experimental archeology / history at its best
January 15, 2012 6:53 PM   Subscribe

Victorian Farm | Edwardian Farm -- 18 hours of BBC experimental archeology/historical documentaries, online. Archaeologists Alex Langlands and Peter Ginn and historian Ruth Goodman spend two years living the life of rural country farmers.
posted by crunchland (33 comments total) 81 users marked this as a favorite
It cracks me up how hot experimental archaeology is in the UK. No, that's wrong. I'm completely jealous of how hot experimental archaeology is in the UK. Thew few attempts we've made to import it have failed. We seem to prefer reality shows about the idle rich instead.
posted by Miko at 7:50 PM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't forget Victorian Pharmacy and the original Victorian Kitchen Garden.

I'm struck by how much better those series were than, say, Frontier House, which put random modern families into the scenario of living a 1883 lifestyle. Langlands, Ginn and Goodman brought so much more to their shows by knowing a significant amount of the history of the period and knowledge of what they were doing.
posted by autopilot at 8:16 PM on January 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

Last month I saw a special Victorian Farm Christmas which I believe contained excerpts from this Victorian Farm series as well as perhaps new material. I loved it and am happy to have links to both of these longer works. I can't seem to get enough of British TV; they do historical programs so very well.
posted by Anitanola at 8:37 PM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Anyone know what's up with the weird narration over some of the shots?

Such as: The video transitions between two shots with a time-lapse shot of sheep in a field. And, over the video, a weird-sounding voice says "Time-lapse of sheep in a field." ?!?
posted by ronofthedead at 8:50 PM on January 15, 2012

There was actually a BBC series that spawned the likes of Frontier House and Pilgrim House and the others that we had here, putting regular people in historic environments. It was also really excellent. Victorian House was the title of one, I think, though I can't find it on a quick search right now, and 1940s House was another, and was amazing. There was another one I saw set in the Bronze Age that was kind of stupid, though, mainly because we really know so little about how people lived in the Bronze Age.

So it's not that they just structure the show better - I think the people putting the shows together simply approach it with a different set of values. Where American TV producers tend to be interested in creating conflict, interpersonal drama, and setting up 'heroes' and 'villians,' the BBC programs are more willing to explore facts and realities, interview scholars, and share reflections. I don't know what it is - it may speak to a society that's just plain more interested in, and patient with, learning about its own history than the US is. Or it may just be our TV system is stupider. And of course, we don't fund programs that like to anywhere near the extent that public agencies in Britain fund them, so there's probably more pressure here to only do them if you think it will put butts in seats.
posted by Miko at 8:54 PM on January 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

You have no idea how relevant to my interests this is.
posted by The Whelk at 9:03 PM on January 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'll tell you what. I've been watching the UK version of Time Team for years --- back when it was broadcast on the Discovery Channel, and via bittorrent when they decided that we Americans weren't interested in archaeology and they cancelled it. Then they tried reviving it with an all-american version on PBS a few years back, and I thought it was pretty awful. The US version gets bogged down in politically charged sites, like native american habitations, or southern slaves quarters. I mean, that's fine for an episode, but all of their episodes were about similar topics, and I found it way too repetitive.

Then again, my wife couldn't stand either.
posted by crunchland at 9:11 PM on January 15, 2012

Where American TV producers tend to be interested in creating conflict, interpersonal drama, and setting up 'heroes' and 'villians,' the BBC programs are more willing to explore facts and realities

This is why the US version of Kitchen Nightmares was so terrible. It's not about the food, it's about zooming in on people's faces while they cry.

Canadian home improvement shows are better than US ones for the same reason. Canada shows tradespeople working, and the US focuses on the homeowner, their story and their reaction to the work.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 9:13 PM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Victorian Farm and Victorian Farm Christmas are both fantastic, mainly because of the knowledge and enthusiasm of the three historians/archaeologists. There's another series out there which I've never been able to track down called Tales from the Green Valley, which I think is supposed to be similar in set up. Has anyone seen it?

The US Frontier House was pretty blah by comparison, but it was head and shoulders above Texas Ranch House.
posted by Ritchie at 9:23 PM on January 15, 2012

Tales of Green Valley ... unfortunately, very, very low-res.
posted by crunchland at 9:29 PM on January 15, 2012

Here's a better version
posted by crunchland at 9:33 PM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Then again, my wife couldn't stand either.

Time Team is non-negotiable.
posted by Chuckles at 10:11 PM on January 15, 2012

Love these shows.

