Thursday 5 April 2012

CBA to Join PAS in "Britain's Secret Treasures"

Some while ago, everybody's favourite archaeological outreach organization started collaborating with a commercial TV station to make a programme about "Britain's Secret Treasures" and (despite the official body reportedly denying that there was any such thing on the cards) the television company did a lot of filming in metal detecting clubs and other such para-archaeological venues. Just recently new details have emerged about this project (which, surprise, surprise is going ahead after all).

It now turns out (Guardian pre-publicity and PAS blog post) that the most notable feature of the 240 minutes of the programme is going to be a competition to identify the "best find" made by one of the Portable Antiquities Scheme's many "partners" among the public with metal detectors. This is apparently going to be a sort of "Britain's got Antiquitalent" show, hosted by lugubrious former newsreader and a bubbly female historian.  The latter is going to be one of the panellists, while the other two groups involved it transpires are "a panel of experts from the British Museum and The Council for British Archaeology".
 They'll trawl through the almost one million finds of the last fifteen years whittling them down to the top fifty. Each one will be judged on its national importance, beauty, cultural and historic significance.
[A "million"? There are today, it says on the front page, 495,260 records - that's less than half a million (but the PAS claim "the half a million objects recorded mark was reached on March 21st 2010").  The PAS always did have a hankering for spinning the figures.]

That aside, note the criteria involved, so no mention here for example of the manner in which the object was removed from the archaeological record, and the level of recording associated with that event, nor the amount of analysis and publication that has been done on the find since it was dug out - though it is axiomatic (since Pitt Rivers) that an archaeological discovery dates ONLY from its publication.  But as we know, the majority of the finds get a short note in the database or at best a half page note in a treasure report, and that's it for most of them; these "million objects".  Most of the big hoards recovered in those fifteen years remain unpublished. Also of importance surely in doing the "public spirited" take on the "finding" (that is taking) of archaeological artefacts is where the object and information are now, and how much it cost the public to get them (why not restrict the 50 to those where the finder waived the reward or did not flog it off to the richest collector?)

That there should be BM blokes on the panel is not surprising, like many museums, they have no problems with "partnering" archaeological site plunderers, having a fair amount of imperial plunder and loot in their galleries and storerooms already, why break a fine British tradition? That the CBA should join in with such a competition is however surprising. So I wrote to ask what the situation is (I hear I have not been the only one).

There surely is no denying that the "intentions" behind the organization of this programme will of course be primarily to provide publicity for Roger Bland and his Scheme. From the early material which I have seen, far from them "binning" an outsider's suggestions, the PAS seem to have been directly involved in its creation (I am sure, if I am wrong they can provide correspondence showing this not to be the case should an archaeological or heritage action group do an FOI).

I am sure that providing propaganda of success for the Scheme will be argued as for the good, the public pays for this - so it should know it exists I suppose. But then how far into what the reasons for the Scheme's existence will be explored? Will it be explained that the main reason its costing everyone fourteen million quid to run this thing is because, unlike every other country in the world worth the name, Britain's archaeological resource protection legislation does the job in a wholly half-hearted way? It protects (but then only in theory) some bits of it and leaves most of it up for grabs to any Tom Dick or Harriet with a spade. Will the programme make the case for extending protection to make the digging of collectable geegaws out of the archaeological record an activity that should be regulated and not left totally out of any kind of control, in a way which makes sustainable management a mere empty phrase, and necessitating setting up a half-hearted damage control Scheme?

I sincerely doubt it. The PAS has never done anything remotely like that in any of its public outreach. 

The Director of the CBA seemed to believe that it was going to be possible in the format of this programme for representatives of British archaeology to discuss "issues relating to archaeological context and appropriate ethics", from its seat next to the Bloomsbury men from the BM in a programme they set up to show how well they are doing. It would be wonderful if he is right. The prospect of millions of viewers gazing in open-mouthed astonishment at the "Treasures" being dug out of the archaeological record with minimal quality control of the record made is an ideal opportunity to ram down their throats the conservation message. "If we are to protect the resource for future generations, what we see going on today has got to stop" can be the only message the CBA can give. Will it?  My feeling is that this ambition will be rather hampered by the fact that it is the PAS who is calling the show here.

