Buried truths found un­der the bat­tle­field

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Tv -

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

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