The television programme ‘Battlefield Recovery’ – which charts the efforts of a team of historians, and metal-detectorists working to excavate archaeological remains along the WWII Eastern Front – aired on Saturday for the first time in the UK on Channel 5. The show, originally titled ‘Nazi War Diggers’ sparked controversy in 2014 for the way in which the programme appeared to show poor archaeological practice in the excavation of sites, including the exhumation of human remains. At this time, the original broadcasters – National Geographic - responded to criticism from the archaeological community and wider media by dropping the show. A number of other international networks have followed suit. However, Channel5 bought a re-branded version of the show and have not acknowledged the archaeological concerns about its content.
The first episode of the show contained a number of disclaimers, appearing on the screen at various points during the programme. These disclaimers noted that the team were not performing ‘archaeology’ and that the team had obtained permissions from relevant authorities to detect at the sites in question. While this episode contained no discovery of human remains, it is expected that these scenes will be aired in future episodes.
CIfA is concerned that the show did depict a style of ‘excavation’ that must have destroyed a great deal of potentially important archaeological information – techniques were horrifying and the apparent focus was on artefact recovery only. Equally worryingly, despite statements by the producers of the show that all permissions were obtained and that the objects were not being sold onto the antiquities market, the show did not do an adequate job in highlighting the legal and ethical sensitivities, as well as the dangers, of searching or excavating in such an environment.
CIfA’s Chief Executive contacted Channel 5 before transmission with the following message
CIfA is the leading professional body representing archaeologist working in the UK and overseas. We promote high professional standards and strong ethics in archaeological practice, to maximise the benefits that archaeologists bring to society.
We have been alerted to the fact that your programme Battlefield Recovery may be a revised or unrevised version of Nazi War Diggers, which was widely condemned for portraying unethical and disrespectful treatment of human remains from the Second World War, for showing ‘excavation’ practices that destroyed important evidence of the past, and for filming extremely dangerous approaches to excavation and potential unexploded ordnance without any health warning to viewers. We know that other broadcasters wisely took the decision not to air the programme.
We assume that Channel 5 is aware of the backlash that would be caused by airing this programme without including any commentary on the disturbing behaviours shown. Please could you tell us what changes have been made to the programmes to ensure that there is editorial comment on the abuse of human remains and on the unsafe practices (and indeed on the issues concerning trading in Nazi objects), and what warnings you propose to give to viewers about the offensive and upsetting nature of material they may see?
If you have not taken all appropriate steps and advice may I suggest that you pull this programme from the schedule pending informed consideration of the consequences?
We are disappointed that Channel 5 has decided to continue to show the programme, and are concerned that future episodes may show more egregious breaches of ethics. The fact that this show is being shown on British television and may influence people to go ‘treasure hunting’ themselves undermines the efforts of CIfA and other organisations around the world to create a safe, legal, respectful, and professional approach to archaeology and metal-detecting.