Thursday, 26 July 2012

"Britain's Secret treasures", What Went Wrong?


Over the past ten days I have been writing about this prime-time TV attempt at archaeological outreach. I think that, as such, it failed dismally, and am gratified that for once I have not been a lone voice in questioning and even condemning the programme. Over the past few days I have made reference to the many comments that had a less-than-awed reaction to the programme, and can honestly say that there really were few more positive reviews (though a plethora of air-headed positive tweets and Facebook 'likes' from the PAS' gaggle of supporters). Questions should be asked about just what it was the BM and PAS thought they were doing, but they have between them done British archaeology a grave disservice, and possibly even damage. Such a project and its aims should have been the focus of a much wider process of detailed consultation within the discipline.

So what went wrong? The most obvious thing is that as somebody else said, it was a "silly idea" from the start. Any archaeologist will tell you the British press/media are incapable of reporting archaeology properly, whatever you say, however carefully you explain it to them, you can write it down on a piece of paper for them to copy out - and they still (100% of the time) get something wrong. It is a fact of life, journalists and media people just do not understand archaeology. But then, whose fault is that? It is of course the archaeologists' fault for having over several decades consistently fed the public with a rather stereotypical picture of the discipline. We saw some of the themes in the programme, gold, treasure, mystery, gory sacrifices, human interest stories. Crap. So anybody setting out blithely to work with the British media is off to a bad start even before they've begun.

Quite whose idea it was to call the programme "Britain's Secret Treasures" is immaterial (though I hope it was nobody in the PAS). The point is the PAS and any archaeologist with an inch of self respect should have refused to participate in such a programme. It was NOT about "Britain" most of the objects discussed were from England (most from the vicinity of London). Why these objects were "secret" was never explained, the objects discussed were those which were in the public domain. The word "Treasure" has a specific meaning in British legislation (it is an utterly stupid term, but it is what the law says). Not all of the items discussed fell under the Treasure Act (as it is applied to England and Wales in its present form) and using the term in the way it was is simply adding layers of confusion upon confusion.

Thus the programme went out under a three word title which in no way corresponds to what the programme should have been, or was, about. Hearing that proposed title was the signal that a strong PAS (and the CBA) should have withdrawn. Why not some equally corny title, like "Digging up the/Britain's Past"? "Finding the PASt", "History Under Your Feet", "Roger's Ripping Yarns"? I think over a beer or two one could come up with several dozen equally commercially attractive titles that would be more suitable than "Britain's Treasures" whether "secret" or not, which is just asking for trouble.

The second obvious mistake was attempting to fit fifty objects into such a time span - given all the padding that was to go around the presentation of the objects. The whole presentation was too rushed and lacking in substance, and some very important information was missed out in several cases (Silverdale, Hallerton, Crosby Garrett and Happisburgh). Thirty objects would have been pushing it.

As I said earlier, my feeling is that the rather pointless "competition" format led to fragmentation and jumping around from topic to topic, when in fact several themes kept coming back ("finds in wet places" was one obvious one). A much more satisfying approach surely would be to look at those themes through a closer selection of the same finds - then the merely frivolous (the toy cannon and the false nose etc) would have dropped away had this been done.

Given that a lot of these finds had been made by artefact hunting, this needed discussing, and not an attempt made to paper over the issue. The absence of ANY reference in the programme to the controversies over this (not all made up by "Trolls") would be excusable if this had been made by Rutland Hospitals Radio, or Pikey TV, but it was not. The PAS was involved in its production from start to finish. The absence of even the briefest section in the programme explicitly discussing best practice in artefact hunting is inexcusable. I really do not see a problem here, send Ann-Marie Ochota up to York, drag Mike Heyworth (or the CBA information officer) from his office for two hours, go out onto a piece of permanent pasture on a hill with beautiful views behind (or on the forecourt of the BM - hell, you could do it with a blue screen in the CBA carpark really) and a copy of the Code of Practice under his arm, and just do an interview. Edit it and stick it in right after Crosby Garrett or the Staffordshire Hoard. Not exactly rocket science, and should have been in the contract.

Vignette: Another false nose - this one would not be found by a metal detector, so gives a more realistic picture of "the way people lived in the past"  (Skinner and Hyde). More to the point, fake noses belong as a space filler on the Antiques Roadshow and their application to the archaeological understanding of the past (want to do "syphillis", show the bone evidence too) has yet to be explained. Dumbed-down and superficial sensationalism was obviously the order of the day when they wrote this series.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"Should have been in the contract", of course it should have been Paul. It should also be on the front page of the PAS website that we paid for, but isn't. The problem is quite clearly deeper and earlier than these programmes.

 
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