The sun is out, the ground is baked hard, and across the UK crops are being cut and gathered in.
It’s harvest time, and as the nation’s metal detectorists head out into the stubble in search of a [cash?] crop of history, thePipeLine begins a series of articles about the hobby, its sometimes troubled interaction with archaeology, and the ongoing attempts to turn coil to the soil bleeps into a TV ratings hit, with a retrospective look at Channel 4’s recent series,
“Great British History Hunters“.
The first thing you learn when you study media criticism is to look for what Deborah Tannen, the professor of linguistics at Georgetown University defined in a 2017 essay for the Atlantic magazine as the “meta message”. Published before Facebook’s rebranding, Professor Tannen’s “meta message” is the unspoken dialogue with the viewer which shows what the author or producer really wants you to understand from what placed on the screen, rather than what appears most obvious. Channel 4’s recent series about metal detecting, “Great British History Hunters”, made with the cooperation of the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the British Museum, is all about the meta message. In this case the Portable Antiquities Scheme’s current view of metal detecting and [Spoiler Alert], it is not the glossy advert for the hobby which one might be led to expect from the warm welcome the series received on much of the metal detecting social media. Instead the programmes sets up contrasting views of the outcomes of the hobby, and the commercial versus scholarly values each outcome embodies, with the result that the meta aware viewer is left in no doubt which is to be preferred and [another Spoiler Alert] it is not the narrative about the #Money #Treasure.
However, before digging into what Great British History Hunters is really about, the first thing to say about the series is that the production values are of a different level to the average metal detecting/object hunting show, from “River Hunters” to “Henry Coles Great British Treasure Hunt” [which isn’t- see thePipeLine and passim].
The initial programme in the series of four loosely linked episodes sets the tone, being carefully constructed around two interlocking narratives. Those of retired engineer Bob Greenaway who found the Bronze Age, Shropshire Sun Pendant, and of the Ryedale hoard of Roman artefacts found by detectorists James Spark and Mark Didlick in a field near Ampleforth, North Yorkshire, in May 2020 and subsequently auctioned by the high profile, Derbyshire based, auction house Hansons.
Breathing space within the programme is provided by a short package about the respected, and by a quirk of the law regarding the Thames foreshore, heavily regulated, Thames Mudlarks, and episodes from a “Finds Surgery” conducted by Finds Liaison Officer from the Portable Antiquities Scheme, Jo Ahmet.
It is not a “real” finds surgery of course, as these interactions are clearly set up for the programme, both as a framing device, and because the series was made under various iterations of Covid-19 regulations when FLO’s were not holding face to face meetings.
However, this artifice, which is not explained to the audience, allows the programme makers to set up what is clearly meant to be a vaguely comedic subplot as Mr Ahmet and her father try to convince ten year old Thea that metal detecting history isn’t boring.
She eventually admits that she likes an axe head “…the gruesome bit.”
Conspicuously absent [with one glaring exception discussed below], are the clichéd fixtures of metal detecting TV, hyped up descriptions of claggy bits of scrap metal as the most “awesome find” ever [the finds shown in the main narrative segments of the series are objectively genuinely important], and shots of on screen “talent” high fiving and mugging for the camera every time they find a hammered.
Instead Mr Greenaway, Mr Spark and Mr Didlick are placed within the, beautifully shot, rural landscapes in which they search, and are presented as measured, thoughtful and curious about the artefacts they have discovered.
For example, Mr Spark and Mr Didlick are shown around the enigmatic Roman building complex, discovered in advance of a housing development at Eastfield, near Scarborough in 2021, which may be contemporary with their find of, what appear to be, ritually deposited, religious objects related to an Imperial cult, and could even be the source of the hoard.
Arguably the programme should have referenced the break in at the site by would be artefact thieves using metal detectors reported in April 2021. However, the series does include the threat to archaeology from thieves using metal detectors in programme two. It is also the case that within the chosen format, across an arc of four programmes, not every issue can be discussed in the course of a single episode.
Of greater concern perhaps, at least journalistically, is that the issue of the reasons as to why the Ryedale Hoard went to commercial auction at all is fudged.
Sources in the archaeological world close to the process have suggested that an agreement which would have seen the finds go to the Yorkshire Museum was cancelled at the last minute, for reasons which the programme does not go into, with the find instead disposed of by auction to the highest bidder at a commercial auction house, Hansons of Derby.
In other words, the suggestion is that, when it came to the Ryedale Hoard, contrary to the often stated view of many metal detectorists that “it is all about the history”, one party with ownership rights over the artefacts decided it would be all about the money, and in particular, generating as much money as possible from a commercial auction, perfectly legally, rather than going with a privately negotiated agreement.
Once that decision had been taken the venue for the auction did not come as a surprise.
Hansons, fronted by well known media auctioneer Charles Hanson of “Bargain Hunt” and “Antiques Road Trip” fame, have made something of a speciality of auctioning high value, metal detected, artefacts, including in early 2021 advertising for sale a Celtic harness mount, which had not been reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme.
