Wednesday 18 July 2012

"Britain's Secret Treasures" Episode 3, More of the Same

Episode 3 of the PAS show-and-tell had more of Michael Buerk and Bettany Hughes strolling around the empty forecourt of a Neo-Classical pile making facile comments intended to link the various celebrity-presented neatly-encapsulated short stories. Apart from inserting the (superfluous IMO) "Bettany has a go Treasure Hunting" shallow water diving scene it's exactly the same format as before, but this one went on for an hour, even I got bored. They got through ten so-called "Treasures".

If the Royal Wedding analogy for the Kent cufflinks in episode one was bad enough, the treatment received by a metal-detected gold stater from Kent FASAM-FCD3A2 with the names of two emitters on it was cringeworthy. The segment ended with Michael Portillo showing a crude "coin" with "Cameronus" on one side and "Cleggus" on the other which he tossed into the Thames "for future archaeologists to find". Trying to use an ancient coin to provide give a historical precedent to Britain's current coalition government was just pathetic.

Then one of the top 50's three (only) finds from Wales (Langstone 'hoard' (sic) NMGW-9C0216 ). Here a reference to the theme of sacrifice in peat bogs - this seems to be a leitmotif of this series. Blue  Peter presenter Gethin Jones gets to try some British Museum "Iron Age beer" ("yep, that's not good"). Then at the end of the first part is a brief introduction to the Piercebridge river dredging duo with their waterproof metal detectors, and some shots of Roman soldiers (another leitmotif) throwing things into the "sacred water' of the river "for luck" (yet another leitmotif). 

The second part begins with presenter Bettany Hughes (classical historian) showing viewers what she has round her neck "for luck". A gold lunulate pendant which she says was formerly worn by "a Roman lady" (she does not say it is a copy of one). Lunulate pendants, "wearable" and without context on the international antiquities market do not come just from Roman graves and hoards, but deep into Barbaricum too. Where did Ms Hughes buy her wearable antiquity? Does she see nothing incongruous about presenting an archaeology programme with a dug-up antiquity hanging round her neck? The question is not addressed.

This leads into a presentation of  a metal-detected gold amulet NMS-7BEED8 (more Roman soldier shots and references to superstition) and for the first time in the series we get some real information. On screen Roger Tomlin explains the inscription which you do not find in the supposedly "full record' of the object provided by the PAS database [neither are any publication references cited]. This is a "top 50" find because it has a bloke's name on it. Whoopee.  Then the next Welsh find, Llanbedrgoch Early Medieval Finds from Angelsey NMGW-C5EE45 which are "important" because they show there were "Vikings" on Angelsey (i.e., people using Scandinavian style stuff - we've got that in Poland too, means nothing).

Then the Nazis. In September last year there was a You Tube clip containing the "Nazis come to London" bit of this sequence (actually pretty pathetic, here is the first part - note lunulate pendant, and here is the second, an oversized Hitler alone on the balcony of Buckingham Palace). The 83000 quid "Hackney Hoard" story has it all, the Blitz, family perishes, emigrant returning to childhood home after all these years, heart warming stuff, triumph over adversity - but WHY are these coins buried in the 1940s among Britain's top 50 archaeological finds of recent decades? (and why was the jar dug up on the same site a few decades ago not accorded this status?). In Poland we have lots of hoards like this, still turning up year after year.

I think this case well introduces a very pertinent question. Just what IS archaeology for the Portable Antiquities Scheme? Is it not the case that in at least some of these cases the objects are being used (as here) to provide a tangible illustration of "history", fleshing out the words with things, rather than being a source of information in their own right?

Part three of this overlong programme opens with Bettany Hughes donning a diving suit and getting excited about finding a piece of samian in the river. Whoopee, there's probably lots in the molehill on the dry land next to the river. We are not informed whether she still has her Roman pendant on in the water. There are lots of references to "the sacred water" (clichéd Roman soldier shots again) and the objects being thrown from a bridge. If so, why do they show us three people hoiking stuff out of the sunken archaeological deposits under water with no attempt to map the distribution of these finds?

Then, in a nod to the spooks and ghosts element in "Discovery"-type edutainment, Adam Daubney gets squeamish about a pretty poor example of a witch bottle from Lincolnshire LIN-49FC12. This is a "top 50" find because they are allegedly so rare. Well, I do not know how it is up in Lincolnshire, but down in East Anglia, Essex and Kent (?) it is my recollection that many museums have at least one, usually a complete 'bellarmine' stoneware jug.  The Lincolnshire one is also relatively late, 1820s or later, I reckon the only reason it is here is to mention witches (the fact that it's nineteenth century probably saved us from them staging a gruesome 'helpless lady burning at the stake' scene to match the earlier 'helpless lady torn apart by wild animals' one).

Then three gold things in a row, Sedgeford Hoard (from the same archaeological site as the Sedgeford Torc) PAS-B1F065, (apparently very very exciting because gold shows up on X-rays) [duh], a tenth century "West Yorkshire" metal detected Ring Hoard ( SWYOR-F86A02, SWYOR-3B5652 ), with one of the first sessions which highlights the finder (Frank Andrusyk - Slavic name) - "it came oop all shiny". The hoard seems to be "important"  because the rings are "nice". There was an attempted touching scene in the museum when the artefact hunter (who got about 86000 quid for them) was "reunited with his finds", but it did not come off too well. Then the Holderness Cross (YORYM214). It seems to me that by this time the production team is getting as bored with all this as this viewer. The accidentally-found object was found in 1965 but only declared when the PAS came along- an ideal opportunity to make precisely the points about the PAS that surely this whole programme was set up to make. An opportunity totally missed in favour of some wiffle-waffle about "paganism" (leitmotif) being overcome by Christianity and Britain becoming "united under one faith". So basically regurgitating what Venerable Bede was writing in his 731 best seller Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum ... which of course was not a little bit true for the seventh century. This is in the "top 50" because allegedly "one of the earliest" pieces of evidence of Christianity in Dark Age Britain. Really? Looks quite a late piece to me.

Then another totally incomprehensible one. A batch of French coins from Bishops Waltham, Winchester ( HAMP-E4E185 ). Now just take a moment to look at that PAS record and compare it with almost any other numismatic find on the database (and there are a lot). There is a huge amount of information there about this group of finds, in fact the sort of detail that should be present on every single PAS record of what in the vast majority of cases is a now-vanished find. These coins have the date 1711, so just falling into the "older than 300 years" range. But on eBay they'd belong in the "World Coins" section. A spotty schoolboy collector in Wisconsin could buy them there and do much the same sort of thing as we see done to them by the PAS. Its all the sort of things coineys do, weigh them, measure them, compare the pictures. Apparently this is Britain's 27th top find because they are eighteenth century fakes. That's it - nothing else. So far nobody has worked out what they were doing where they were found in Winchester, it is presented as a "mystery". So I am not really sure what they are doing among the so-called "top fifty archaeological discoveries". 
We are not even at the half-way mark. Who chose the number "fifty"? Would it not have been better to have had the six programmes discuss fewer objects in more detail, perhaps arranged around themes ("finds from water" seems an obvious one, "coins in pots" another, "interesting things hoards tell us about the Bronze Age" a good one), with a closer examination of just what these finds tell us and why, instead of jumping from one rushed presentation of an object and some televisiony gimmick and then the next?
"Continues tomorrow" is beginning to sound ominous.

Vignette: The lady with a Roman lunula around her neck is "all for scrubbing up the muddied reputation of the metal detector tribe", at least they are not as bad as the NAZIs... (image based on Component Graphics' CGI video clip)

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

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