The are so many movies and TV shows that use archaeology as their main premise, and much of the time they fail to capture its pure essence, instead focusing on the mythical, the adventure, the extraordinary. But a lot of the time archaeology can be really mundane. The excitement an archaeologist can experience finding a coin is rarely portrayed in film and I understand why: why would an audience want to watch the mundanity of anything, but that’s exactly what makes BBC’s Detectorists so inspiring. It is about the ordinary, the unexceptional and the insignificance of every day life.
Middle-aged detectorist friends Andy (Mackenzie Crook) and Lance (Toby Jones) blissfully while away their afternoons sweeping electronic wands across the local fields in an perpetual search for ancient treasures. Their time in the field offers them a brief reprise from the humdrum of everyday life. Written and directed by Crook, the BAFTA winning show starts with the two leading characters in not such a good place. Andy is unemployed and Lance is bullied by his ex-wife who left him for another man.
The concept for the Detectorists is novel, character driven focusing on the emotional truths of being misfits. Throughout their time as members of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club, they’re transformed into time travelers and explorers, experts in their specialized field. In the first season, Andy and Lance are convinced that their favourite territory contains a Saxon treasure trove, but they usually go home empty-handed, probably to the joy of many archaeologists watching.
In reality, many archaeologists dismiss detectorists as mere treasure hunters. There’s truth in this, in the last decade metal detectorists increasingly impinge on archaeological sites, leaving damage and removing artefacts, many of which are finding their way to antiquities dealers or even leaving the country. But Crook wants the audience to know his characters aren’t like this, deliberately adding a line where Andy says “I don’t sell my finds, I don’t agree with it. When I am a qualified archaeologist that’s when I get to see the good stuff.”
And it’s true detectorists spend their weekends braving driving wind and rain, and have been responsible for a series of spectacular finds in recent years. Not all are criminal detectorists stealing artefacts in the dead of the night. Anyone who’s encountered one in the field knows that those strange whistles and beeps of a metal detector can conjure up a special kind of magic. An excitement even in the most seasoned archaeologist can’t resist.
And the flip-side of the treasure-stealing detectorist is the dismissive commercial archaeologist. Andy, who qualified as an archaeologist in a the second series, finds himself working on a commercial dig. The site manager suggests getting rid of the Roman mosaic floor, which Andy has recently discovered. The underlying message is that commercial archaeology sometimes fails to identify and protect archaeology that may get in the way of their client’s development. Crook seems to be suggesting that by becoming so close to developers archaeology has lost its innocence, it’s true meaning.
The Detectorists explores the state of our archaeology and our attitudes to the past from the keen hobbyist to the overworked professional. Sir Mortimer Wheeler famously said “In a simple direct sense, archaeology is a science that must be lived, must be “seasoned with humanity.” Dead archaeology is the driest dust that blows.” And that’s what this BBC shows does, it tells the story of a bunch of enthusiastic hobbyists quietly living for the next time they unearth more of our history.