Sunday 22 July 2012

Britain's Secret Treasures Episode 1: Ten Down to Two

The series "Britain's Got Treasure" came to an end with a whimper rather than a bang, the promised section on best practice never materialised, Mike Heyworth of the CBA got four seconds on screen, but anything he said on the matter ended on the cutting room floor.

Pretty predictable stuff. Number ten was the Vale of York (aka Harrowgate) Hoard, SWYOR-AECB53, the programme's scriptwriters surmising it had belonged to a wealthy Viking leader and buried at the time of the conquest of Viking Northumbria in  927 by Athelstan, the Anglo-Saxon king of a unified (hooray!) England, thus the same scenario as the Silverdale Hoard in an earlier episode. We are once again provided with a single explanation 'illustrating' the written record.

Then the Crosby Garrett Helmet, what an extraordinary tale they tell. Quite a new one. Apparently it was found by one metal detectorist, not two, they went first to the PAS (LANCUM-E48D73) and not Christies, it was they, not Christies who asked the latter to find a restorer and so on. Oh, and however regrettable it was that the object disappeared onto the "art market", this was what these noble Treasure finding "partners" were perfectly entitled to do by law, so nothing wrong then. No mention of Treasure Act reform. Most of the segment was about failed fund-raising with a reconstruction of the auction with emphasis on how the price climbed and climbed and climbed. To over two million. The object was presented as a series of still photos and a CGI of a bloke wearing it looking etherial. The opportunity of using the find as a springboard for the (promised) discussion of the ethics of artefact hunting and the lax heritage preservation legislation was totally missed. No mention was made of an excavation of the findspot having been planned, taken place let alone anything it would have shown about the context of deposition. Complete outreach fail.

Number eight (PAS-8709C3) is a fragment ripped off a signet ring with the name Baldehildis on it. There was (we are led to accept) only one person in the Anglian elite with that first name, ever. So it "must" have been hers then. Since, though of royal birth the literary Bealdhild had been enslaved, we have a discussion of "slavery" (mercifully no SM-fantasy helpless maidens in chain reconstructions like episode one). We are once again provided with a single explanation 'illustrating' the written record. For example why do the presenters not even mention the possibility that the broken state of the object might mean it was Viking loot lost in the Danelaw rather than in the late seventh century (Cf continental bowl in the Vale of York hoard discussed a moment ago)? What else was in association at the findspot? The latter is not revealed ("To be known as: Norwich area"), nor is the identity of the finder (the third one in the series, secretive lot these "finders" with metal detectors).

Britain's number seven top archaeological find was another metal detector find with writing on it, the  Staffordshire Moorlands Pan. Somehow this find is linked with a named Roman Emperor, and then "this is what he built" (Hadrian's Wall). Anyway the story is that this bloke with a Greek name Draco had been a soldier doing service on this wall, married a local girl and settled with her in Staffordshire 140 miles, and the cup with the name of forts of the Wall was like a serviceman's souvenir of his service ("like a piece of china stamped Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya today" enthuses the presenter - well, actually it is not is it?). Trite explanation, another object with writing on it matching previously known written evidence - do you see a pattern emerging here in the top ten?

The presentation of Britain's top "sixth most important archaeological discovery" leaves an awful lot to be desired. This was the Hallaton finds (called a hoard, aka "the Southeast Leicestershire Treasure"). The PAS record PAS-984616 is muddled and scanty on detail. The site was archaeologically excavated, current interpretation is some kind of communal meeting place, though this is flattened by the BST presenters who make it into a place of ritual, sacrifice (that BST leitmotif again) connected with resistance to the Romans at the time of their second invasion in 43 AD" (the 'fleshing out the battles and kings historical record' leitmotif again !). The Hallaton Helmet does not even get a mention, nor the fact that there was not a single deposit of coins as the initial metal detecting suggested but over a dozen separate ones - even though this is an important lesson when interpreting metal detected coin assemblages.

Britain's Fifth most important archaeological discovery according to the ITV/PAS "Britain's Secret Treasurez" programme is a silver gilt boar badge from Sheepy Leicestershire (LEIC-A6C834), just by the historically-important battlefield of Bosworth (1485). The celebrity presenter was Michael Portillo. To understand the story this is used by the PAS to promote, a foreign reader would have to know the cultic following King Richard III (who died at Bosworth at the hands of the followers of Henry Tudor) enjoys in modern Britain, a particularly British brand of conspiracy theorists. Well, from the iconography, it's a badge probably worn by one of Richard's followers taking part in the battle, so we have an object which illustrates the written account (again). But the BST team go much, much further in their interpretation (read: speculation presented as fact).

