Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Codename: Ainsbrook A Time Team Special



The British TV show “Time Team” aims to present in a fly-on-the-wall quasi-reality-show format the process of archaeological investigation to the wider public. Though its a little cringeworthy in places, I think its generally a very positive thing as a palatable way of propagating knowledge about archaeology. In UK metal detecting forums one or two passing remarks made on air by certain people connected with this programme have become infamous - part of 'being-a-detectorist' lore. In general the programme has tried to stay away from the controversy on portable antiquity collecting in the UK. Perhaps this is with a view to viewer figures, perhaps it is just part of a general wimpyness among British archaeologist afraid to call a spade a spade here.

In a rare exception to this general tendency, presenter Tony Robinson (the only non-archaeologist in the TT 'inner circle') has some outspoken views of his own:
'Metal detecting worries me greatly,' he says. 'To be honest, I think we're [messing] about. The reality, according to Phil [Harding – PMB], is that there are likely to be no metal finds at all in the first foot of Britain's soil within 20 years. The only way we can prevent that happening is by legislation. I think all metal detectors should be licensed and to get a licence they should be required to abide by a code of archaeological best practice.'
'Everything we find, wherever it is, should be scrupulously and
systematically recorded within its archaeological context,' Tony insists. He says that the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which involves the voluntary recording of archaeological finds, is 'great, and I support the people who do it, but in a way it's a policy of despair because it's saying yes, all these people are going to plunder our archaeology but what we'll do is try to persuade the nice ones to tell us where they found it.'
[…]
Tony doesn't think legislation on metal detecting is too much to ask. It's about developing a critical mass of support to change hearts and minds on the issue. We don't allow people to collect birds' eggs any more, for example, he says. 'Yet this is worse than egg collecting. There will still be kestrels producing eggs until we get down to the last half dozen kestrels but once you lose archaeological remains they are gone forever.'
It is difficult to argue with any of that. Which, I guess, is why pro-collecting archaeologists in the UK tend to ignore points like this.

I do not think Phil Harding [one of the programme's archaeologists] was right in his assessment that all of the British archaeological record will have been "metal detected" away in two more decades, but it certainly will be more severely damaged than it is today by ineffective British policies on the issue. Part of the problem is that we really know nothing about the rate at which the unrecorded damage is occurring - Time Team for example estimates the number of "metal detectorists' in the UK as "50000". My own work suggests this figure is actually five times too high... This highlights the fact that we really do not know how many of these people there are, or what they are doing. It is high time we did. If there really are 50 000 of them, then the PAS is seeing only a very small proportion of the finds they are taking away (its bad enough if there are 10000).

Time Team usually shares the British media's general pat-on-the-head tendency to depict metal detector users as benign anorakish “history-seekers” only too willing to help archaeologists search sites for metal objects during for example Time Team projects (the official picture promoted by the pro-collecting archaeologists). In a rare exception to this, in January last year a Time Team programme "Codename Ainsbrook" was broadcast which atypically depicted the other side of the problem. It talked about the collecting that lies behind what is domesticated by the effete label "metal detecting". It discussed the archaeological investigation of a site (a single 'productive' site in the north of England), which had been searched by artefact hunters Mark Ainsley and Geoffrey Bambrook for a number of years before it was brought to archaeological attention. In this time they had removed "as many as seven or eight thousand objects" from the site. They were depicted none too kindly - for example as quarelling with the Treasure Valuation Committee about how much reward they "should" get for three silver coins which were declared Treasure.

The programme caused a great deal of discussion on the archaeology and metal detecting forums because it did not give a very flattering picture of the milieu in general. It was on British television again recently and the discussion has revived (see David Gill’s Looting Matters post). Let us see more of this sort of coverage of the artefact collecting issue.
I was interested in a comment added to David Gill's post. One of the Ainsbrook metal detectorists informed us that since the programme was broadcast: "from 2008 and the showing of the program the site is now being ‘nighthawked’ so finds from the site are not being recorded". I wonder whether this figures in the Oxford Archaeology "Nighthawking Survey" which is due out any moment now? It has been leaked is going to proclaim that British policies (and the PAS in partricular) have led to a decline in the illegal use of metal detectors on archaeological sites. We will see the basis for such remarks in due course.
UPDATE 26 Sept 2012: Time Team Special 34 (2008) - Codename Ainsbrook At the moment this episode is available on You Tube.


posted by Fillask·

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