interviewing folks and documenting the site. It has been almost 10 years since I stood in the middle of an ongoing archaeological excavation and in all that time this was the nearest I’ve felt to that joy of seeing a site underway. I decided that ‘where there’s one there’s more’ and went looking for similar, but it was not to be! The other video of Must Farm I found on the Cambridge YouTube channel was of the much more traditional variety – people were interviewed, they spoke about the interpretation of the site and how they were excavating it, they showed finds and explained why bulk environmental samples were being taken. It was gorgeous! This is archaeology communicated well – it showed the site and the techniques used for its excavation, as well as introducing us to why a person should study archaeology at Cambridge (‘The academics at Cambridge are world leaders in their field, obviously’ [quoted without comment]).

While I learned much about the site from the second video, I didn’t have a feeling of participation. I was being lectured and informed, and my gaze was always being directed and constrained by what the creators wanted me to experience. It’s not a remarkable insight because that’s how pretty much all visual media is presented. However, the contrast with the simple joy of standing quietly in the midst of all the action, not being spoken to and not having my gaze pointed in certain directions couldn’t be stronger. I’m not suggesting that the immersive 360-degree video is the better experience (or that it should supersede the traditional approach), merely that the two together create an impact greater than the sum of the parts. Together they allowed an intellectual and emotional response to the site that neither offered individually. This is important because now – when archaeology as a taught subject is under threat like never before – outreach will need to build on both of these aspects to attract both students and wider public support. My only sadness is that although the Cambridge YouTube channel appears to have several hundred regular videos, this is the only 360 one. If feels like this was a once-off experiment and abandoned. This is unfortunate as the technology (both for recording and viewing) is continually improving and becoming more affordable. For both practicing field archaeologists and the interested public I’d ask you to look at these videos and ask which one makes you more connected to the site – which makes you feel more engaged? If the answer is ‘the 360 degree one’, shouldn’t we be making more of these?

You can view this 360 degree video on an ordinary browser or on the dedicated YouTube app for your smartphone. However, for best results we recommend the more immersive experience that comes with an Oculus/Google Cardboard headset. If you’re feeling the love, go check out my Archaeology 360 YouTube channel [here]


  1. With both standered and 360 photography give a great look at a site there should be a little low aerial photography ( drone or kite ) to help with a gernal overview. Thanks for sharing, you do a great job mate.

    1. You make a good point, Frank - communication of the site is enhanced by all the techniques we can bring to it!