The problem with this is that the PAS have shown, time and time again, that they feel that they cannot engage in any but the most superficial discussion of the ethics of artefact hunting and collecting in its wider context. This is because they are of the opinion (and who are we to deny that this is probably true) if they started talking about ethics and responsibility too much, it would scare off their touchy (artefact hunting and collecting) "partners". This of course raises the  very important question of what kind of partnership this actually is.

I do not see how there will be any kind of detailed presentation of the issues relating to archaeological context and appropriate ethics in the format of a show-and-tell antiquities roadshow cum-talentspotting show". This is, I suggest, simply not going to happen, whatever the producers agreed to when setting it up. My prediction is that much of anything said on these issues will end up on the cutting room floor. Whatever few minutes of reality the CBA will be allowed in the final production inevitably will be followed, I am sure, by a smiling speaker reminding the viewer that this programme is about: "yes but, never mind that, wottalotta stuff we got!". 

In their letter to me, the CBA expressed the hope that this programme will "reach out to an audience that is important to engage with", and that the programme's audience will "include many detectorists". I am sure that the latter is entirely true. There's nothing like a programme about Treasures to be found to get the tekkies turning on their sets. But so what? Is the main take-away message of the programme to be "you too can find stuff like this and get on the telly"? Or is it going to be "artefact hunters are low-life scum if they dig up and take away stuff like this and do not report it"? But there is a fourteen million quid Scheme set up to reach this audience, and it has been doing it for a decade and a half. And it has blown it.

There is no denying (though they try, oh they try) that the vast amount of archaeologically significant material removed  from archaeological sites and assemblages in the search for "ooo-aaaah (jus' fink ooo las' 'eld this then)" collectable geegaws do NOT get reported to the PAS. That single, but ever so fundamental point will not - I am 100% sure - get the attention it deserves. It will be glossed over by the smiling face urging viewers to take anything they may find to their local FLO ("maybe you will get your face on telly in our second series"), just before the coffee, cosmetics and  car advertisements.

Apart from the metal detectorists looking open-mouthed and longingly at what their mates have found, the audience will  include millions of people who are not (yet) detectorists. The CBA will be talking to them too. Will the representatives of British archaeology be giving the same message for both groups, collectors and normal folk, archaeology's public?   I really do not see how it can. What message will  - by their presence on the programme if by nothing else - it give them about artefact hunting and collecting (again sitting next to the Bloomsbury Men)? The only message this can send out is that "artefact hunting with metal detectors is a jolly good thing" and that Treasure hunting equates to doing archaeology. The message that the CBA might think they are going to promote - that it might be "only when done in a certain way" is in danger of being drowned out by the "wottalotta exciting stuff we got!" hype ("the fifty best finds from nearly a million super finds") .

I may be accused of pre-judging this issue on the basis of the past record of the PAS. Maybe I am wrong, maybe everybody will come away from the series with the conviction that "something has to be done" about the "British disease" as it is called over here on the Continent. As the CBA's Director says, let us wait and see what the programme "achieves". But then, if it does not achieve anything useful, but gives out a damaging message on a massive scale, the damage will already have been done.

Vignette: Enthusiastic Show and Tell  (Portable Antiquities Scheme)


Dorothy King said...

It might be brilliant - Bettany Hughes has BA from Cambridge, and seems to have strong ties to the mcdonald institute for archaeological research there.

Paul Barford said...

It "might" be brilliant, and then you will hear about that here. It might be a total flop (in which case it will not matter), or it might do some serious damage to public perceptions of our discipline and undo decades of work by archaeologists from Wheeler and the Rescue years onwards.

That Ms Hughes has a degree from Oxford means nothing, she is just the presenter, not the editor. In any case the degree to which you refer is in ancient and modern history, and as can be seen in general classicists (like your pal Rogue Classicist) clearly do not see any difference between coin collecting and archaeology. It's all the same to most of them it seems. I've never met a Classicist yet who is not fully behind the men with metal detectors and those who buy what they find (grateful to hear some names of any that disprove that generalization, I find it quite a depressing thought).

Several PAS staff have PhDs (including from Cambridge). That means nothing whatsoever in the context of what PAS does, or what they do within PAS (talking to abusive "ambassadors for the hobby", people like Graham Chetwynd, "Big Mick" Jaworski, Bazzer the Troll, Steve Taylor and their likes all day).

I assume that is the side of "metal detecting" this programme will not be showing.

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