And I really enjoyed Frontier House. Jesus, one of the couples got a divorce because they realized they kind of hated each other. TV, internet, and computers can cover up a lot of harsh truths.
posted by bardic at 10:12 PM on January 15, 2012 [3 favorites]

I love these programmes and I LOVE Ruth Goodman. You have no idea. One of the lecturers at the university where I work was an advisor for Edwardian Farm and I feel like she still avoids me because of how overexcited I got when I asked her about working with Ruth.
posted by cilantro at 11:31 PM on January 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Excellent find! Seems like the Ms and I will have something interesting to watch tonight.
posted by Harald74 at 11:36 PM on January 15, 2012

Bless your homespun socks, crunchland.
posted by Ritchie at 11:59 PM on January 15, 2012

Fantastic set of programmes. My partner and I are also in the Ruth Goodman fan club. Talk about bringing history to life. And she really gets across the sense of how brutally hard people worked at home and yet how rewarding to manufacture everything you needed by yourself by your own ingenuity and elbow grease.
posted by amusebuche at 2:20 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

There were actually originally five archaeologists planned for the show. But to keep it more realistic, two died before their third birthdays.
posted by MuffinMan at 4:49 AM on January 16, 2012 [7 favorites]

This is excellent.
posted by OmieWise at 7:43 AM on January 16, 2012

Miko, there was also The Edwardian Country House (and a book) and Regency House Party (and book). The Victorian one was 1900 House (and book). The Edwardian one mostly focussed on servants. As I recall they said most applicants to be on it wanted to be servants, wch I found pleasing. The Regency one was not nearly so good, mainly being about toffs set tasks (eg archery). They did have a Black woman wch was interesting. The 1900 House was the first and possibly the best. The family broke out of the house to go and buy modern hair products in desperation. And there was a memorable scene where the haggard mother explained to camera that she was having a terrible day because her period had started.

And they are currently filming Wartime Farm.
posted by paduasoy at 11:04 AM on January 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

Wow. They're rapidly running out of eras.
posted by crunchland at 11:34 AM on January 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

As I recall they said most applicants to be on it wanted to be servants, wch I found pleasing.

An interesting side note! Since it's my work, I've lately been observing an interesting thing about the history of interpretation in domestic sites. Up until about the 1980s or so, the general trend was to interpret the Great Man of the house (usually the initial impetus for saving a historic site), and the activities of his family - the homeowners and members of the elite social and economic class in the era. The great progressive shift in historic sites over the last couple of decades has been to ask the question "What about the servants?" So we have seen an explosion of "upstairs/downstairs" tours, servants' tours, tours focused on immigration histories of household staff, and often the reopening of spaces that previous generations deemed uninteresting (because they were associated with servitude) such as the kitchen, the maids' rooms, the slave quarters, and so on.

This is all well and good. Yet since people learn a lot of their history through public history, I have started to become concerned that this does not widen the lens enough.Domestic sites have their own economy and power relationships which are fasincating to consider and revealing of striation and mobility where it existed, but at the end of the day, a middling to upper income household which had staff is already an economic island during most of the history of the last three centuries. Even a berth as a servant in a home like this was a large upgrade over most other employment choices. Houses of the illustrious people of Georgian or Victorian or turn-of-the-century times don't reflect at all the full segmentation of the labor market in their times. Servitude was always an important labor sector, especially for women and some categories of immigrants in the US, but it was still small in comparison to industrial labor in mills and manual labor on railroads and canals. So we end up, by taking servants' tours, creating the illusion that we have described all socioeconomic realities by including servants - when we haven't, not by a long shot. We just don't have many restored railroad shacks, shanties, and millworkers' boardinghouses and dormitories to show off. We have a few, but it is interesting to realize that we have so very few sites of industrial/occupational history in comparison to sites that we like to romanticize more, those of domestic or political history.

Part of this is due to the limitations of domestic sites. You can only see in a historic house what happened in a house. But I am interested now to see how we establish the next generation of historic sites and interpretation, and whether we get better at including the stories of work done by the underclasses as well as the elite classes and their service workers. I think it's great that the story broadened - I just would like to see that public history continues to broaden outward, and not focus on only service jobs as the representation of the non-elite class. They were fairly cushy and highly upwardly mobile jobs, as jobs went.

Also incidentally, one of my colleagues at the Newport Mansions noted that people really, really enjoy the servants' areas and those aspects of the tours, quite enthusiastically. Part of it is that we identify with servants much more than people did when the Mansions were first opened to the public - we, most of us anyway, do most of our own cooking, cleaning, provisioning, laundry, and driving. We're curious about how those things got done, because we do them - it's the stuff of daily life, to us. But in the heyday of the mansions, the people who owned and entertained in the homes might never have actually seen the insides of these utililitarian spaces, which were entirely in the charge of household staff. Now, their level of quality, profession and skill at running a household have become our aesthetic and organizational ideal, the editorial content of Martha Stewart Living.
posted by Miko at 2:33 PM on January 16, 2012 [8 favorites]

This is wonderful, thankyou for posting it. I'm trying to decide on which to watch first!
posted by pymsical at 5:55 PM on January 16, 2012

I've spent the evening watching the Christmas series and absolutely love it.
posted by Miko at 7:31 PM on January 16, 2012

Miko, I've worked for The National trust in the UK, and it's very similar. You can now go to properties and have cooking lessons in the kitchens... Although, one thing I noticed that added to the identification with servants was the number of visitors who had family members who were in service, sometimes even at the property they were visiting. They came because Granny worked here, or somewhere similar.

