Britain’s Secret Treasures…


…Or ITV’s public shame?

There we were, curled up on the couch with the dog and a glass of red, eagerly waiting to watch ITV’s ‘Britain’s Secret Treasures’, ostensibly meant to be a programme profiling the amazing work of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. 

We couldn’t wait to see the vital work done by many friends and colleagues getting the glam prime-time slot it deserves. After all, if it wasn’t for the PAS, the Staffordshire Hoard would be sitting on a mantelpiece in Beijing.

The programme’s advance publicity wasn’t alarming. Clearly the ‘History of the World’ format was being recycled, but people like lists – it helps them remember things. And Bettany Hughes was presenting, which was promising, because above all she is entertaining, scholarly, and wouldn’t attract any of those distracting Mary Beard-esque kerfluffles in the press tomorrow.

The first couple of minutes were a bit wobbly, but we were prepared to be patient and let the programme find its feet. Above all, we were waiting and wanting to be impressed and happy about this programme. Archaeology has plenty of party-poopers (enough to make Cromwell look like a frat boy at Homecoming) that can’t enjoy anything archaeological presented as entertainment. We should know!

We wanted to see something brilliant and witty and conscientious and watchable; something that would make us want to tune in next week, and maybe go just a little bit farther in spreading the word to the general public about why archaeology is cool. Something that might make the daily fight just a little bit easier. Something that – in the absence of a certain stripy jumper – would help us put the sexy back into what we all do for a living.

And what did we get? Did we get sexy? Did we heck. We got Newquay on a stag night.

Granted, the objects were the stars, and that is absolutely as it should be. But do we really need to highlight how many thousands of pounds the end of the Sedgeford torc is worth, as the camera pans lasciviously along the rest of the gold, glistening like a bronzed buttock in Ibiza? How utterly scrumptious and tempting. What’s the message there, ITV? You do the math.

This portrayal of what archaeology is about is incredibly outdated; it’s naff orange-shag-rug retro, not finding-a-Halston-original-in-Mum’s-closet retro. Now that’s a treasure!

This programme was possibly the greatest single recruitment drive in the history of metal detecting. Perhaps future episodes will widen the story and talk about how the PAS was started to stem the flow of Britain’s treasure on the illicit antiquities market.  Or perhaps even tickle on the subject of how important it is to let the archaeologists dig these found objects up, rather than ripping them untimely from their graves and running straight to Westfield with them in your grubby hands.

But I suspect that’s exactly the message ITV wanted to promote. Straightened times? Economic slowdown? Out of work? Ne bother! The very ground here is chock full of gold. Even the show’s opening credits were blatantly blingy. Egads.

We seriously hope the Frome Hoard has made the cut, and that a future episode will profile the modern-day heritage hero Dave Crisp. A man who gets it so completely that he camped overnight next to his find so that nighthawkers couldn’t steal it. That’s the only ‘secret treasures’ this shameful programme should have been talking about – the metal detectorists who do it right, and care as much as archaeologists do about the things they find.

To be fair, Mike Heyworth is profiled on the programme website talking about ‘best practices when finding treasure,’ but that’s the message that should have underpinned the entire episode. It will be interesting to see how the story  featuring the Crosby Garrett helmet plays out; will it be about the fight to keep it here in the UK, on public display, or will the mouth-watering sum it was sold for by the metal detectorist who found it (£2.3million) take centre stage?

And let’s face it, Dave Crisp will be paid the market value of his find, just like anyone else who finds treasure. But that’s a small price to pay if it means that these priceless, peerless objects can be examined in their proper context, and don’t ultimately find their way to Ebay.

We are not entertained.

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Lisa Westcott Wilkins

Written by Lisa Westcott Wilkins

Co-founder and Managing Director of DigVentures, Lisa makes sure the boxes are ticked, the diggers run on time, and that everyone has a *really* good time along the way. She is responsible for the Americanisms, ridiculously strong site coffee and early morning DV dance parties.

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