[Lead Image: Public Domain via thePipeLine collection]
Archaeology World met the casting call for Sky Kids new metal detecting show with horror. Now that the full run of “Dig Detectives” is available on a digibox near you [if you have a subscription for Sky channels] thePipeLine asks what does the hyperactive series have to tell us about the attempts to bring metal detecting to the mainstream media?
While there is a healthy crop of You Tube channels devoted to metal detecting, with the exception of a bleep on role in the late lamented [and lately reincarnated] “Time Team” and Mackenzie Crooks “Detectorists” [which wasn’t actually about metal detecting at all, rather it was a study of middle aged men and their relationships with women and the world], the hobby has not managed to gain much traction in the mainstream media. However, that has not stopped a number of TV production companies engaging in a quest to bring the excitement of metal detectorists meandering across similar looking fields, carefully excavating ring pulls, to the Electronic Programme Guide on that HD screen in the corner of your living room, the most recent attempt being “Harry Cole’s Great British Treasure Hunt”. However, whether Mr Cole’s show, or any of the other current and future offerings can deliver water cooler moments even for the metal detecting community, let alone deliver the overnight ratings channel controllers dream of, which, is after, all what TV is all about, remains open to question.
As it turned out the full series of “Harry Cole’s Great British Treasure Hunt” [note the show is not merely the Great British Treasure Hunt- it is important to name the guilty] merely extended the agony of the pilot programme which, as thePipeline reported previously, turned out to be neither great, nor much of a treasure hunt as, in one of the most bathetic scenes in recent history TV, Finds Liaison Officer Susheela Burford made an ethical withdrawal as a professional auction valuer was introduced, only for the audience to see several days effort in the sunlit fields around Sudeley Castle, assessed as being worth more or less the scrap value of some ring pulls.
A bit like Mr Cole’s series those of a cynical bent might say.
Another attempt to bring metal detecting to that TV screen near you is Hello Halo TV‘s “River Hunters”.
For some unaccountable reason having reached its second series, River Hunters sees British Archaeologist Gary Bankhead, Swimmer Rick Edwards, and straight out of History Channel central casting for the American Market, “YouTube sensation”, Beau Ouimette [no thePipeLine hadn’t heard of him either], visit historically significant locations, put on wet suits, and, as the Sky History web site puts it, offer,
“…a new perspective on each river’s layered past” which “…could redefine British history as we know it.”
Could redefine British history, but doesn’t.
Which hasn’t stopped Hello Halo getting commissioned for another series with a major metal detecting component and it is the “Monkey Tennis” of metal detecting shows. Little monkeys that is. Alan Partridge would be proud.
Where once the late, hugely lamented, John Noakes said “get down Shep” on “Blue Peter” and “Go With Noakes”, Hello Halo want kids to get down and “Go With Nox [pinpointers]” to find TREASURE.
This is how the series was introduced to the world, via the metal detecting social media, back in August 2021.
CASTING CALL – Does your child have what it takes to be a metal detective?
Does your child love searching for silver and trawling for treasure? Would they like to join us on the hunt for hidden history?
We are looking for confident 8-12 year olds to take part in our BRAND NEW TV SHOW all about METAL DETECTING!
Whether they’ve been metal detecting before or just think they’ve got what it takes to become a top treasure hunter, we’d love to hear from you. We welcome applications from children of all abilities and backgrounds.
Given the current sensitivities regarding metal detecting, with a growing sense among many archaeologists, and even some detectorists, that commercial metal detecting rallies are damaging to archaeology and are out of control, and with what seems to be an increasing numbers of finds, labelled as the result of metal detecting, finding their way into commercial auction houses, Archaeology Twitter immediately expressed its concern at the tone of the Hello Halo Kid’s casting call.
Responses ranged from relatively mild requests asking Hello Halo to identify any archaeological consultants working on the programme, to more direct value judgements such as,
“This is highly irresponsible and unethical.”
A public Tweet from Jaime Almansa-Sánchez supplied an international context which threatened potential overseas sales of the show and format,
“And no matter what, please don’t try to sell it outside the UK. In most countries this would be considered incitement of crimes against archaeological heritage… sad you seek entertainment with this.”
