Saturday, 24 October 2009

Bonekickers: The Eternal Fire

I'm about to head off on holiday for a few days, so I won't be able to post again till next weekend. In the meantime, I leave you with a very, very long post on Bonekickers - enjoy!

(By the way, if anyone is wondering why I continue to watch and review something I keep insisting is terrible, it's because I'm interested in the reception of Classics in popular culture, which means familiarising myself with all representations of Classics and archaeology, even the rubbish ones!)

We open, appropriately enough, with fire; two Roman soldiers watch as a hut burns. One of them stamps his standard into the ground dramatically. The obligatory scene-setting title says ‘England v Italy, Bath, AD 63’. It sounds like a football match. At least the AD is in the right place. The whole village is burning now, and we melt away.

Ah, it was actually supposed to sound like a football match. The next title card says ‘England v Italy, 1,945 years later’. This explains why they’re talking about ‘England’ when the country of ‘England’ wouldn’t exist for several centuries after the Romans left. The land conquered by the Romans was called Britannia (and covered most of modern England and Wales). England is named after the Anglo-Saxons who migrated/invaded/both (historians disagree) in the fifth century AD. And, of course, an uprising against an occupying Roman force ending in battle is exactly the same as a football match. Obviously.

(No comments about British football fans, thank you, I can hear what you’re thinking!)

The football match is taking place in Bath, for some reason. Do many international football matches happen in Bath? I’ve never noticed any! We pan up from some Italian football fans and a balloon seller selling Valentine’s Day balloons to the very swanky tea room and restaurant above the Roman baths, the Pump Room. I went to the Pump Room in 2006, when I lived in Bristol, and it cost over £25 for afternoon tea (with scones). I dread to think what it costs now. I paid 50p for a cup of spa water. It was completely disgusting, but apparently very healthy. The Pump Room suddenly starts shaking, and we see a little toy Roman soldier wobbling around, then cut to the credits.

The Pump Room - it's the room behind those posh windows!

After the credits, we get a fake news bulletin about the ‘natural disaster’ at the Roman baths, and the news anchor says the city has experienced its first earth tremor in 300 years. So there’s another new thing about Bath – apparently it’s also on a faultline! (Note for non-Brits – we don’t really have earthquakes in this country. We have very very mild tremors – there’ve been a couple in the Midlands in the last few years and one of them gave me quite a scare, as I woke up in the middle of the night and thought the house was falling down. They don’t generally do any actual damage though). There’s also been a release of toxic gas. ‘Dolly’ (hereafter known as NIJ, for Not-Indiana-Jones) informs Gillian (hereafter known as ‘Taggart’, the first programme I saw the actress, Julie Graham, in) that this is both ‘terrible and wonderful’.

Then we see Ben (known as Adrian or AL after the actor Adrian Lester, because he’s so attractive I’m too distracted to come up with a better nickname for him) delivering a stammering explanation of why he needs funding – if he was that rubbish at getting funding he’d never have got a job in a university archaeology department. Taggart comes to tell him they’re going underground.

They all meet up at the baths, including Viv (who I couldn’t come up with an amusing nickname for, as the character is dull and the actress is relatively unknown, though perfectly good. In fact, all the actors are pretty good, given what they’ve got to work with). Viv is feeling sick – I sense a plot point.

Taggart says there’s a hollow area under the baths which they haven’t been able to get at till now. AL says all they’ll find is more Roman remains, and sounds bored – I think he’s in the wrong job. Taggart insists there’ll be Celtic remains under there, and the two of them have had a bet on the subject.

They bump into a geologist who explains that hydrogen sulphide has been released and the whole thing is a death-trap. He’s very moody. Geologists are usually much more cheerful than that. Taggart drags them all down anyway as they all joke about the fact they might die. This is worse than their adventures on a fake island last week. Taggart says that the hollow area would have been the perfect place to hide someone in Roman times. The area is made of hand-hewed limestone, which they all conclude means it was Celtic. I don’t know if that’s accurate, though it sounds a bit too simple to me.

The Baths at Bath

Then we get a real heresy against Roman history. They all conclude that this means the baths were built over a Celtic religious site and NIJ grimly declares ‘Subjugate the people, eradicate their heritage, that’s the Romans’.

No, no, no, no, no, NO!

