Monday, 26 March 2012

UK TV "Archaeology": PAS Reality Show - Britain Got Antiquitalent

According to apparently exclusive material that it seems only Maeve Kennedy received (three guesses, from whom) this new programme about archaeology ("Britain's Secret Treasures") is conducted at the intellectual level of a talent show:
Historians and archaeologists are arguing over the single most historically important archaeological find among almost a million objects discovered in the UK in the last 15 years.
Almost a "million objects" found by whom turns out to be those found mainly by metal detectorists. And the institution insisting we look at individual decontextualised artefacts to see which ONE of them is "the most important" (ie justifying spending 14 million quid on providing a supporting role for metal detectorists) is the very same supporting role, the metal detectorists' "partner" the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Which "one" artefact taken on its own merits is the most HISTORICALLY important? What do we mean by "historically important" anyway?

Is this antiquitist talent-show winner going to be, as the journalist suggests:
1) the heap of glittering Anglo-Saxon gold of the Staffordshire Hoard,
2) a scruffy little coin that proved the existence of a previously unknown Roman emperor,
3) a bronze token that some claim entitled the bearer to the illustrated services in a Roman brothel,
4) a stone hand axe, or
5) the Crosby Garrett Roman helmet...

If we are talking about "Battles and Kings History", then a new emperor must be a strong contender, but is a nineteenth century fixation on a battles and kings historiography where British historical sciences are in 2012? Top of the titillation stakes must be the so called "brothel token" - but is it history? Is it a new fact that there were brothels in Roman times, or - if it actually was a brothel token - is this find merely an illustration of this fact? (As is the Domitian the umpteenth coin an illustration that there were many short-lived usurpers in the Roman Empire). The Crosby Garrett helmet in its polyfillered form is wonderful, but what does it add to the "history" of anything when we do not even know where it was found and how it got there? It again is just an illustration of certain facts known from other sources, but as an independent source of information its use is limited by the way it was found, then treated and the lack of any proper archaeological followup. So, what kind of "history" is the PAS engaged in writing? What kind of 21st century archaeology is it engaged in producing? Most of what I have seen them produce (when it is not pure whimsy for the benefit of the awed journalists) is in the old-fashioned positivist ethno-cultural-historical mould very much to the tastes of the likes of Gustav Kossinna, but hardly cutting edge stuff. So is this the best heritage TV it can offer the British public for its fourteen million pound investment in archaeological outreach? Because if it is its a pretty poor showing for fourteen years of money thrown at the problem.

Roger Bland is allegedly afraid that "the programmes will also inevitably revive the passionate debate about the ethics of metal detecting for antiquities, which some archaeologists regard as no better than looting". Well, goodness' me, should not the fourteen-million pound Portable Antiquities Scheme be LEADING and encouraging this debate and not afraid that somebody else might mention the subject? Let Mr Bland first start out and explain to the general public the actual difference between what his "partners" and their fellows do and "looting" (one which goes further than the tekkie: "it's legal innit?"). Can he do that for fourteen million pounds?

Maev Kennedy, 'TV treasure hunt show to pick Britain's most important archaeological find',, Monday 26 March 2012
British Museum Press Office: 'ITV and the British Museum to reveal the 50 greatest treasures discovered by the British public', Monday 26 March 2012

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