Sunday, 10 January 2016

British TV's "Battlefield Recovery" Reviewed

The Pipeline spent yesterday evening reviewing in his own inimitable style the first episode of the series made by a British production company ClearStory Productions under a different premise and now renamed "Battlefield Recovery". It saves me doing it, I endorse everything he says.
Battlefield Recovery, which made its debut on Channel 5 in the UK last night in spite of the best efforts of the international archaeological community to get it withdrawn, has something of the air of a puppy which sits and looks at you with melting eyes, pleading forgiveness while a huge pile of poo steams quietly next to it on the carpet. Like a litter of boisterous puppies, the programme’s litter of on screen presenters, UK metal detectorists Steven Taylor, Kris Rodgers and Adrian Kostromski along with US dealer in Nazi relics, Craig Gottlieb, run around a lot, play with their toys, bicker, play fight and high five their way through the farms and forests of the Baltic state of Latvia. They do this with the wide eyed enthusiasm of puppies setting out to explore the world, have a good time and find the next tasty and smelly object to pick up, toss around and chew to bits. Unfortunately, what gets chewed to bits in “Battlefield Recovery” is the conflict archaeology of one of the most bitterly fought and least known fronts of World War Two, Latvia. Chewed up usually by the archaeologically inappropriately narrow, toothed bucket of the team’s backhoe ripping into the ground....
and so on. It is worth noting two things. Firstly, although the subtitles say that the makers are aware that what is shown may not reflect archaeological ideas of best practice, there are no such disclaimers about what is showing being anything from the norms which may be expected of amateur metal detector-using artefact hunters. If you look at the forums, both in 2014 discussion and now, up to the time of writing, on most of them there has been no extensive discussion (still less any criticism) of what metal detectorists saw in these films. what there was can be seen to have been back-slapping about the luck to find so much "cool stuff" and appear on international television. It seems there are very few ("responsible") metal detectorists out there who see anything amiss or abnormal about what we see here. And that is disturbing.

 The second thing I would draw attention to is that the programme basically provides an overview of the typical justificatory mantras of the artefact hunters of the UK which British archaeologists - stubbornly persisting in puppy-head-patting-mode as they mostly are - have so far failed utterly to address. The basic argument of Clearstory (which Brockman labels 'intellectually absurd') which attempts to dodge criticism from the archaeological community by saying “We weren’t doing archaeology, so you have no right to complain that we weren’t doing good archaeology” is in fact the very same argument used more than ten years ago on the PAS public forum. The efforts to get metal detectorists and the rest of the public to understand what 'best practice' in artefact hunting were failing, and a decade or more along, can still be seen to have totally failed. Part of the reason for this has indeed been that in the past certain British archaeologists have been perfectly willing to chat with them while shutting their eyes to the way they go about what they do on the grounds, "well, they are not archaeologists so we should not expect from these poor fellows that they do things the way we do" (Yes, David, I am looking at you in particular). The behaviour we see in this film is the scandalous fruits of such a laissez  faire (not to say negligent) approach to outreach by the entire British archaeological community - with the PAS at their head.

Brockman examines the stated premise of the programme which is "to save history before it is lost". This too is a typical UK tekkie mantra. And shame to say, but again British archaeologists support them in this. Sites are being damaged - the anecdote goes - by plough and "artificial fertilisers" or if these guys do not hoik stuff and record some "the Nighthawks" will come and get it.  Archaeologists go along with it, never challenge it, rarely stick their head above the parapet to suggest there is another solution except amateurish hoiking. So again, the narrative goes unchallenged and here we see it in technicolour glory - and "saving stuff" is by "no method other than digging large holes and pulling out the stuff found therein". First of all, there is a problem is that the fields and forests around this battlefield are littered with "stuff", Second World War relics. The museum has lots of "stuff", some of which had been picked up fresh decades ago. There really is no museological need to fill their stores with more "stuff" of this nature. But what about the threat of "Black Diggers" finding something and selling it? Well, like Andy Brockman I find it incredibly ironic that one member of this team actually makes his living selling Nazi War relics and he even comes on screen criticising the sale of said items!

