Saturday 20 August 2011

"Britain's Secret Treasures": Complete Silence from British Archaeology

Six months ago, RESCUE The Trust for British Archaeology wrote to numismatist Dr Roger Bland of the Portable Antiquities Scheme to express alarm at the participation of the Scheme and 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 and revolving around antiquities collection and “treasure”.
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.

So what happened? Well, basically nothing. I've not seen a published reply from Dr Bland. Certainly whatever Rescue received from him by way of an answer, they did not feel worth posting on their website. Likewise the PAS did not issue any kind of a statement on theirs. The BM has previously denied any connection with the programme (they reportedly told archaeologists they binned the proposal). This later turned out to be completely untrue.

But if you look on any of the archaeological discussion lists, there has not been a peep since the initial indignation on one of them (BAJR Fed, last post in thread Christmas 2010). That indignation was not however about the idea of a series being developed by ITV 1 which with the aid of Britain's largest archaeological outreach: "sets out to tell the stories of people who have struck gold, such as Terry Herbert. Jobless Mr Herbert ended up sharing £3m with the landowner when the hoard...". The indignation there was that RESCUE had dared to criticise archaeology's "partners", the artefact hunters. In no way did the reaction on BAJRFed differ from that on a metal detectorists' forum. Likewise there has been absolutely no lead from the CBA and their "academic discussion forum" Britarch. Complete silence over the matter there too. One might justifiably draw the conclusion that British archaeologists, professionals and amateurs, are not at all concerned about any of this.

The sad thing is that for all the "how could they?" indignation which the RESCUE statement raised in archaeological and artefact hunting circles in Britain, anyone with half a brain cell can see there is not a single false statement in what they wrote.

I would have added that the damage done is not only to "modern archaeology" but more specifically the public image of modern British archaeology. Presenting it only in terms as a treasure hunt for interesting artefacts is giving the public the wrong picture of what modern archaeology is (or used to be) all about. This is becoming increasingly important at a time when cuts in funds for real archaeology mean archaeology needs the support of a public that knows why spending money on - for example - sieving medieval cesspit fills for snail shells is important.

There is therefore much in that brief and strongly-worded statement that in a normal archaeological environment could be discussed, deserves discussion, but for some reason in British archaeology is receiving no discussion whatsoever. Furthermore, surely it should be precisely the Portable Antiquities Scheme which is not only the focus of such discussion, but the initiator of it. Why is it not?

Shame on you, Portable Antiquities Scheme,
Shame on you, British Archaeology,
Shame about the archaeological record that is being ripped up under your noses...

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