Wednesday 15 December 2010

TV Antiquities Roadshow: Archaeological Catastrophe

Somehow into my hands has fallen a document which I find quite disturbing. It is undated and unsigned but seems to be a current proposal for a series of TV programmes which its author seems to think can be made with PAS participation. This ought to be discussed more widely because what is proposed seems to have very real implications for the way the public perceives British archaeology. The document confirms the worst fears of the critics of the PAS, so it would be legitimate to ask whether this is a spoof intended to mislead. I would like to be able to think so. Sadly it is accompanied by a letter addressed to PAS staff (dated 10.12.10: 12:56) which looks wholly authentic.

According to the letter there have already been two meetings with an Executive Producer of a television company (named in the email) concerned about the proposal for a programme (8 half hour episodes) to be put out on prime time television and largely focussing on the PAS. It is apparently provisionally titled however "Britain's Secret treasures" (seems to be some confusion here). The name of the female presenter of the programme is given.

The programmes will reportedly be looking at the excitement of discovery rather than archaeology and apparently the value of the objects discovered once out of the ground as saleable commodities and national treasures. The television company has apparently been granted complete access (by whom?) to the network of forty Treasure (sic) Liaison Officers and the British Museum's Finds (sic) department. Frankly if they really do have complete access, in their place, I'd be asking quite different questions of them than what the creators of this programme seem to have in mind (see post below this one).

Now I really do not think I can post here this document or the accompanying letter which commends it to the attention of PAS staff, even in the interests of transparency. Readers who want to check out that I am not making this up can try writing to the Portable Antiquities Scheme and ask politely to see it (your local FLO will have one too), it is after all a product of public money. I do think however there are questions that the public and the archaeological community which the PAS claims to represent should be asking of the organization as a whole about its participation in the programme it documents.

1) Is it true that the PAS staff are now being called "Treasure Liaison Officers"? Is this really what the TV company thinks after two high-level meetings with PAS outreach staff?

2) Is it true that the PAS are negotiating with a TV company the making of a programme conforming to the well-known format of the Antiques Roadshow type, in which the presenter will follow the Liaison Officers "as they answer calls from people who think they might have found something worth a fortune", from house visits to finds days when the "queues of hopeful prospectors curve around the block" with the magical moments of each episode leading to the question "and how much is it worth"? Is this really what the TV company think the PAS is about after thirteen years of PAS outreach to the general public and an executive's meetings with the Scheme's outreach staff?

3) Is it true that the programme will accompany "hopeful prospectors" as they learn their find is worthless [closeup of crestfallen expression, sad background music] or the cultural and monetary value to Britain and how the payment for a treasure find has "changed the lives of individuals"? Is this really what the TV company think the PAS is about after two meetings with its outreach staff?

4) Is it true that the programme will be portraying the British Museum as setting up 'Treasure rallies' (sic) across the country targeting specific areas as part of their archaeological outreach in which "hundreds of members of the public will comb a set of fields searching for Treasure and artefacts" which will be continuing the previous high success rate of the rallies they have organized so far? Is this really what the TV company think the PAS is about after its meetings with its outreach staff?

5) Is it true that part of the project would be to organize road shows which would be "advertising rallies and providing information on how to search for Treasure"? Is this really what the TV company think the PAS is about after its meetings with its outreach staff?

It strikes me that if this really is what a TV executive producer (surely an educated man) brings away from thirteen years of PAS outreach to the public and two presumably high-level meetings with its staff, there is little chance that the PAS has been getting across to the general public as a whole any sort of the message which it is charged with. What is going on?

Can anyone see any reason why this proposal was not discussed with the archaeological milieu before it being presented to PAS staff at a meeting on Friday morning apparently as a fait accompli? (The CBA, and the archaeological trust RESCUE claim no knowledge of this.) Were the TV executive appraised of the existence of bodies like CBA, RESCUE, IfA, ALGAO, Cadw and EH which should surely have been also involved in consulting this idea? What is going on?

There have been spiteful archaeological jokes about the PAS "finds days" in the past that it is organizing a portable antiquities version of the popular TV series "Antiques Roadshow", now that sick joke seems well on the way to becoming reality. With what effects for the public's perception of archaeology? The PAS is supposedly acting as British archaeology's largest public outreach and thus what it presents to the British media is directly responsible for the image the British public have of the discipline. It seems to me that public outreach on behalf of a discipline whose very existence is dependent on public expectations really needs to be conducted in a coherent and well-planed manner and not partisan actions here and there by separate organizations headed off on different directions.

The PAS is responsible for presenting a picture of artefact hunting and collecting compatible with that of archaeology and archaeological heritage management/conservation. If it is true that they are letting TV executives come away from two meetings with the impression that it is the BM which organizes commercial treasure hunting rallies and it is all about people digging up the countryside and finding as much treasure as they can from as deep as they can go and "showing them how", it seems they are not getting the message across even at that level - but surely it is exactly in their dealings with the media that this is so important. The letter to PAS staff only comments on one aspect of the contents of the accompanying prospectus, what its author coyly calls "sensitivities" around what is clearly the programme's currently intended focus on financial "valuations". I would say that is a gross understatement of what the real problems are.

This text begs the question whether the PAS has a full and multi-aspectual media pack for journalists setting out in clearly understandable detail the conservation and preservationist background to the debate on portable antiquity collecting and artefact hunting issues. I bet that even after thirteen years of "liaison" with the general public and media it has not. (I would be only too happy to be proven wrong here).

