Monday 16 July 2012

Britain’s Secret Treasures – ITV1 – Monday

Britain’s Secret Treasures – ITV1 – Monday, episode 1:

Well, that was pretty boring. So much for Britain's "greatest archaeological discoveries"... the first batch of the "top fifty from a million" seem pretty uninformative. We know the Romans were a slave owning society and put prisoners in chains, that people collected relics and had harness bosses on their horses, so what? Ms Hughes is a bit of a washout, Mr Buerke made a better impression. Metal detecting "finders" were conspicuous by their absence.

First in this televised show-and-tell was a shackle (number 50), presumed to be Roman, said to be of a "slave" (rather than prisoner). It was taken into a muddy field, and imaginary stories were told about its occupant perhaps being mauled by wild animals in public . The object was handled without gloves and exposed to a hostile environment, but to compensate there were computer generated image, helpless blonde in historical costume and fake wolf baring its fangs [the object is also a bit bigger than the scale on the PAS record photo suggests - how come? What ACTUALLY is the archaeological connection between a shackle and a specific amphitheatre?].

Then the next treasure was a shiny gold gold reliquary metal detector find the Hockley Pendant (number 49), "In Henry VIII's time, relics were the ultimate lucky charm", dumbs down the bosomy historian, and the little boy is made to perform ("I digged it up"). Number 48 was a harness boss metal detector find which for some reason is assumed to have come off the horse of Charles II in 1662 (as opposed to somebody else who had a horse with a harness with bosses with the same pattern).

Number 47 was a toy cannon metal detector find mounted on perspex - REALLY important archaeological information, obviously. Apparently this object owes its position on the list to being "a dangerous beast" (cue for 'Mythbusters-style pyrotechnic 'demonstration' on the programme). The Sedgeford torc was 46 (cotton gloves were seen).

The 45th "most important archaeological find" was a dropped in the woods WWI medal  metal detector find (by Manuel Nicdao of the Weekend Wanderers metal detecting club)  - what that tells us is not revealed, but a journalist tells the grandson of the guy who won it the gung-h-British-pluck-and-derring-do story of what the awardee had done in the War, and he pretended he did not know and pretended (not very well) to be moved. Hardly archaeological evidence of anything really. In fact, much like the others shown in this episode.

My feeling is they were chosen for another reason (apart from being an excuse for some gimmicky TV presentation). Apparently Ms Hughes is "all for scrubbing up the muddied reputation of the metal detector tribe too, a group unpopular with farmers and archaeologists alike". One wonders whether this sentiment lies behind the choice of the first six "most important archaeological finds" by the panel. The first was made by a landscape gardener with a hyphenated name, the second a sweet little boy, the next a journalist who happens to have a metal detector, the next a policeman (probably the nearest they could get to a High Court Judge) with the same problem, then a find made by a (real) amateur archaeologist in a community archaeology project, then one of the few 'ethnic minority' metal detectorists in Britain. Not a C2 "challenged by formal education" in sight. It remains to be seen how long they can keep that up.

The "one million reported finds" seemed to be being pushed, when in fact the number of records is just over 500 000. Whereas the Heritage Action Erosion Counter since the start of PAS stands at 4,527,414.

But there is no mention of any of this. The objects are there to "tell the story of our country and how we once lived". The graphics at the beginning of the programme however show oversized hunks of gold sitting in the middle of fields (making one wonder who "we" are). At the beginning of the programme the wide-eyed lady presenter repeats in a pseudo-amazed voice that these things all appear just a few inches down. Not a word on best practice, not a word to inform the public what the term "Treasure" of the programme's title really means in the specific terminology of the legislation, not a single word on how archaeology goes about interpreting the evidence it finds, all skipped over. Replaced by glib edutaining stories, and speculative "imagine how he felt" type comments. The viewer will seek in vain for the answer to any question such as "how do we know?" and "why is this more important than the last thing they talked about (or those they do not)?" But I guess answering any questions the viewer might have is not what this programme is about. If the other episodes are anything like this, a real lost opportunity to use the television to do some quality archaeological outreach.

Vignette: The vignette I used for my first post on this programme seems pretty prophetic.

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

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