The badge is silver, right? So it belonged to somebody important, right? So probably somebody so important, that he would not have left the side of his king, even if he was in trouble, right? So where it is found must be the place where Richard III fell, right? So all the people who thought he died two miles away were wrong, right? All this from a loose and highly romantic interpretation of a loose metal detector find. The programme suggests that now pilgrims are trampling the Sleepy farmer's crops to visit 'the exact spot' on the basis of the story.

The badge on its own does not prove anyone died there, the metal detectorist did not find it between the ribs of a skeleton. The badge could have been thrown in the bushes by someone fleeing from the battle who wanted to deny being a Richard supporter, it might have come away from the battlefield on a jerkin taken from the body of one of the slain (by somebody more interested in its silver buttons), it may have been on the person of a captured prisoner, there are a whole range of real reasons why the badge was found at a particular spot and not another. The romantic notion that every last man died by the side of his King may suit national pride, but is based in a storybook view of the world, not the way real people behave in crisis situations. The PAS "this is where Richard III really fell so this is a very important find for the history of the nation" is not archaeological inference, but just romantic crap, probably motivated to a large degree by the need to get more funding by producing sensationalist soundbite 'information' for the media masquerading as archaeological interpretation showing what "useful" information which continued partnering metal detectorists can provide. It is also nationalistic archaeology of the highest order. 

Number four, they say, does not merely illustrate kings and battles history, it "makes" it. Yes, its another thing with writing on it. It is a single item from the Chalgrove coin hoard (PAS-879F02) which is otherwise an unremarkable example of the (c. 200 British examples)of coin hoards buried about the time of and especially aftermath of the breakaway Gallic Empire (260-274). What got coineys excited was a single issue of an emperor Domitian II (/"AD c.271") who (apart from ambiguous mentions in Zosimus and the Historia Augusta) had been previously known on the basis of a single coin in France (known since 1907). So we had the filmed sequence of a French coiney coming to Oxford to meet Bloomsbury coiney Roger Bland (his only speaking role in BST - not talking about best practice, but how one coin looks just like another - whoopee). 

Number three, Terry Herbert (who does not appear in the programme to talk of his exciting discovery) and the Staffordshire Hoard (3, 285,000 quid). Another number is given, 42000 visitors to see it in a period of 19 days when it was not certain it would be 'saved for the nation'. Nothing whatsoever is said here about any archaeological interpretation, nor the fact that an excavation (such as it was) was carried out here.  Not even here was the best practice spiel trotted out (there is of course writing and pictures on some of the pieces).

The explanation of number two most important archaeological find in Britain, the Ringlemere Gold Cup (PAS-BE40C2) was a real cracker.  After saying that they'd be taking the viewer on a "spiritual journey", the programme actually mentioned the excavations (featuring Kent colleague Keith Parfitt) following the metal detecting of the cup (actually a beaker isn't it?). The site had three main phases, a henge-like thing, then buried in a mound, in the top of which was buried this gold cup.  I suppose we should be grateful they did not try to make it into a Bronze Age sports trophy to make a link with the Olympics which seems to be exciting the brits terribly at the moment. Instead they went down another route.  "Quite obviously" it was a cup for a ritual of communal drinking, obvious innit? So, what do they do? They take the cameras along to the local church and the vicar shows the heathen brit TV viewer what a mass chalice looks like. Anyway the Ringlemere cup is supposed to be an Early British ritual vessel forming a communal spirit, you know that Great British communal spirit, "nothing has changed in 4000 years", the chalice/cup/beaker/tankard therefore revealing something of the "underlying mystery of our existence".... Thankful for small mercies, time was running out so there was no possibility to link this with the pagan origins of the legend of the Holy Grail, but I bet they'd have attempted it if they'd had more time.

Then there was a suspense-creating break, for the presentation of the "Viewers' own best treasures" submitted in the first three days of the programme's airing. Time to start another blog post.

Britain's Secret treasures, ITV 1 16th-22nd July 2012

 Vignette: The Holy Grail of effective public outreach

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