Tuesday 17 July 2012

Britain's Secret Treasures: Episode 2

More of the same. I was hoping that in the second episode, once some introductory bling had been introduced in the first episode, we'd hear a bit more about what the PAS is, what it does, why Britain has one, what the term "treasure" means and something about that promised "best practice". None of that, just more improbable stories on the basis of seven objects which for some reason we are asked to accept were among "Britain's 50 most important archaeological discoveries".  

This year "our very own Prince Will" (sic) married his Catherine, so the 44th "most important find" has a royal wedding link, cufflinks to be precise (found by metal detectorist Brian Wood). Somehow they worked Prince William's mother, Princess Diana, into the presentation. They probably want to market the program in the States.

Then there was the Tanworth Comb, well, a REPLICA of it, because the original is lost in some private collection after it was flogged off. One of "Britain's 50 most important archaeological discoveries" was sold by its finder for 26000 quid. A bit annoying was that after deciding it had functioned as a decorative insert rather than combing hair, the possibility of it being involved in some way with human sacrifice was mentioned not once, not twice, but three times. Why? What possible connection does that findspot have with human sacrifice? Is there something the PAS Annual Reports were not telling us? The fact that an "important" object was sold to a private collector was skipped over. Item number 42 was also skipped over quite quickly - perhaps they could not actually get the original either - a Roman mithraic figure from Tadcaster - allegedly brought into Britain as a "good luck charm" by a "Roman soldier". Hmm. Then a diving fireman "rescues" postmedieval cloth seals from riverbed deposits.  Is this really the 41st most important archaeological discovery from Britain? Why? The reason why these postmedieval cloth seals are any more important than any others is not revealed. 

The mystery deepens in part two with the "brothel token" (which may not be a brothel token) from Putney - another river find. Quite why it is the writers make presenter Ann-Marie Ochota pretend to be surprised that "the Romans were a bit saucy" beats me [She's never seen any erotic Samian not even in pictures?] Apparently, one of the Things the Romans Did For Us was introduce into Britain a "slightly obsessive interest in sex" (says Hughes trying desperately to look coquettish and Make History Relevant). In any case, what is the evidence that this is a Roman loss and not a souvenir of the Grand Tour?

Then the Beddington Nose found by metal detectorist Ray Wilson in a field. But no ordinary field, oh no. This is a field "used by smugglers" he says (though his evidence is not presented) and one night, he asserts confidently, a smuggler with syphilis (hence the brass nose) was so scared by an ambush by the Customs and Excise men that he ran away, leaving his nose behind. Stuff and nonsense, it is clear that the evidence that it was an alien abduction is just as good. Any old fool can make up a romantic story. But why is the public not being told by the Portable Antiquities' Scheme (British archaeology's largest  public outreach project) that imagining romantic stories is not what archaeology is about? The same theme is continued with the next find where some old lady metal detectorist imagines her part of a (known) hoard of dubloons was "pirate loot". The FLO has his own theory though. Why a hoard of gold coins buried for safety around about the time of the Napoleonic wars is Britain's 38th "most important archaeological discovery" is not explained here either. Neither did I understand what the promised "twist at the end" of the story (read: speculation) was supposed to be.

It is difficult to see where this programme is going. My bet is that the main audience for episode three is going to be metal detectorists with short attention spans (for whom the soundbite presentation seems geared) and thirteen year old boys interested in archaeology or dinosaurs. Even my cat walked off in disgust when episode 2 started.

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

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