Other commentators were moved to cruelly cite the infamous Freddo fiasco which saw Cadbury’s favourite chocolate froggy treat turned into a potential accessory to heritage crime, and an international news story, after a poorly researched promotion invited children to hunt for treasure at various scheduled ancient monuments, including in the Republic of Ireland where metal detecting for historic artefacts is indeed illegal.
Cadbury’s Freddo farce notwithstanding, the track record of UK Television approaching metal detecting with, what archaeologists would describe as, “responsibility” is also less than stellar, with memories of the “Nazi War Diggers” debacle still raw [see Heritage Daily and thePipeLine passim].
Therefore thePipeLine decided to investigate the background to Hello Halo’s offering.
As the show went into production we asked if Professor Michael Lewis, Head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme [PAS] at the British Museum, whose network of Finds Liaison Officers log metal detected finds reported to them and promote best practice among detectorists, had been contacted by Hello Halo TV about the new programme and whether the PAS was involved in the production in an ongoing way?
This was the somewhat surprising answer from the British Museum press office,
“This is the first Michael has heard about this idea and they do not appear to have been in touch previously. Neither the British Museum nor the PAS are involved with this production.”
thePipeLine also asked if the PAS/British Museum was concerned that the programme is being billed as about “… searching for silver and trawling for treasure?” before mention of “recovering history”.
We were told that in the opinion of the British Museum and PAS, it is “unfortunate” that the focus of the programme seems to be on finding precious metal, rather than learning about the past.
Asked if the PAS would be reaching out to Hello Halo TV to ensure the programme is supervised by qualified archaeologists, fully integrates the PAS and is about recovering and reporting history in an archaeologically responsible way and not about the financial value of finds, the spokesperson said,
“Thanks for bringing this to our attention. Michael is happy to contact them to learn more and highlight best archaeological practice.”
Subsequently the Professor Lewis e-mailed thePipeLine with this update,
“Just to say I have got in touch with them and the producer has replied. Seems they are behind River Hunters and have also been in touch with the FLO for North and East Yorkshire in a very general way. Anyway, I look to meet them and find out more.”
Asked to comment a spokesperson for production company Hello Halo confirmed that the series was being produced as the result of a commission,
“…for a history based show aimed at encouraging children to take an interest in the subject…”
although, as the commissioning channel had not yet announced, we were told that the channel could not be named.
The spokesperson added,
“The programme is very much in the early stages of production, but I can confirm that the team have had discussions with the Portable Antiquities Scheme and will be taking appropriate professional guidance as to best practice both in how we produce the programme and in the scripting of the finished broadcast.”
As the email from Hello Halo TV is dated after Professor Lewis stated he had been in touch with the company it is unclear if the reference to discussions with the Portable Antiquities Scheme refers to the contact made by Professor Lewis, or to the earlier contact “in a very general way” with the Finds Liaison Officer for North and East Yorkshire.
In fact we now know the Hello Halo Kids series is called “Dig Detectives” and consists of ten, ten minute episodes, made for the channel “Sky Kids”.
Fronted by comedian, and children’s TV presenter, Ben Shires, the conceit of the show is that Mr Shires take the role of responsible adult [detectorist] mentor, alongside a different young detectorist in each episode.
However, the odd thing about the bite size show is that each episode contains very little actual, well, detecting, and in spite of the claim by Hello Halo Kids that the series was designed to encourage children to take an interest in history, it is even less history and context.
In fact it is just about finding old stuff with a metal detector.
Book ended by fast cut previews, trails for the current programme and the rest of the series, plus some often clunkily inserted detector based action from somewhere else around the world, by the time Ben Shires has given the [welcome] health warning about only detecting with permission of the landowner and in company with a responsible adult, there is very little time left for actual coil on soil action.
Which is probably just as well because, in common with “Henry Cole’s Great British Treasure Hunt” most of the finds are for the viewer, if not the finder, unremarkable.
More than one programme delivers a musket ball, while scraps of metal alloy and coins worn to the point of unidentifiability also appear. To be fair, other more historically diagnostic and visually interesting, material does turn up, including late 18th century trade token and a denarius of Trajan, but they remain just objects to be interpreted in a few general bullet points narrated by Mr Shires voicing over a computer graphic.