Not being treasure under the 1996 Act the finder was not required to report it.
The important artefact was eventually recorded, but only after a specialist at the British Museum noticed the artefact in the Hansons catalogue for a forthcoming auction.
The Hansons company website also lists as a specialist consultant Mr Adam Staples, himself one of the principal finders of the Chew Valley coin hoard, valued in the millions, whose job is described on the company website as liaising with metal detecting community.
Unsurprisingly, as a high profile detectorist who is likely to turn up in searches by the programme producers, Mr Staples appears in the series. However, neither Hansons deliberate, and completely legal, courting of detectorists, nor his commercial role with the company, are mentioned either in this programme, nor in a later episode of the series [Episode 4] which looks at the finding of the Chew Valley hoard itself.
However, in an amusing throw back to the days when the BBC’s children’s classic “Blue Peter” talked about “soldier dolls” rather than “Action Man” and blanked out the logos on Fairy Liquid squeezy bottles, the producers appear to have been concerned enough about possible commercial placement that the name of the leading metal detector manufacturer Minelab on Mr Staples shirt, appears to have been covered with black tape when Mr Staples was interviewed outside the British Museum.
In a further fudging of the reality, the producers also state in the programme commentary that the Ryedale hoard, found by Mr Spark and Mr Didlick, was sold to a “London Gallery”, thus suggesting that it was somehow to go on public display.
Galleries show stuff to the public right?
Well, up to a point.
Commercial galleries, such as the kind with the disposable readies to buy high end antiquities like the Ryedale Hoard at auction, exist to generate more disposable readies by selling on what they buy at those auctions. Sometimes they display the artefacts in the meantime as a sort of shop window for prospective buyers. Public access to the art and artefacts is, at best, an incidental rather than the objective. At worst it is the token moment of access before the artefact disappears for the foreseeable future into a private collection, or tax free in maximum security vault in a freeport.
In fact, a more accurate description would have been that the Ryedale hoard had been sold to a London antiquities dealer with the likely intention of selling it on in the collectors market, possibly even abroad, and that the hoard could have vanished from public view.
This scenario has actually played out in the case of the rare Roman cavalry helmet found at Crosby Garret in the Lake District.
Described by Ralph Jackson, Senior Curator of Romano-British Collections at the British Museum, as,
“a find of the greatest national (and, indeed, international) significance”,
the metal detectorist who found the helmet turned down a private sale to UK museums which had raised £1.7 million for the purpose and the helmet was sold at auction to an anonymous buyer in 2010 for £2,330,468.75 [including the buyers premium and VAT].
Since then the Crosby Garret helmet has only been seen briefly in public four times, most recently in 2017.
The Crosby Garret case so alarmed archaeologists by the precedent it set, including the action of auction house Christies in restoring the helmet for sale before scientific tests could be undertaken, that it is driving calls for reform of the Treasure Act to prevent a recurrence.
But this is where meta message of “Great British History Hunters” goes into overdrive.
In the final third of the opening programme Mr Hanson seems to think he was operating in his daytime TV comfort zone, playing to the camera, invoking the philosopher Emperor Marcus Aurelius and repeatedly quoting the famous line from Ridley Scott’s epic “Gladiator”,
“What We Do In Life, Echoes In Eternity“
But here the producers of Great British History Hunters pull an editorial ambush that Russell Crowe’s General Maximus would be proud of.
Mr Hansons bombastic auction room performance flogging artefacts, which, the commentary pointedly reminds the audience several times, do not come under the remit of the Treasure Act, is contrasted with the quiet, science based research into the Shropshire Sun pendant found by Bob Greenaway, undertaken by British Museum scientist Laura Perucchetti.
The result is that the viewer is led to contrast the response of Bob Greenaway, modest, curious and illuminated by the scientific expertise and scholarship of the British Museum, with the hollow, fairground huckster, performance of Charles Hanson.
Markedly, we see nothing of any serious research into Ryedale Hoard, unsurprisingly as the find remained in private hands, perfectly legally, and, as in the case of the Crosby Garret helmet, there was no mechanism to make the hoard available for detailed science based investigations before it was sold. Nor, afterwards either, had it remained in private hands and not been bought from the purchaser and donated to the Yorkshire Museum.
As a result, as presented, the only message Mr Hanson seems interested in is how much dosh punters will have to part with to own this “piece of history” themselves, personally, now.
The result is that in the TV eternity of content streaming on More4, the deeds of Mr Hanson will more likely echo as ridiculous, hollow and self serving, as he attempts to drive the hammer price higher [which to be fair is his job].
It is also only fair to mention the other two ghosts at this particular TV Feast. The producers do not interview, indeed scarcely mention, the two landowners who are the recipients of fifty percent of the Treasure Valuation Committee award for the Shropshire Sun Pendant, and Hansons largesse for the Ryedale Hoard [less commission].