. Roman paganism was a pluralistic religion. They worshipped many gods and goddesses and it didn’t matter which ones or how many you worshipped as long as you sacrificed to the major state gods (Jupiter, Juno and so on). When the Romans conquered somewhere, they adopted the local gods and incorporated their worship as well, so Eastern gods like Isis, Mithras, Cybele and others gained temples all over the place, including in Rome. There were occasional clamp downs for political reasons – the Isis cult, for example, was legislated against a couple of times – but the only group who really presented a problem were Christians, because they refused to worship the state gods (who, as you probably know, were Greek in origin anyway – Jupiter=Zeus, Juno=Hera etc). (Jews were also tricky for their refusal to worship state gods, but since they didn’t proselytize the way Christians did, they weren’t so much of a threat). When the Roman conquered a new place, they adopted the local religion and subtly made it Roman – they didn’t ‘wipe out their heritage’ and stamp all over it.

In the case of Bath, the spring was sacred to a native goddess Sulis, who shared some qualities with the Roman goddess M
inerva (equivalent to the Greek goddess Athena). Both Minerva and Sulis were associated with healing and Sulis was associated with the spring, so she was worshipped here as Sulis-Minerva and the town was called Aquae Sulis, ‘Waters of Sulis’. Here endeth the lesson.

The media ho (Daniel) reminds Taggart she’s supposed to be giving a talk that evening, but she whinges that they’re conducting an ad hoc investigation. I’m the with the media ho on this one – do your job woman! Whi
ch is getting funding for the university, not trying to kill all your staff on a dangerous dig!

The team find an inscription that says ‘Flamma urit semper’ ‘the fire will always burn’. Then they find some first cen
tury Celtic metal stuff (belt buckles etc) which Taggart insist is ‘a settlement’s worth of stuff’ (looks more like one lot of grave goods to me). They all mess around with a Celtic ring that was twisted in a fire (and, once again, it all looks cleaner than the Staffordshire Hoard did three months after excavation).

Taggart and NIJ explain that all they know about the baths comes from the Life of Marcus Quintanus, whose ‘servant’ (what? Slave or freedman, surely?) wrote about his life and about the building of
the baths. This is pure fantasy. No such person exists and our written sources for Roman Britain are pathetically inadequate, mostly consisting of a few bits of Tacitus.

The details don’t matter really, since it’s all made up. The upshot of all this is that Taggart thinks that Boudicca was kept prisoner underneath the baths, having escaped along the
Fosse way. NIJ adds yet another pointless comment about Viv’s breasts to this – how does this man still have a job? Only AL is skeptical of all this nonsense. (And I though Boudicca was buried under Platform 5 of King’s Cross Station anyway?!).

Taggart reckons the Roman soldier - the fictitious Quintanus, presumably – kept Boudicca as a sex slave, and the men start giggling at her emotion on the subject. Because rape is funny if it happened 2,000 years ago, it seems. (Note: that was sarcasm. I said it in my sarcastic voice). Taggart keeps telling AL to take a leap of faith – well that’s very scientific and academically rigorous of you. The team find a body and take the bones back for testing (apparently ‘Dolly gives good strontium’).

NIJ explains that Taggart’s mother was a media ho who ‘forsook academic enquiry for daydreaming’ and she lost credibility and had a breakdown. He is worried about Taggart, but interrupts it by describing how he likes to imagine what Viv looks like in the sho
wer. Seriously, even Gene bl**dy Hunt wasn’t this bad.

Apparently the ‘servant’’s manscript (seriously, not many servants in ancient Rome. The word often translated as ‘servant’ in editions of the Bible actually means ‘slave’. Freedmen might be servants, but you would refer to them as freedmen) said the Quintanus was an atheist. Very unlikely. He might have been an Epicurean, a philosophical school that came pretty close to atheism, or a Christian, because not believing in the traditional gods could be said to constitute atheism, but an actual atheist is very, very unlikely. This do
es not mean there weren’t people who didn’t believe in the gods – there were, probably plenty of them. But they didn’t self-identify as atheists. Taggart is making up a nice little story about Boudicca now, based on no evidence whatsoever. AL keeps insisting that she’s acting crazy, since Quintanus would have paraded Boudicca through the streets if he had here. Then they have a lover’s tiff based on their past relationship. This involved AL implying that girls who like Queen are somehow weird. That’s him and me out the window then.

There’s another earth tremor and Taggart desides to crawl down a hole despite the obvious danger, so AL has to go in after her, and they get stuck. They find more inscriptions that say ‘Flamma urit semper’. AL observes, with understandable concern, that they are too deep for anyone to hear them, and Taggart gets all excited, thinking this supports her crazy theory.

NIJ gives a little talk on strontium to some visitors and the media ho reminds him that the other two are supposed to be at the thing that evening. The news is all about the gas leaking out and Viv thinks they ought to call the others, but NIJ says they’re fine.

