A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Riding a wave of funky guitar riffs and snappy dialogue, Two Men in a Trench (now playing on PBS stations nationwide; check local listings for airtimes) feels less like the latest British archaeological documentary and more like a situation comedy crossed with a 1970s cop show. The series showcases the adventures of archaeologists (and boyhood chums) Tony Pollard and Neil Oliver, who lead their field crew on frantic expeditions to six battlefields scattered throughout Britain. The jokes fly fast and furious in the first two episodes, visits to the battlefields of Flodden (1513) and Culloden (1746), which both pitted Scots against the English. Thankfully, later episodes are less frenetic.
In what becomes a standard script, the team pitches a tent near the battlefield, studies remote-sensing data, digs at the site of a building associated with the battle, finds very little, and then uses metal detectors on the battlefield and finds quite a lot. Tony does most of the digging, while the job of telling the story behind each battle falls to Neil, who speaks with an impressive Scottish brogue.
Neil also manages to dodge excavating by visiting with local historians. The best of these interviews is with a specialist in medieval medicine, who explains how a "doctor" treated Prince Hal after he was shot in the face by an arrow at the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. A demonstration of the metal instrument used for removing arrowheads is particularly chilling.
After showing their finds to a military historian, the Two Men don the gear of whatever period they happen to be investigating and reenact the battle one on one. These encounters are invariably silly, but by showing the weapons and acting out the tactics of the opposing sides, the Two Men never fail to clearly explain how each battle was lost and won. Simplistic cartoon graphics are surprisingly effective at conveying battlefield movements, though an American audience will be left wondering at the larger significance of some of the engagements to British history.
After a hard day's work, the two retire to their tent, where they banter and engage in hit-and-miss standup routines. One elaborate joke involving medieval military training and boars' testicles is particularly unfortunate.
At times, the Two Men's light approach clashes with the gravity of their subject. After learning that some 6,000 were killed in a blizzard of arrows at Shrewsbury, the sight of Neil and Tony gleefully shooting toy arrows at beer cans might strike some viewers as a bit much.
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