But, they have to find evidence of "the threat". In episode two (I think) on another of their playgrounds they find a heap of artefacts left by other artefact hunters. These are immediately labelled traces of the activities of "Black Diggers" - on what grounds is unclear. At home a pile of jagged metal pieces removed from the field to a hedgerow is called "responsible metal detecting". But to return to episode one, they spot "Black Diggers" waiting for them to go, thus justifying hoiking everything out at great haste and failing light (so they could not use the laser plotting equipment, draw a plan and elevations of the exposed timber construction, or photograph each find in situ). Yes, hoik it out before any of it gets into the hands of a dealer. "See tha' car ova' their?  You know wht' they are don' ya?" says Estuary English to the dealer with strange-shaped head. With a smug smile of Discovery he announces they are "Latvian black diggers" who are lurking, just waiting for the team to go so they can "rob the excavation". That's what we are told.

[ClearStory Productions, Fair Use for the purpose of criticism and review]
What we see is some kind of clean SUV parked by the side of the road. a public road just by the dig site. Well first of all let us recall the scenes in the first half of the episode of the jeep foundering on a waterlogged forest road and the aerial views showing a swamp which the team "have to cross on foot" (another Health and Safety issue here if you look at the aerial shots), yet the next day it turns out the site they were to reach is accessible by road. Here's their jeep parked by the hoik site:

[ClearStory Productions Fair Use for the purpose of criticism and review]

Estuary English Tekkie says that a car parked by the side of the same road as their jeep is "Black Diggers" and "they" are waiting for dusk. Hmm. But in fact there is nobody in the car. It is an empty car. Parked. Why do the English consider that Latvians parking a car by the side of a road in Latvia must be up to no good? Perhaps a Latvian doctor doing his rounds seeing a yellow mechanical digger digging a hole in a field and disturbing the local wildlife might have stopped to see what was going on. Just as you or I might do, but of course we are not Latvians.  Latvians, Estuary English Tekkie apparently thinks "wait" until dusk" by leaving an empty car by the side of the road for hours, with the lights turned on. I think from looking at this footage that this vehicle is probably connected in reality with the film makers . Four 'presenters' came in the jeep. The cameraman and sound engineer and anybody else came in a second car.  Is not the car pointed out as belonging to black diggers not in fact the production company's own second vehicle and it was filmed while parked there temporarily?

Anyhow we have here the "Lenborough Lie", that the deeply stratified assemblage of objects had to be hurriedly hoiked out with poor recording in failing light because if not nighthawks would get it and there was "nop other way" to protect the site. Except of course when we see the actual setting of the hoik site when the camera is pointing in the other direction than the one we are supposed to see.

[ClearStory Productions Fair Use for the purpose of criticism and review]

From these shots, though the film's own schematic maps hide this, the hastily JCB-dug deeply-stratified bunker seems to be sited right next to some buildings. Like Lenborough.

Another object-centred tekkie mantra is that material is transferred from the archaeological record where it has lain unthreatened for centuries and millennia to "a museum where people can see it". But that simplistic arguumenty omits one issue, the costs of cleaning, preserving, studying and publishing such objects. Andy Brockman raises this point in his review:
Perhaps most importantly now they had been uncovered and exposed to the air, how were the objects discovered by the team going to be conserved, especially the items which had been first ripped apart for the camera like the ammunition pouches?
Certainly many of the more delicate items such as the uniform parts should have been (after recording in situ) have been removed more carefully - like by a trained conservator (not to mention a trained textile conservator) and not just yanked from the suction of the mud by a metal detectorists. That is not "recovery" of anything it hoiking and grabbing and nothing else.

