Fury at TV focus on riches of heritage

March 12, 2004

The BBC has been accused of dumbing down and misleading academics in the making of a series about British metal detectorists' discoveries.

Hidden Treasure , broadcast on BBC 2 last autumn, looked at the historical significance of finds but also highlighted their financial value, beginning each programme with the declaration that there was "serious money" to be made.

Academics are outraged by this emphasis. They fear it might encourage some to dig up archaeological sites in the hope of making a fortune.

Although the BBC has put plans for a second series on ice, the issue will be raised at the Institute of Field Archaeologists annual conference in April, when people involved with Hidden Treasure will debate with critics.

Peter Hinton, director of the IFA, complained about the series to the director-general of the BBC on behalf of the Historic Environment Forum, an informal grouping of independent bodies concerned with archaeology.

He wrote in November: "In adopting a strong bias towards the issue of financial reward, the programme undermined the concept that our past is a common inheritance that should benefit us all."

Ian Potts, series producer of Hidden Treasure , replied that he took pride in the series' recognition of the efforts of metal detectorists and denied there had been any financial bias.

"This series set out to show just how the responsibility for unearthing and preserving (our common) inheritance lies not merely with professional archaeologists but with us all," he said.

But Roger Bland, head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme that gives archaeologists access to the finds made by metal detectorists and that helped the BBC put Hidden Treasure together, said he was misled by the corporation.

"I feel very sore about the whole process, about the way the BBC twisted it so comprehensively and I am quite relieved that there will not be a second series," he said.

Dr Bland said assurances that he would have an input into the way the subject was treated did not prevent senior BBC staff changing the tone of the series despite his protests.

Nevertheless, he said the reaction of many archaeologists had been over the top, fuelled by ingrained prejudice against metal detectorists.

Lord Renfrew, professor of archaeology at Cambridge University, said he was concerned that such programmes could tempt a minority to illicitly dig up heritage sites in search of treasure.

"It is unfortunate that the BBC should be promoting the commercialisation of archaeology," he said. "There is a degree of dumbing down here - it is Antiques Roadshow without the charm."

Trevor Austin, general secretary of the National Council for Metal Detecting and a consultant on the series, was disappointed with the response.

"The programme was not made for archaeologists or metal detector users but as entertainment for the general public," he said.

Mr Austin added that most metal detectorists were inspired by a love of history and very few made money from what they found.

A BBC spokeswoman said the series stressed good practice and had brought a new audience to archaeology.


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