Wednesday 15 December 2010

Conservation-Friendly TV Programme on British Portable Antiquities?


With reference to the post above, it is not as if the PAS could not find material for a series of programmes full of "shocks, twists and turns" by sticking to what it surely should be presenting to the British public as archaeological outreach instead of "hopeful prospectors" with their 'ow much is it werth then? questions.

Article 10 of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property states that:
The States Parties to this Convention undertake: (a) To restrict by education, information and vigilance, movement of cultural property illegally removed from any State Party to this Convention and, [...] (b) to endeavour by educational means to create and develop in the public mind a realization of the value of cultural property and the threat to the cultural heritage created by theft, clandestine excavations and illicit exports.
It seems to me that the Portable Antiquities Scheme is the official public-funded body through which Britain should be putting those words into concrete and coordinated action, as part of its obligations as a state party to that Convention. That is surely only logical. Certainly, in the form in which it was apparently presented to PAS staff on the 10th December 2010, the TV programme it seems to have been involved in the creation of does not go anywhere near doing that.

The British antiquities market and collecting milieu is full of situations that could be exploited by the techniques of informed investigative television journalism to produce some interesting (at times entertaining) and thought-provoking programmes which could be presented in a manner to appeal even to lowbrow tastes. Here are a few ideas that I've come up with. If anyone has any more please send them. I'm sure the FLOs have access to some wonderful material, but I bet they are forbidden to reveal it. Some possible 30 minute episodes built around themes like:

- The true face of so-called "metal detecting", the link with collecting and the antiquities trade, why does Britain have laws completely the opposite from the rest of the world? The pros and cons of having such laws (interviews with antiquity dealers and conservationists), commercial artefact hunting rallies (outdoor shots, guys in anoraks, combat fatigues and wellies, drunken antics in the the beer tent in the evening), interview with whistle-blowng metal detectorist (interview with whistle-blowing FLO?)

- The Icklingham bronzes, still in New York. Interview with farmer, nighttime filming of nighthawks in action on adjacent farms. Attempted capture on film - exciting high speed night-time car chase? Interview with oikish nighthawk, face blacked out to protect identity

- The story behind the Sevso Treasure, accidental discovery, murder mayhem, smuggling, false provenances, ending up being bought as an "investment" by a British lord who cannot now sell it.

- Just what place does Britain occupy in the international market in looted and tainted antiquities? Why does the 1993 British Dealing in Cultural Property (Offences) Act not actually work (at all)? Plenty of scope here for some wonderful hidden camera filming. Plush auction house and West End gallery footage, elegantly dressed shoppers, contrasted with grubby north of England coin shop with greasy-haired proprietor in denim.

- the trade in bulk lots of coins and artefacts on UK internet portals, where do they come from, where do they go? How much is this trade worth and for whom? Filming of transaction with hidden camera. This would be a good place to do a journalistic expose of the "no-questions-asked" aspects of collecting. Disapproving coverage of what the US ACCG dealers are up to, link to British finds sold by V-Coins, before coming back to metal detectorist in England putting coins in the post to them.

- Private collection as curation: Visits to a few metal detectorists to see just what they have in their sheds and how it is curated. How easy is following the collecting histories of metal detected items? The Heritage Action Artefact Erosion Counter, true or false? The plough/artificial fertiliser justification, a TV journlist investigates whether true or false (guest appearancs of mythbusters' Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage?).

- The true story behind the Crosby Garrett helmet, the discovery, removal to a London saleroom, its restoration in an ill-lit garage below a railway arch in Hackney, the PAS called in midway through the process, the dramatic sale (interview with the lovely Georgiana Aitken a must) and mystery of the buyer. Where did it really come from and what happened to any missing bits of the assemblage? Interview with disappointed Tullie House museum staff and local residents. Discussion of need to reform Treasure Act.

- Following a typical Treasure case through the system with commentary by somebody from the NCMD (complaining about the valuation process and suggesting deliberate undervaluation - try Trevor Austin) and somebody representing heritage interests (Nigel Swift voiceover?). The difference between accidental finds and deliberate searching. To what degree is this material coming from undisturbed archaeological deposits below the topsoil on unthreatened sites? Debate on the rights and wrongs of rewarding this kind of deliberate erosion of the record. Put the two sides in the same room and film the acrimonious discussion that develops.

- Many British sellers are involved in the dishonest trade in fake antiquities, an investigation of the phenomenon, what damage it does, the financial aspects, who makes them where and how, who buys them and why? Interview with ebay seller Tim Haines. Sellers' responsibilities.

- The highjacking of the arguments about conservation of sites to become one of "who owns" objects ripped from them. Plenty of scope for revealing the slippery arguments of collectors avoiding the issue of the connection between looting and no-questions asked collecting. Confront bolshy collector with looted site on camera.

- The erosion of archaeology by metal detectorists searching sites legally, could look at battlefields, interviews with detectorists who throw scrap lead into jamjars and battlefield archaeologist. Link to US work on battlefields, British initiatives. Mudlarks ripping huge holes into waterfront archaeological layers. Plenty of opportunities for filming mudcaked larks. Effete male presenter gets stuck in mud (could fall over?) and has to be rescued.

- the disturbance and looting of underwater sites (shipwrecks, aircraft) in British coastal waters by souvenir hunters. Opportunity for underwater shots, spooky music etc etc. Subplot, the activities of treasure hunting firm Odyssey off the coast of Britain and Gibraltar. The market for the loot.

Now I am no TV producer, but I bet someone who is could commission some decent writers to get eight half-hour programmes out of this sort of material with no problems. Give it a decent title (something like "Secrets of Britain's Heritage Thieves" comes to mind) and I bet you could sell it and do archaeology a favour rather than the damaging dumbed down pseudoarchaeological brain-pap the PAS seems to be increasingly getting itself involved in. Let us remember the first PAS post to go when the cuts started biting was their Education Officer, which I think says a lot about the Scheme's current profile.
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