While on the subject of context, this is downplayed by artefacto-centric (antiquitist) approach of  nearly all collectors (following the lead of the Black Hat Dealers). Yet there are limitatyions to what the objects alone can "tell" us, as Brockman rightly mentions:
almost completely absent from “Battlefield Recovery” was any sense of period and archaeological context, or even curiosity about period or archaeological context.[...] What did the objects found in the anaerobic conditions in the bunker tell us about their identity and the daily life of the soldiers who occupied it, their food, the way they passed the time, where the latrines were.  What insects and lice did they live with? [...] By fossicking around in the mud and not recording the position of anything there was no way of looking at the relationship between objects and asking questions such as was this the kit of one person or several?  Was it even material dumped in the bunkers and trenches to tidy up the place as happened on the Western Front at the end of World War One? While going rooting around our mud spattered metal detecting terriers made considerable use of words like “personal” and the suggestion, expressed in pieces to camera, that the work was somehow bringing the team closer to the experience of the soldiers at the time.  The irony of course is that for the audience it was doing precisely the opposite.  A Wehrmacht soap dish is a Wehrmacht soap dish, made by the millions.  What makes gives such a find significance is the the place it is found and things which are found with it and the team was shown actively destroying that potential significance.  In other words, this “not archaeology” called “Battlefield Recovery” aka digging up stuff, was only one step on from the destruction wrought by the illegal digging the programme used as its justification for being in Latvia in the first place.
So what actually was the point of this programme? Actually one can do a show-and-tell with precisely the same object types from the pages of eBay and other places where this material is sold and bought by people "passionate about history" (or the storerooms of Legenda which appear in a future episode). Is it the mud which gives this hunt more appeal?

Andy Brockman also mentions the colonialist attitudes of the people involved in this programme:
Not only that, it was outsiders destroying a piece of the history of someone else’s country in the way the Russians and the Germans had both tried three quarters of a century ago  [...] it is hard to see the point of two Britons, an Anglo Pole and an American who collectively expressed no historical knowledge or sensitivity to place or period, descending on the Latvian countryside and giving the locals a walk on part in their own story to suggest where their visitors might find more stuff.
Also none of the people employed to 'present' this programme speak Latvian (the Anglo-Pole can barely speak English but from what I saw on our forums, his Polish is worse).

Brockman then considers what the film shows "about the content of “Battlefield Recovery” and that concerns safety, or rather the apparent lack of it". He has earlier discussed the issues about the handling of explosives in episode two.  Here he focuses on the excavation of the bunker which formed the narrative core of tonight’s the first episode and the "appallingly unsafe excavation practices which were clearly shown in tonight’s programme".
Several times the presenters are shown working within range of the backhoe, but no-one wears hard hat and hi-viz.  They bicker about the instructions given to the backhoe driver which could cause confusion, especially when language could be an issue and worst of all, they excavate a bunker in what is clearly stated to be waterlogged ground, stand on top of a void of unknown depth and content, and work in the excavated bunker, at least three meters down, with no stepping or shoring, directly below the backhoe which appears parked close to the edge of an excavation which could have destabilised the structure of the bunker leading to the potential for collapse. Individually these are actions which could have you thrown off any archaeological site in the UK, collectively they could be seen as a lack of competence and a duty of care on the part of ClearStory in placing their workforce into that situation.
 Finally, one feature I had totally missed the first time (because in the Polish version it is absent) and now find very striking was what Brockman referred to as the "curiously flatly delivered, voice over" what on earth is the reason for that?

All in all, this programme illustrate a whole lot of things that are a problem in artefact hunting in general, and that in other contexts British archaeologists have been shrugging their shoulders at for the two decades the PAS has been asking them to pat tekkies on the head and applaud. Perhaps now we've seen archaeologists criticise this one example, they could take a look at the context within which the attitudes displayed have developed and at their own house. Perhaps we need to take this up with the PAS and get them to take a far more active role in their "liaison" in the area of debating and demonstrating 'best practice' going a little further than 'show us what you've found M8'. The trouble is, now the PAS has entered meltdown, it's probably too little, too late. So what else can we do about this sort of thing?

[Update: I pressed 'send' and then found that a new post has appeared on another blog at the same time indication that Heritage Action see the same parallels as myself with another fiasco:  'Lenborough comes to Latvia!' 10/01/2016. I wonder whether we are the only two to see the connection?].


1 comment:

Brian Curtiss said...

"So what else can we do about this sort of thing?"

Outlaw all metal detecting in Britain except when conducted by the landowner, on his own land.

Creative Commons License
Ten utwór jest dostępny na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa-Bez utworów zależnych 3.0 Unported.