Much to my surprise, in August 2022, coinciding with the launch of the brand-new edited book The Public Archaeology of Treasure, a brand-new mini-series was aired on Channel 5. Co-presented by Raksha Dave, Michaela Strachan and Dan Walker Dig for Treasure: Tonight is the four-part series show-casing the work of amateur metal-detectorists in uncovering metal finds from across the UK.
The title of the programme – using the controversial and potentially harmful word ‘treasure’ – and its sensationalist almost-live dynamic immediately made me despair (for a far-from-positive review of episode 1, see thePipline). I feared the programme might promote illicit and irresponsible treasure-hunting. Quickly, however, I realised this show was worthy of more in-depth critical attention.
Newcastle University archaeology student Bethany Milburn had already expressed her surprise at the show via social media and together we recorded an Archaeodeath YouTube video reflecting on the episodes 1-3. Check out the video here:
Complementing and extending this discussion, I went live on TikTok to discuss Digging for Treasure: Tonight (the original plan had been for Bethany and I to discuss on TikTok but she has under 1,000 followers and so cannot go ‘live’ on that app). Here’s my video when uploaded to YouTube:
As you will see, Bethany and I are rather critical of the frenetic style, the sensationalist language used, the cringe nature of the tent audience clapping, the restrictions on understanding the process of reporting and the curation and dissemination of knowledge by the Portable Antiquities Scheme, museums and other heritage contexts, and the lack of distinction between the treasure laws for Scotland as opposed to England and Wales. The lack of clarity regarding the aims and scope, what they were doing and why at that particular location, and (crucially) what were the stories being investigated and told about past people, all required further attention.
Yet there were many positive elements deserving of praise for this fresh and distinctive set of four programmes. These include the healthy dynamic created by multiple presenters, the choice of a key site and liaison with amateur groups, the featuring of many of these amateur voices throughout, the theatre of the large tent and the visual power of the created ‘table of chronology, the expert identifications provided by a PAS or museum expert in each episode, including Andy Agate, Ian Richardson, Helen Geake, Kevin Leahy, Michael Lewis and Alison Sheridan, the mixture of other projects and new discoveries included in the magazine-style programme, the balance of underwater, foreshore and land-based investigations and even the inclusion of community archaeology project in one segment. The legal aspects and the need for responsible reporting were emphasised and the show explicitly allowed multiple articulations of the key point that ‘value’ was in ‘information and imagination’, not in financial rewards.
Subsequent to these videos, the fourth and final episode was by far the best and an excellent self-contained show-case of the work of the amateur Thames Mudlarks. Given the short turnaround between recording and airing, it is clear that the lessons were learned between the first and fourth episodes.
Most recently, Andy Agate who appeared on episode 1 shared his reflections on the programme and his contribution as part of the Public Archaeology of Treasure book launch event: Check it out here:
I wish to finish with a further point: the Archaeodeath dimension. For while the programmes featured mainly stray finds found in the plough soil, some of the sites featured had mortuary and memorial dimensions.
First, there were shipwrecks featured in episodes 1 and 3 which are, by definition, sites of death even if not classified as ‘graves’ per se. Shipwrecks are described as ‘like Stonehenge – a monument and a memorial too’. The ‘sacred’ space of death and the dead constituted by wrecks is thus recognised if not fully considered.
Second was the crash-site of the Second World War Lancaster bomber subject to investigation in a Norfolk field in which at least one crew member had died (Sergeant John ‘Jack’ Kraemer of the Royal Australian Air Force): certainly a site of memory (specifically, see this discussion on thePipline regarding the MoD license issues with this investigation).
Third, the beach comber who recovered a ring lost by a son containing his father’s ashes: metal-detecting not only can retrieve ancient artefacts but personal ‘treasures’ of sentimental value which tie the living and the dead together.
Fourth, Dr Helen Geake eloquently reflected on the fact that an early Anglo-Saxon wrist-clasp might be from a grave disturbed by farming activity. She emphasised – even if she as not fully able to evaluate – the challenge of metal-detecting in disturbing graves, but also in revealing artefacts from disturbied funerary contexts. This emphasised to viewers that artefacts are only fully comprehensible if their funerary context is appreciated, investigated and evaluated.
Fifth and finally, the programme showcases Ken Small’s beach combing on Slapton Sands and the hunt for the traces of Exercise Tiger, while not engaging with the historical and archaeological context of his work as evaluated by Dr Samuel Walls and myself in our 2010 publication in the Cambridge Archaeological Journal. Read it here.
These five ‘Archaeodeath’ segments reveal that, whether under the sea, on the shore and on land, ‘digging for treasure’ should not be framed as the hunt for loot or indeed valorise feverish amateur investigations without giving critical attention to the legal, ethical and socio-political contexts in which they work. Such Archaeodeath dimensions not only emphasise the many responsibilities of such amateur activities and the risks of programmes representing them in potentially promoting them without caution and care. Equally, the programmes hint at how, with clear legal frameworks, well-funded guidelines and support, and especially through careful liaison between amateur enthusiasts with professionals and academics, metal-detecting can be a deeply ethical practice that not only reveals traces of the human past, but can profitably facilitate the investigation of sites, practices and material cultures relating to death, burial and commemoration. For me, it is the Archaeodeath dimensions more than any other that demand careful attention for any season 2 of the programme. For there is considerable potential as well as pitfalls in depicting how metal-detecting can be activity and research that conjures a dialogue between the living and the dead, and explores in this way the nature of human mortality as well as the human journey.