Expert archaeologists and organisations supporting the programme are referred to in the commentary. We are even told repeatedly that, because the principles are detecting in England, finds are reported to everyone “who needs to know”. However, we are never told who needs to know.
This is probably in order not to complicate international sales with region specific exposition, but the upshot is that neither the Portable Antiquities Scheme, the Birmingham Museums Trust, nor archaeologist John Buglass, have any presence in the show, even though all are listed as advisors on the end credits.
While this failure to inform is frustrating, the treatment of finds in some of the international inserts is more troubling.
For example, in Programme 2 a group of detectorists in rural Japan are shown with no wider context, digging and pulling a katana sword blade out of the ground [it appears to have been pushed in to around two thirds of its length].
Nobody asks why it was partially buried, or mentions that under the Haitōrei Edict of 1876 the carrying of swords in public was banned except for certain individuals, such as former samurai, members of the military, and police, and that again at the end of WW2 between 1945 and 1953 the making of swords, and associated martial arts was banned, both situations providing a possible context for the abandonment of the blade.
All we are told is that afterwards it was reported to the local police in the hope it may end up in a local museum.
In fact a short time with a search engine reveals the video was reedited, presumably with permission, from a You Tube Channel called “Japan Treasure Hunters”. Entitled, “The Ultimate Metal Detecting Find in Japan!” the find was originally posted in June 2019 and the finders record,
“They said it was a sword but scrap iron because it was so rusted. Then the sword was taken to the police for further processing and decision on what to do with it.”
In another insert, this time depicting several hyperactive American detectorists in a fast running stream recovering uncontextualized 12lb cannon shot, elicited a classic, “don’t try this at home” style of warning from Mr Shires. A warning which begs the question why show the potentially dangerous behaviour in the first place? Especially on a programme aimed broadly at 8 to 12 year olds.
Surely the inserts are not there as content insurance to cheaply pad out the running time with more visually interesting finds than the junior detectorists are likely to unearth?
In the end the series is another missed opportunity. “Dig Detectives” could have been ground breaking, allowing archaeologists to enthuse the young participants with a love for history by demonstrating how metal detecting is a really useful tool in the archaeological toy box, full of other equally useful tools, which are best used together to compliment each other as part of a comprehensive, properly designed, research programme explaining our historic landscapes.
That is how the producers of “Time Team” successfully integrated metal detecting into their programmes over many years.
That approach could even become part of Time Team’s crowd funded revival- has anyone suggested porting the “Time Team” format to kids TV to Tim Taylor?
A sort of “Toddler Time Team”? Cadbury might even sponsor it with a treasure chest of free Freddo bars.
Unfortunately, for all the hyperactive commentary [and hyperactive adult detectorists mugging to the camera] “Dig Detectives” ended up like most previous attempts to make entertaining TV out of walking over the ground internalising bleeps.
That is, the activity is probably great fun for those taking part, but is really rather boring to watch unless it is heavily contextualised, editorialised and interpreted and no amount exuberant high fiving, or American detectorists crying “Awesome Man!” [when it so obviously isn’t], can change that.
Even with music video style, fast cutting, and performances on a pantomime scale of subtlety from the adult talent, [ironically many of the young people on screen are engaging TV naturals], ten minutes is probably the right length for an episode, encompassing the attention span of the target age group on Sky Kids and that of sentient adults faced with people of any age walking across more or less identical fields, listening for bleeps and then poking around in lumps of mud.
If you doubt this ask the three people who sat through every episode of Henry Cole’s Great British Treasure Hunt, a series which came across as so forced and derivative a format, and yet still so stultifying boring, that it is unlikely even the participants closest friend and family sat through every episode. That is unless it was turned into a drinking game.
Hear a bleep: Take one sip.
Someone finds a piece of what Mr Cole calls “detritus”: Take two sips.
Henry Cole quotes from his briefing notes while filling space talking to someone who knows about the history of the location, but isn’t a metal detectorist: put the kettle on while necking a double shot chaser.
And that brings us to the problem of where to actually record a metal detecting show?
For a quick hit like Dig Detectives, there is no time, and thus no attempt, to provide any kind of landscape context.
