Buried truths found under the battlefield
PAY television and the increase in competing free- to- air services mean there is a great deal of broadcast time to fill, more than endless repeats of silly sitcoms can take up, which means that anybody who can make a halfway professional special interest program for not much money can get it on air.
And a good thing it is, too, because it means we get series such as this.
Two Men in a Trench is a documentary about a pair of archeologists and their pals who crawl over British battlefields seeking signs of long- ago combat. In this episode, the team explores a battle in the English civil wars of the later Middle Ages, fought outside the Shropshire town of Shrewsbury in the summer of 1403.
The history behind the battle is not especially interesting: it was just another tedious turf fight between aristocrats as ambitious as they were avaricious. Nor was the combat a big deal, its only military significance being that it was the first time the firepower of the longbow helped decide a large- scale engagement on English soil. But in the long term the slaughter at Shrewsbury accomplished sod all.
Yet this is engaging, informative entertainment. The two men in the trench, Tony Pollard and Neil Oliver, are less interested in the battle than the people who fought it. Armed with metal detectors and accompanied by geophysicists, they walk around and dig the ground to find relics and reconcile the sketchy historical records with what they can prove really happened. They also bring in experts — a specialist in longbows, arms and armours, a social historian and a scholar of medieval medicine — to explain how the combatants fought and died.
If you are not interested in military history, this description may make you switch over to watch whatever is on pay TV’s watching- paint- dry channel, but don’t be put off. Because what makes this show so entertaining is the way the team works. For all the science involved, ultimately they rely on educated guesswork and the sheer hard work of grubbing in the dirt for fragments of medieval life. And the mistakes they make are as engrossing as the artefacts they find.
Pollard and Oliver undoubtedly know their stuff but, because they obviously understand this is show business as well as scholarship, there are critics of their sort of popular approach on battlefield archeology blogs. But Two Men in a Trench is history from the bottom and as such adds a dimension to the usual TV history of endless aristocrats. It shows that scholars capable of explaining their expertise can make anything interesting. Even an obscure battle fought 600 years ago.
War games: Neil Oliver, left, and Tony Pollard face off in medieval armour