This is not, in fact, the case, as AL is hit on the head by falling rubble. Taggart is still over-excited, causing him to mutter sarcastically ‘Wow, I’m gonna die looking at the rarest Egyptian porphyry I’ve ever seen’. He yells at Taggart for being an idiot (entirely justifiably) while NIJ investigates whether the strontium implies that the bones came from East Englia. It doesn’t – it shows signs of volcanic activity and comes, therefore, from a Roman (presumably from Pompeii). Viv reckons Boudicca killed Quintanus and the Life is wrong when it says he came back to Rome.

Taggart has fou
nd a mosaic she thinks depicts Boudicca. And more flaws in the crazy theory – Taggart claims that the Roman source we do have say that Boudicca killed herself at the battle because they wanted to give her ‘an ignominious end’. But Romans saw suicide as an honourable exit from a life in which there is no future, because you’ve done something wrong (maybe plotting against the Emperor, like Lucan), or the world has gone to pot around you (like Claudius’ mother Antonia) or the Emperor is a fruit basket and told you to (like Seneca or Petronius). There was nothing ignominous about suicide itself, though it couldn’t save your reputation from every disaster (Varus, for example, had gone too far, and even his suicide couldn’t redeem him). The point being, of the Romans had wanted to invent a dishonourable end for Boudicaa, suicide would not have been it.

An actual mosaic from Bath

NIJ is on a web call to an old girlfriend in Italy, and they discuss how Quintanus di
ed in the Great Fire of Rome, which was ‘the Christians’ revenge’ for being burnt and tarred and so on by Nero – what??????? WHAT???????? Suetonius and Cassius Dio both blame Nero himself for the fire, and Tacitus says that when fingers started pointing at Nero, he blamed Christians to take the heat off himself. Some of them confessed, almost certainly under torture, and it was this that sparked the first major persecution of the Christians – it was not a result of it.

The Italian lady friend has a 17th century copy of the text that NIJ doesn’t seem to have heard of – my goodness, these are the worst archaeologists in history. They have apparently found Iceni coins in Rome, though she barely gets this out between flirting. They also establish that Quintanus went back to Rome and committed some kind of act of betrayal.

Back in the hole, Taggart has spontaneously burst into tears at the discovery of an image of Cupid (god/personification of Love) firing his arrow at Boudicca – implying that she wasn’t imprisoned down there, but having a consensual affair with Quintanus. Apparently this moves Taggart to tears. She won’t last long as an archaeologist if she wells up that easily – if a simple love story gets her going, how does she deal with all the bones and wars and so on? Naturally, she must then be comforted by her ex. He complains that a Roman and an Iceni makes no sense – maybe not during an uprising, but there was plenty of intermarriage otherwise.

Come to think of it, why is the mosaic on the wall anyway? Mosaics are for floor d
ecoration mostly, except in the much later churches in Ravenna and elsewhere.

Luckily Taggart eventually finds a draught, just as they start suddenly breathing in gas. Taggart has to break the mosaic so they can get out. Meanwhile, someone calls for her at the university to ask if she’s received ‘the book’ (which appears to be sitting on the desk).

AL ascertains that they’re ‘OK’, presumably on the basis that they’re still conscious, as they wander into a new bit of ruin. They find a fossilized apple and a bunch of tiny jars which Taggart thinks might be a burial ritual, like Canopic jars. Yeah, except Canopic jars are ancient Egyptian and you generally have to be making a mummy to produce them. None of that in Roman Britain. AL suggests they go together, water in one, tar in the other. How he knows this, no one knows. Maybe he’s psychic. They decide that these are ‘Roman hand grenades’, used for torching the village. Uh-huh.

Then there’s an explosion. It is marginally more exciting than the rest of the show. They realise they’re standing in a ‘minefield’ of ‘grenades’. Oh, for heaven’s sake. The Romans did not have grenades or mines. This is getting too, too silly.

NIJ has found a palimpsest in the 17th century manuscript, written sideways across it. It talks about a hunt for Boudicca. Then there’s some more gratuitous religion-bashing. Or Roman-bashing. Maybe both.

AL bravely offers to walk across the minefield first and at this point I’d really quite like to stop watching this and watch Ice Cold in Alex instead. Taggart brings up some old issu
e from a Valentine’s Day incident when they were going out, 16 years previously. AL is not impressed, being as he’s trying to avoid getting blown up. Taggart has decided they’re going to die, so she’s decided to bring up the time she proposed to him and he said no. Apparently she mopes about it every year. Once they get out of the ‘minefield’, AL explains he said no because she’s too scary.

