Thursday 17 October 2013

Britain's Secret Treasures 2nd Series ep. 1

Britain's Secret Treasures the blurb:
"Michael Buerk and historian Bettany Hughes present a new series of the show that unearths some of the UK's hidden treasures. In the first programme, actor James Purefoy discovers the story behind an ancient sword that is at the very heart of the history of Northumberland. Mary Ann Ochota examines what on the surface looks like World War II bomb fragments, but in reality are something completely different. The programme also looks at some of the gruesome, painful practices of Victorian dentistry".
Let's hope metal detectorists like John Howland have a notebook and a sharp pencil to hand so they keep track this time of what is being shown.

I sat through the first episode. There were several good decisions, they are keeping the number of objects down (though curiously this does not have a knock-on effect of making the "Britain's Got Treasure" presentations any more the "meatier" and less lightweight) and this time it seems the series is less coy about the finds being made by metal detectorists who were shunted into the shadows a little in the first series. Thank goodness they also dropped the reality show format with the embarrassing faked "viewers' competition" and the pretence that a panel of experts really did look through and assessed every single item in the PAS database to select the fifty best.  Also the CBA is thankfully conspicuous by its absence from the first episode. Good. They've still got an over-abundance of presenters doing cameo appearances for some reason.

The programme exhibits the same problems as the first series in presenting an archaeological approach to the evidence, which is surely what the fifteen million quid PAS is all about. This is clearest in the case of spinning a good yarn for the viewers about the first find discussed. First the "human interest story", it was found in North Carlton near the Dambusters' base, so first the copper alloy scrap was thought to be "shrapnel". You know, that gilded bronze the Nazis used to make their bomb casings with. It turns out to be part of a (remarkably thin-walled) Roman equestrian statue. Only ten bits of the head were found - but "certainly" they'd come from a whole statue which "definately" had an emperor on its back, and that emperor, well, it "must have been Domitian". Stands to reason doesn't it? That allows Adam to get in the story of "Damnatio memoriae" and a gratuitous film of toppling a statue of Saddam (the one the bottom cheek was "portableised" from). Not only was an opportunity lost here for a few words about what heritage is, but then that little fairy tale is at odds with the official account:
The statue was probably dismantled and carried away for processing during the early Anglo-Saxon period...
leaving it unclear whether the fragments came from an Anglo-Saxon site or an early Roman one. From this I think we may safely conclude that the archaeologists have not the foggiest idea about the context of that find made by a partner metal detectorist.

The sixth century sword was next. The delicate corroded iron object was passed around in the open air by an archaeoloist and an actor with no cotton gloves (chlorides on your skin gentlemen). It is presented as unusual because "killed" (apparently the only one in the UK so far). But then the PAS record shows that it was a broken scrap and in the fold were other objects, which casts some doubt on the interpretation - never fully developed in the programme - that it is from a burial assemblage. The excavator (FLO Rob Collins) suggests that it was the sword of someone like Aelle  (died 588, father of Edwin). The findspot is given only as "Northumbria" in the PAS record, which is not very helpful, but it's called the Alnwick sword in the programme, giving a hint. The PAS putting out their twee little narrativisation story might just have checked a few of the facts. Aelle was king of Deira, and thus would have died and been buried there, this sword was found in Bernicia.

The next object discussed went for the "gruesome details" motif to generate interest. A piece of "c.1890 to 1930"  dental jiggery-pokery. This object is very much a mirror of the use of the "bronze nose" in the first series.   The BM website calls it a "swagging" (no such word) block, the PAS record a "swaging" block, apparently "semi-circular in plan". While there is such a word, in metalworking terminology it does not refer to what the FLO says it was used for (oh yes, "Waterloo Teeth" just had to be mentioned didn't they?).  Also if the object is as late as 1930, one wonders what it is doing in this programme and not on the Antiques Roadshow or some Bygones programme, and secondly whether the description of early dentistry delivered by Teresa Gilmore is really applicable to 1930, when some quite sophisticated work was being done without the use of corpses (see here for non-swaged dentures from well before 1890-1930).

Object number four, a gold signet ring of the middle or third quarter of the 15th century found in Raglan in 1998 with the inscription feythfoull to yow and initials W A pandered to both the "love interest" and "gruesome".  That is if the trite narrativisation is true. Back at the time of discovery, it was suggested that its findspot might possibly make it the ring of William Herbert, from 1461 first Earl of Pembroke (executed after the battle of Banbury during the Wars of the Roses, in 1469).
He married Anne Devereux, and the initials might stand for William and Anne [...]  a sign of faithfulness to his wife.  However, the identification of the ring as that of William Herbert is not proven and other names are possible.
In the programme though, that's what they present it as. Then they stage the "execution" ... poorly acted, he's all-too-obviously struck in the small of the back in the film and falls over in the mud, and then we see the ring dropping in the (reddened) mud and then being stepped on. Remember that would have been in or near Banbury, not Rhuddlan. Symbol of loyalty or not, William had three illegitimate sons by women who were not Anne. 

So four objects, and the treatment is still superficial. One wonders about the choice. The dental thingy was just gratuitous and really told nobody anything much. The horsey thing seems to have so many unknowns it's difficuult to see what usefully you could do with it. The ring seems to be interpreted on the basis of guesswork/wishful thinking. The sword however, so many lost opportunities. They filled it up with a rugged actor declaiming some nonsense about when he was a kid while looking soulfully into the camera and then being pathetically beaten by a re-enactor whose kit "weighed a lot" we are told, but we never got a good look at it (possible just as well). Instead of all that, why not spend three minutes explaining how a lump of crud is dated by archaeologists to "the sixth century". Have someone run through the X-ray on camera, point out the pattern welding, explain what it is and what properties it gave the sword. They had a replica pattern welded sword there, well why not show that on the replica?  THey could have used this fragile object to introduce some basic ideas about archaeological conservattion, discussing the difficulties of cleaning and stabilising objects in such a condition. Tell the viewer why they interpret it as a burial, but what else it could have been from and why... and so on. Note none of this leaves the object-centred mindset of the PAS, none of it requires very much effort on their part. Yet it was abandoned for the "celebrity presents a geegaw" approach of the first series which is hardly doing any of the outreach that PAS was originally set up to engage in.

Vignette: Bettany Hughes in a hurry


David Knell said...

"So four objects, and the treatment is still superficial."

Yup, I saw the programme last night and I'd agree with your comments. Sure, by definition the show is object-centred and has to be populist but why couldn't they present it more along the lines of a show like "CSI" and examine the scientific analysis a bit more? And go easy on the wild speculation!

Yup, I winced every time they handled the sword without gloves!

Paul Barford said...

especially when the actor hefted it....

I really am hoping that there was a bit of deception going on here and that what we saw on the screen was a lump of brown plastic made to look like thwe sword, rather than the original sword.

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