Mr Shires simply states the principles are detecting with permission and off they go across interchangeable fields- mostly ploughed, with the odd stubble location, and some random dodgy weather for variety.
However, for anything longer form TV directors need to introduce characters, tell a story, and break the visual monotony. One way of doing this is by recording contextualising shots of attractive countryside, historic buildings and interesting weather.
Notably much “Henry Cole’s Great British Treasure Hunt” was indeed taken up with ground level and drone shot sequences of bucolic countryside and historic houses rather than up close and personal metal detecting action. But this led to an embarrassing problem which might have been missed by anyone not familiar with controversies around metal detecting.
While the framing scenes of the series final, including the identifications and “valuations”, were recorded against the spectacular backdrop of the National Trust estate at Stowe, those not in the know may have wondered why Mr Cole had to make it clear that, while those scenes were shot at, in, and around, Viscount Cobhams magnificent Georgian house and gardens, designed by, among others, Lancelot “Capability” Brown, none of the detecting [lack of] action was recorded on National Trust land.
The answer as to why Mr Cole had to make such a clunky intervention is, of course, that the National Trust bans metal detecting on its land unless it is part of an authorised archaeological project and is supervised at all times by one of the Trust’s staff team of archaeologists.
The Trust justifies this stance stating on its policy page for metal detecting stating,
“We know most metal detectorists have a genuine interest in history and archaeology, and take care to report their finds, but we need to guard against finds being removed without proper recording or archaeological supervision. All Trust land has archaeological potential and has been entrusted to our care for the benefit of everyone – when finds are taken out of context we lose a piece of the jigsaw, making it harder for us to care for our archaeology and tell the stories of our places.”
The Trust also retains ownership of all finds, except treasure finds which must, by law, be reported through the Treasure system and any reward split between the finder and the land owner.
All a bit awkward then when your show bills discovering archaeological objects as a “Treasure Hunt” and has them “valued” for commercial sale.
[We will leave aside for now the ethics of the National Trust banning metal detecting on its land, while hosting, and potentially pocketing a facility fee for, a show about metal detecting which might be for personal profit if the finds are sold.]
In the end, while Hello Halo may have resolved the issues of presenting metal detecting in a way which engages and retains an audience with a notoriously short attention span and many competing offers on digital channels and social media, [keep it short, maintain a faux high energy, edit snappily and don’t say very much], it is bound to be of concern to archaeological bodies that a TV production company could receive a commission for a TV show from a major media player, “Sky”, of which metal detecting appears to be a significant component, and the first that the Head of Portable Antiquities Scheme appeared to know about it is a request to comment about the apparent format of the show from the media.
But arguably that is archaeology’s fault for not properly engaging with the media in the first place, and thus failing become the “go to” experts for TV producers and researchers.
As this article was being researched it was announced that yet another attempt to bring the excitement of metal detecting to TV would premier in April 2022 on the channel More 4.
Produced by London- and Glasgow- based independent production company Tuesday’s Child, “Great British History Hunters” [Yes, once again the programme is promised to be both “Great” and “British”] is billed as exploring the work of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, based at the British Museum over four sixty minute slots.
In a comment released to the media series executive producer Steph Harris said,
“After 18 months of being rooted to our homes, a collective curiosity about our local areas has seen a huge rise in reported finds as more people have taken up detecting and mudlarking, and we’ve been privileged to work with the team at the British Museum to be able to follow the process from the moment an item is unearthed to it ending up in a case in a museum.”
Given that the press release from Channel 4 states perhaps somewhat naively that,
“It’s every detectorist’s dream to one day find “treasure” that ends up on display in the British Museum or a museum local to where they live.”
…it is not clear if “Great British History Hunters” will cover also other “dream” metal detected treasures which end up in private collections, or cash converted at one of Charles Hansons’ legal auctions of antiquities*.
Meanwhile thePipeLine is writing a pitch for its new metal detecting series,
“The Naff English and Devolved Administrations Crotal Bell and Ring Pull Hunt.”
*Other auction houses, E-Bay and car boot sales, are available to sell metal detected archaeological finds, entirely legally, whether or not they have been declared to the Portable Antiquities Scheme.
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