What is also not made clear in the commentary, although arguably it should have been, is that the Department for Digital Culture Media and Sport, is currently considering amendments to the Treasure Act which would see finds like the Ryedale Hoard, and important individual artefacts like the Crosby Garret helmet which do not contain precious metal, brought within the remit of the Treasure Valuations Committee, and the reporting expertise of the officers and supporting conservators and scientists, who allow the Portable Antiquities Scheme to function.
The meta message of Great British Treasure Hunters demonstrates clearly, to those who want to see it, why such a change is necessary, and that, like Channel 4 which commissioned the programme, the British Museum and the Portable Antiquities Scheme and Treasure Valuations Committee, which sit within its remit, are a kind of Public Service Archaeology where metal detectorists declaring finds under the Treasure Act, are the production companies providing the content to keep the operation going.
However, there is one final narrative which is missing from “Great British History Hunters”, that is the increasing commercialisation of the hobby of metal detecting and the perceived threats which come with it.
While the programme makes clear, for those who want to see, that the expertise of the British Museum and the Portable Antiquities Scheme is infinitely to be preferred over the commercially driven free for all represented by Charles Hansen, there is no discussion of the view of many archaeologists that the virtually unregulated metal detecting regime in England and Wales is harmful, and that licencing, or even an outright ban on non-archaeological metal detecting, such as the ban in place in the Republic of Ireland, might be the best solution of all to conserving our shared and finite, portable past.
Neither does the programme, or the series, address the issue of the large commercial rallies which the head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, Professor Michael Lewis, himself attacked in the January 2021 edition of British Archaeology magazine, in an article co-authored with the former head of the Council for British Archaeology, Dr Mike Heyworth.
The two archaeologists wrote that perhaps the time had come to tell the detecting community that rallies should be avoided.
Indeed, in a later episode of the “Great British History Hunters”, a leading collector of metal detecting permissions and organiser of rallies, Mr Jason Price, is given a pass on the impact and ethics of large scale, rally based, metal detecting, when he appears in the context of a feel good package about the claimed benefits of metal detecting for service personnel and veterans who suffer from mental health issues.
Neither is the audience told that Mr Price was also associated with administering the Somerset based Community Interest Company [CIC] “Detecting for Veterans” owned by Mr Jason Massey, which collapsed in the Autumn of 2021 amid accusations of fraud and which has since been wound up and struck off voluntarily from the register of companies at Companies House.
Social media posts indicate that a Channel 4 series did record specifically with members of Detecting for Veterans with one post on Facebook stating [our italics],
“Hi all, channel 4 are filming Detecting For Veterans next week with Jay Price…”
Given this information, and the fact the series press release had referred to recording with veterans, after the collapse of Detecting for Veterans CIC, but ahead of the broadcast of the series, thePipeLine asked if Detecting for Veterans was included in “Great British History Hunters”, and if Channel 4 was aware of the collapse of the company and the accusations it faced.
A spokesperson for Channel 4 told thePipeLine [our italics],
“I have looked into your enquiry with the production team and can confirm that the Detecting for Veterans group do not feature and are not referenced in any programmes in this series.”
Of course, that comment does not deny that Detecting for Veterans and/or Mr Price, may have been used as a fixer to arrange for the series to record with former service personnel.
Neither does the comment exclude the possibility that the series was edited before broadcast to remove any references to Mr Massey’s controversial, failed company.
That said, it must be stressed that no charges have been brought against Mr Massey, and Mr Price claims to have been unaware of any of the alleged irregularities at Detecting for Veterans.
He also claims on Social Media to have been instrumental in revealing the alleged irregularities around Mr Massey’s management of the company.
For Great British History Hunters there is then a meta narrative, but it is a narrow one. That narrative is Portable Antiquities Scheme equals Good, overt commercialism equals Bad and [whisper it very quietly], metal detecting in England needs more regulation.
This ties in with a previous comment made to thePipeLine after this website accused Jason Massey of Detecting for Veterans of misrepresenting the views of Professor Lewis in Social Media.
Speaking after an enquiry to the British Museum press office, Professor Lewis told us,
“Yes, I believe regulation is needed to reduce the impact of commercial rallies on archaeology.”
Of course, the argument about the merits of public service as opposed to pure commercialism is not confined to the treatment of archaeological finds.
In the same week that the first episode of Great British History Hunters was broadcast a Broadcasting white paper from the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport [DCMS] announced that, if then Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Government gets its way, Channel 4, its sibling networks More 4, E4 and 4Music, plus the All4 back catalogue streaming service, will be privatised and sent out to raise their own funds from investors, or a US, or international, network with deep pockets, or shallow pockets and a ruthless eye for the bottom line.
Such a sale would probably see unprofitable luxuries like as prime time news and a contractual remit for public service broadcasting, go the way of the Radio 2LO, the Sony Walkman, and the I-Pod.
If that happens, and the Treasure Act remains unamended, thePipeLine looks forward to reporting on Krishnan Guru-Murthy, Matt Frei and Kathie Newman, Nox and pin pointers in hand, out on a field near you, trying to find a hoard which can be sold at Hansons to see Channel 4 News through next week, [less the auctioneers premium].
Great British History Hunters is available currently on the Channel 4 streaming website.
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