There has been a move to preserve more of the industrial past, like the back to backs in Birmingham, but there's just not so much of it around.
posted by Helga-woo at 3:18 AM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh man, thanks you SO MUCH for alerting me to these shows. 100% pure awesome. As a teen, I worked for a summer on a 1900 replica farm and it was amazing and I've loved this stuff ever since.
posted by DU at 6:03 AM on January 17, 2012

one thing I noticed that added to the identification with servants was the number of visitors who had family members who were in service,

Oh, yes! Totally true in the US too. That's a great point.
posted by Miko at 7:04 AM on January 17, 2012

hey, a colleague just linked me to this photoblog, History Through the Lens of Today, with a great writeup and an interesting history-based project:
Why is it that the sites of labor massacres across the country are little known and obscure? These are choices that we make: to make the Liberty Bell and the signing of the Declaration of Independence these giant tourist attractions. What we choose to remember and why we choose to remember it is what makes us who are.
I think these shows are doing a great job illuminating what we were and some of what we are, and some of what we hope to be, as well.
posted by Miko at 8:52 AM on January 17, 2012

I don't know if any of you have read Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age, but I'm re-reading it again, and watching these programs makes me wonder if one of the side-premises that once nation-states cease to be viable, that people will fall into factions that revolve around ideals instead of geography. One of the factions he describes are the Neo-Victorians, who eschew many aspects of high technology in favor of living a hybridized version of the Victorian age. It's depicted in the book as being an avenue only for the very wealthy -- that the poor don't have the luxury of not taking advantage of technology any chance they get -- so the life of rural farmers in these programs is far away from what the neo-vickys have to cope with. But I wonder if there will ever come a time where people in the future will intentionally shed the trappings of modernity in favor of living a simpler way of life, en masse, and not as a televised experiment like these shows. I suppose the amish do this already, don't they?

And many of my friends have already shown small signs of rejecting some modern conveniences. I, myself, collect old wind-up clocks. A friend of mine collects antique typewriters. And there have been greater movements where many people react opposite of technological advances, like the so-called "arts and crafts" movement from 100 years ago, being a counter-reaction to mass production.

All I can say is watching these programs gives me great incentive to do things away from the computer, and I guess that can't be all bad.
posted by crunchland at 9:22 PM on January 17, 2012 [1 favorite]

But I wonder if there will ever come a time where people in the future will intentionally shed the trappings of modernity in favor of living a simpler way of life, en masse, and not as a televised experiment like these shows. I suppose the amish do this already, don't they?

The rich do it already. It's a truism of labor history that things which were the labors of the working class in the past become the leisure of the wealthy. Farming/gardening, yachting, building. I was recently reading something about the gravitation toward things which were perceived as "simpler" as not only an escape from, but a show of repudiation of, the complexities and trappings of wealth.

Living and working where I do, I have the chance to observe really wealthy people. Their fetishization of 'simplicity' is fascinating - with relish they talk about their stripped-down camps, rustic lodges, rural farmhouses, traditional-rig sailing yachts. Putting on the things of the country seems to be soothing, the barn jackets, the wood carrying, the orchard tools, the antique trucks. This all is, of course, because they can. Their concern is not efficiency or production any more - since their lives feature surplus of just about everything, it can become a lark or even a test of character to do without, or with less, as a recreational pastime.

All that said, I've worked in living history settings and honestly have loved it. Watching these films just makes me want to do a project like this. Above all, lives separated a bit more from screen-based and power technologies are sensorily much richer. That can be a downside when you're cold and wet, but a huge upside when you're moving physically, smelling the air and the products and animals and plants you're working with, handling myriad textures, seeing change moment by moment, creating real objects with your hands and taking pleasure in them, making music and playing games without packaged entertainment. You also tend to feel like there's just more time, since there's not the option of always finding something to do online. It's a little easier to just be in the moment. The voluntary simplicity movement takes on some of these ideas, and though there are interesting class considerations about who can do this and who would want to, there are some genuine rewards.
posted by Miko at 6:55 AM on January 18, 2012

Watched the first episode of Victorian Farm with my 9 year old tonight. We both loved it! Thanks so much for posting.
posted by latkes at 9:06 PM on January 21, 2012

OK, 4 episodes in, I am starting to get anxiety attacks about the poor female historian stuck inside doing laundry all day while the archaeologist dudes are out helping baby lambs into the world and running about the countryside. First of all, in real Victorian Farm life, there'd be other women and children to keep each other company so the tedium wouldn't have been so freaking tedious, and also, since in the show the guys don't stay in the house with her, there's no sense of how essential her work is to the function of the farm. I mean, how are dudes supposed to be out planting the fields all day without breakfast from the lady at home? The way the show is structured it's almost as if her cooking and cleaning projects aren't really connected or important to the farm as a whole.
posted by latkes at 10:32 PM on January 23, 2012

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