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Britain's Secret Treasures
Together with the British Museum’s Portable Antiquities Scheme, Michael Buerk and historian Bettany Hughes team up to present Britain’s Secret Treasures, in which celebrities also help to reveal the stories behind some of the country’s most important historical finds. Michael Buerk tells TV Choice more…
This sounds like an incredible project to be involved in.
It is. People have found something like one million objects over the course of around 15 years, and we look at 50 of these incredible treasures. For example, one of the things found was a slave’s shackle, dating back to Roman times. It’s rather topical at this time of year with the Last Night Of The Proms approaching, and the lyrics to Rule Britannia, ‘Britain never ever ever shall be slaves’. Well some clearly were. The speculation about this is that it might have been a shackle on one of the slaves being driven up the road from Winchester to Silchester for the games. And what happens to them in the games? The slaves get killed and eaten by wild animals. Also, there are stories about the people who found them. I think people like these little leaps of imagination. With a bit of luck, the series will work on all sorts of levels and viewers can get loads of different things out of it.
The story of the shackle is actually brought to the screen by John McCarthy, isn’t it?
Yes. The producers have picked some interesting people to do the individual reports, and some of the reasons have been inspired. It’s obvious when you look at it, but I wouldn’t have thought of it. I know John McCarthy a little because I did the big BBC interviews with all of the Beirut hostages when they were released. The BBC decided that these poor people shouldn’t have 100 different BBC reporters interviewing them, so there was one set piece done with Terry Waite, Brian Keenan and John McCarthy and his then girlfriend, Jill Morrell. So I met him when he was released and he’s a really, really nice bloke. And hearing his story helps you get in touch with this shackle.
Your favourite find was what’s thought to be a brothel token wasn't it?
Yes, it had XIIII on one side and a particularly explicit picture of two people having sex on the other side. There are competing theories about it, because some people suggested it could be a gaming piece from the Roman period. But there’s a much more sexually explicit and less prudish society from that time and you could buy tokens for the brothels. So it could imply that whoever had paid 14 sestertius, or whatever currency it was, could expect to receive whatever service was depicted on the other side of the coin.
You’re very enthusiastic about these finds. Was archaeology an area you’d ever given much thought to before you became involved in Britain’s Lost Treasures?
No, but I’m very keen on history. I suppose all reporters are to a degree, and particularly with the kind of journalism I’ve done. Having been an international reporter, it was almost like having a seat in the front row of history. I’ve always had quite a fascination with certain periods in history, but I’ve never been a treasure hunter, mainly because I’ve never been lucky if I’ve tried looking for anything.
So you weren’t the kid going out with his metal detector?
No, well I’m so old I don’t think there were such things as metal detectors when I was younger (laughs). Well, metal had been invented, but perhaps not metal detectors yet.
Is it true that every find has to be reported to the British Museum?
In order to be defined as treasure, it has to be gold or silver objects, groups of coins from the same find and over 300 years old. There are other rules as well, but these have to be reported by law to the local coroner. The museums have an opportunity to buy them, and the discoverer gets a price for it, which I believe is split between them and the landowner.
Which stories really interested you?
One of the most fascinating stories is about an object that we can’t film. It’s called the Crosby Garrett Helmet, which was found in Cumbria. It’s not just a helmet, it’s got an unbelievably striking facemask that goes with it. It’s one of the most extraordinary pieces from the Roman period ever found in Britain. And it’s actually made of brass, so it didn’t have to go through the usual process. The Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery raised the most incredible amount of money for it, as it was being sold at auction. Kids were putting in their pocket money, but it ended up being sold to a private bidder, and we couldn’t film it because we don’t know where it is. So this fascinating story, rather than it being about lost and found, it’s found and then lost again.
Do you think Britain's Secret Treasures will encourage people to go out with their metal detectors?
There’s a big issue about whether the use of metal detectors should be encouraged. From my own personal point of view, I think it’s an interesting issue. A lot of the historical value of some of these finds is not just in the object itself, but in the context from which it was discovered. And if these things are just treated like people winning the lottery, and wondering if they can flog things in the local auction house, an awful lot of potential historical information is lost. Personally, the more we encourage people to look for, appreciate and value these found objects from the past, the better. It’s clearly important that people do go about it with the assistance and supervision and the right kind of experts who can extract the most value in terms of the historical information these things bring with them.
Isn’t there a way that viewers can get in touch with the programme, during the course of the series, if they think they’ve found something of value?
Yes, one of the exciting things is that during the programme, if you’ve got something that you’ve found and are wondering what it might be, you can get in touch with the programme so that we can see it. There’s always the excitement of things like that. We may find that during the week of programmes, somebody comes forward with something that’s absolutely dazzling. So the final programme will be filmed right up to the last minute to take account of how people have responded to the show.
Aside from Britain’s Secret Treasures, you were recently noted for narrating Sky 1’s Pineapple Dance Studios and Louie Spence’s Showbusiness. Did that give you a new fan base?
Oh well no, I don’t know? (laughs). I don’t think I’ve got much of a fan base as it stands to be perfectly honest. But one does get the strangest letters.
Oh well, you know. All the usual stuff. A lot things I do these days is for Radio 4. So the letters come in a very nice script, written in a fountain pen. They're mainly from vicars in Hampshire!
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