Taggart decides the ‘grenades’ were booby traps and they’re getting close to ‘something’. Back at the uni, NIJ is continuing his crusade against Roman history by saying something in the manuscript is ‘odd because this is mixing Roman gods with Celtic ones’. No it’s not odd, and any small gift that says Sulis-Minerva available in the Baths gift shop could tell you that’s perfectly normal. Then there’s some stuff about burning. They reckon, because what they have a good Latin, it can’t have been written by the ‘servant’. No, because if a slave was educated to read and write they would b
e taught good grammar. Then they decide Quintanus threw Iceni coins around Rome while it burned. They’re just making it up now.

NIJ and Viv go to get the others and find fire engines and geologists hanging around. NIJ flips out and starts shouting ‘mea culpa!’, presumably getting into the spirit of the Roman thing.

Meanwhile, AL and Taggart have found the body of Boudicca, which isn’t under King’s Cross Station after all. No, it’s been preserved (save your sanity, don’t ask how) under the baths, complete with the some graffiti in tar that says ‘Queen of the Britons’ (actually it doesn’t, it says Regina Britanica, which means ‘Queen of Britain’). AL pays Taggart what he owes from their bet. She then goes and mopes around the body for a bit. The graffiti continues with something written by Quintanus claiming her to be the rightful queen of Britain. (Actually I’
m pretty sure she was just queen of the Iceni tribe, there was no unified country called Britain at this time).

NIJ works out how to find the others with some nonsense involving entrances, exits, Janus, Minerva and I don’t know what else. AL and Taggart speculate that Boudicca was discovered and killed, and there’s a flashback with some subtitled Latin, which is always fun. It involves Boudicca committing suicide after all, and Quintanus kills the man who found them.

There’s some excitement with drilling and water tables and the ‘grenades’ and everything ends up burned down, including Boudicca. NIJ jumps around in the baths claiming bureaucracy is
overrated – but isn’t that kind of thinking how they got into this mess? NIJ finds some ancient trapdoor and finally rescues Taggart and AL.

Their escape involves this bit of the baths. I forget why.

NIJ declares that Boudicca won in the end because Quintanus set fire to Rome to avenge her and threw Iceni coins at Nero’s palace. Then AL reveals that they all used to call Taggart ‘Boudicca’ at uni and gives her a Valentine’s balloon, which she floats up into the air. AL then plans to give a speech all about archaeology as fairytale. Yeah, that’ll get you funding. He wonders if you can know what dreams they had – yes, if they carved inscriptions relating to temple incubation, you can. He goes on about the importance of imagination, instead of evidence. Great. So basically, we should just make it all up. This is an idea with some precedent – Livy and Plutarch certainly weren’t averse to making stuff up in their histories. Doesn’t get you far in modern archaeology though. Taggart opens the book, which says ‘we will call you’ and once belonged to her mother. Then she starts getting suspicious of Vivian, so paranoia is setting in, and apparently the fricking sword shape has turned up in the baths as well.

The next episode is about ancient Babylon and the Iraq war. More serious issues for the show to poke at ineffectually…


  1. I continue to be stunned by this show. The writers have clearly never even heard of the concept of research. I mean isn't (or at least wasn't) Boudicca taught in school as part of British history? If nothing else, there are a zillion novels out there about her, any one of which clearly has better researched material about her. Please, please tell me that there is no technical consultant or the like for this show. I refuse to believe that any archaeologist or historian had anything to do with it.

    I'll give AL his lack of enthusiasm for "more Roman remains". Plenty of people focus a little too hard on their preferred area of specialty. If his thing is Celts, he might very well have a rather "meh" response to Romans.

    Jews got something of a pass for not worshipping the state gods, mostly because Caesar gave them special dispensation after they saved his butt in Alexandria. That was generally respected until the first Jewish Revolt in the late 60s.

    [T]he Emperor is a fruit basket... Hah! I fully expect to see this phrase again in the next episode of I, Claudius.

  2. The archaeological consultant was Mark Horton of Bristol University, who wrote the 'real history' bits on the Bonekickers website at

    I don't know if you can really blame him for the inaccuracies though, as the producers are under no obligation to actually listen to any of his advice!

    Personally I love Bonekickers though, and spotting the outrageous mistakes and absurdities just adds to the entertainment. My favourites in this episode are probably the four or five (!) secret chambers that they discover by kicking down walls, and of course the amazing Quintanus and his hand grenades.

    Oh, and the Gene Hunt comparison is not a coincidence, as Matthew Graham wrote for and created both Life and Mars and Bonekickers.

    Oh, and when are you going to do The Horns of Nimon??

  3. "The Romans did not have grenades or mines." So how do you explain the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch?

  4. Also, Bonekickers Latin sucks.

  5. The Horns of Nimon is coming, I promise! I had to finish The Myth Makers first. Also, I accidentally took the CD back to Wales...

    Perhaps the Bonekickers team will discover the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch next time?!


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