Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Portable Antiquities Scheme to endorse TV treasure hunting programme after all?

I've just had a mail from a journalist (I cant work out from what he writes whether he's on the preservationist side or that of the looter) who wants to chat to me tomorrow about a new TV programme , called "Britain’s Secret Treasures". This is suspiciously like the name of a proposed programme about which somebody leaked me a document a while ago. A key feature of the project was the collaboration of the Portable Antiquities Scheme in its portrayal of the romance of treasure hunting for collectable and saleable bits of Britain's underground archaeological heritage for entertainment and profit. Surely the PAS had "torn up the proposal and binned it", hadn't they? That's reportedly what they were telling archaeologists back home. All very confusing. I had a go at searching the internet for some sort of information. Being in Egypt at the time I missed what I regard to be a significant comment (British Museum to endorse TV treasure hunting programme?) by RESCUE at the end of February:
RESCUE have written to the Dr Roger Bland of the Portable Antiquities Scheme to express our alarm at the well-substantiated rumours that are circulating regarding the participation of the British Museum in the production of a television series for ITV entitled ‘Britain’s Secret Treasures’ which will take as its focus the activities of artefact hunters and metal detector users. RESCUE has grave concerns that the apparent endorsement of this destructive activity by a body such as the British Museum will do nothing to lessen its impact on our buried archaeological heritage and will in all probability encourage more people to purchase a metal detector and set out to recover ‘buried treasure’ leading to the an increased level of damage to archaeological sites, scheduled and unscheduled, known and unknown.

There is ample evidence of the damage done to archaeological sites by artefact hunters operating both with and without the consent of landowners and there is also good evidence that sites under excavation are being targeted by such individuals in their quest for saleable objects. Even when the object is not a ‘fast buck’ obtained through the agency of on-line auction sites or the less than reputable end of the antiquities trade, the accumulation of private collections of objects ripped from their archaeological context is of little or no value in archaeological terms. We are, frankly, astonished, that the British Museum is prepared to lend its considerable weight to the furtherance of activities of archaic concept and damaging to the practice of modern archaeology. We urge the British Museum to break off negotiations with the television production company involved and to issue a strong condemnation of the practice of artefact hunting at the earliest opportunity.
This is unusually strong language from this organization who, a few numbers back when I wrote a text on metal detecting for Rescue News (issue 99 if I recall correctly), accompanied it by by a somewhat wishy-washy "we are all friends now" official RESCUE statement on "metal detecting", and fluffy bunny articles like Jude Plouviez writing that ploughing damages more sites than artefact hunting (which does not make artefact hunting a sustainable way to conserve archaeological sites, does it?).

I wonder whether the head of the PAS replied to the letter and what he said in justification if these rumours are true? Who is holding their breath waiting for the BM to produce "a strong condemnation of the practice of artefact hunting"? (Well, don't - the wait could damage your health, under present management one may confidently predict that they never will).

In any case are not Britain's secret Treasures the ones that are not reported by artefact hunters? Now I'd like to see a programme focussing exclusively on that.

And thank you RESCUE, please keep up the pressure on all who wantonly damage the archaeological record.

UPDATE 30 March 2011:
Enquiries this morning at RESCUE head office indicate that no reply whatsoever was received from the PAS in response to the archaeological trust's expression of concern discussed above. As I pointed out in my original post about this, it seems that British archaeology's self-appointed "largest public outreach programme" is going about doing this "public outreach" without reference to what other sectors of the British archaeological community think, let alone keeping them informed or - heaven forbid - consulting with them. This is particularly disturbing when it concerns such a controversial issue as Treasure hunting, and the shaping of public opinion on what archaeology is about. Had the PAS in reality "torn up the proposal and binned it", most of us would be forgiven for thinking that they would have no problems in informing RESCUE of that fact straight away, instead of ignoring the request for information about it received last month. RESCUE, the trust for British Archaeology, like the rest of us obviously has to content itself with the sound of the cooing of the local pigeons as the only voice on portable antiquity matters to emerge from Bloomsbury in response to a specific query addressed by a group representing British archaeologists to "British archaeology's largest public outreach scheme". Why should that be?


David Gill said...

Perhaps the reporter would like to read the forum piece and responses published in the Papers from the Institute of Archaeology (2010) available here.

Paul Barford said...

Generally I think British reporters, even those working for the higher-brow news papers, tend to take their cues from PAS press releases and leave it at that. So it is nice to find one going a little more out of the way, we will see what questions he asks, I'll point him to the forum piece ...

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