The apparently close involvement of the PAS in the creation of this programme proposal is nothing less than a scandal, whether or not the programme actually airs at all or in the currently proposed form. I sincerely hope it does not. Millions of pounds of public money have been spent on the Scheme under the aegis that it is going towards creating conditions for best practice in artefact hunting and collecting to be fostered and encouraged and conducting archaeological outreach to the general public as a whole about portable antiquity issues. Instead we see increasingly an artefact centred approach being foisted on the archaeological community and general public, damagingly debasing the public image (and perhaps even the self-image) of the discipline of archaeology to the level of a disorganized free-for-all treasure hunt. From there it is just a step to what we see here, which seems to me to be a total misrepresentation of archaeology, and certainly seems geared to encouraging treasure-hunting for commercial gain. But then, what do I know, eh?

I'll leave this with a comment from Jonathan Jones, as he put it back in October:
Buried treasure has dazzled the media. The Antiques Roadshow view of the world has prevailed. Is it any wonder we are confused about the value of old art and artefacts? [...] It is curious to see so many people pretend they are there out of pure historical curiosity, only for eyes to light up when a good price is quoted – or go dull when the fascinating find turns out not to have a huge financial value. You can almost picture Great Uncle Albert's letters from the trenches being chucked out of the car on the way home when it is discovered they are not a gold mine, just history.
Now, I really hope that I've got the wrong end of the stick here, that the document which I received was an end of year prank by the PAS office-boy. I am sure the PAS will be happy to explain to the British public and British archaeological community, just what that letter really represents in terms of its overall strategy for outreach to the British public to encourage awareness of portable antiquity issues in their full richness and "best practice" in artefact hunting and collecting.

I would love to be a fly on the wall at the meeting on Friday, will any of the PAS staff stand up and say: "no, this is not at all a good idea"? Or do they all to a man and woman think this is a really super chance to get on the telly?

Vignette: Dumbing down public information on archaeology on TV.


Charles the Bold said...

Mr. Barford, I have one last honest question. Do archeologists not derive some thrill in the hunt to uncover important historical sites? Reading accounts of the Archeologists who work excavating Vindolanda, they repeatedly talk about the excitement they feel when they make a new discovery, the thrill they feel being the first person to see something they find in more than a thousand years. Is this not a thrilling thing for them? Is it wrong for people to seek the same thrills, especially when all they find is reported or even working with archeologist? Or is the fact that some who do this loot enough for you to deny all people this pleasure? Or are only archeologists entitled to this thrill?

So many important finds have been made by people like this or just farmers hitting something as they plow. I understand you seem to oppose people who treasure hunt (which is expressed with ridicule, as seems to be your way, of that chap in his track suit) but, these days, they along with the people who just stumble upon these sites, seem like the only people actually making such discoveries. When they report them of course. Then archeologists move in and study the site once the work of discovering it is done. Is it not true that many important discoveries these days in the field of archeology are made by amateurs?

Simply because a person derives a thrill trying to find such things, is that wrong? Are these NOT treasures and arent those archeologist who actually attempt to find these sites, in essence, cultural and historical treasure hunters? Are not archeologists in that field because they have a passion for history and gain pleasure and yes, a thrill, by uncovering and studying these treasures?

Paul Barford said...

I think you rather miss the point.

It is of course precisely the type of views you espouse here that the PAS should be addressing in all of its outreach, what is the difference between thrill (and cash) seeking and what the discipline of archaeology is attempting to do?

Damien Huffer said...

Drumax: I understand what you mean by "the thrill of discovery;" it is something that both archaeologists, field school students, and interested amateurs can routinely feel when working together on a controlled excavation.

There is a big difference, however, between a detectorist digging up something themselves, with no training in, and minimal consern for, the intricasies of context/positioning recording (even if the find and general provenience is then reported to a local archaeological authority), and the work of an archaeological team.

The "thrill" we often feel is precisely because we know that what we've found is at the very least well-documented, photographed, placed onto excavation maps etc. It is this information that lets us place the discovery into a bigger picture; takes it beyond being a mere 'thing,' placing it into a sequence of events. This holds whether we're excavating a burial, a rare artifact, or even something more "mundane" (post-holes in a floor). The best museums and outreach programs will ALWAYS emphasize the object's place in the bigger picture of a site...making appreciation of its age or rarity all the more meaningfull.

I have personally worked on excavations as a volunteer, field school undergrad, graduate student teaching assistant and member of professional "contract archaeology" teams. The thrill has only increased for me because my training has increased, along with my knowledge of how to recognize good vs. bad excavations vs. the whole-sale damage that looting can do.

Yes, many important sites around the world have first come to professional attention due to isolated finds and/or looting activity being reported by responsible locals, and this is certainly very praiseworthy. However, the biggest "thrill" comes at the end when the combined efforts of a large team in the field, lab, and museum can put together multiple strands of evidence into a coherent picture, and then plan future work. There are many world-wide options to volunteer on summer digs (e.g. Earthwatch Volunteers), and I highly recommend it.

To close, and supplement Paul's comment, the PROCESS and end RESULT of these efforts, should always be the goal of archaeologst-led outreach, as PAS claims to be about. Whenever the intended viewers of an archaeology-themed program or exhibit leave without this understand, the presentation itself should be reevaluated.

Paul Barford said...

Vindolanda archaeologists or volunteers?

Damien, I think you too missed the point about the nature of this proposed series created to showcase what the PAS does. It was that I was hoping would be the topic of discussion.

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