The Ethics of Battlefield Archaeology

3 mins read
Photo credit: John Winterburn/GARP
Professor Nick Saunders, a leading modern conflict archeologist at Bristol University, is one of many academics to have condemned Battlefield Recovery. Saunders said: ‘Modern conflict archaeology is a serious field activity with high standards of recovery, recording, and respect for the dead. Its purpose is to increase understanding of war and its many effects and legacies. This programme, in my opinion, is mere looting and sensationalism.’ Photo credit: John Winterburn/GARP

A controversial amateur archaeology programme has aired on Channel 5, despite widespread condemnation from archaeologists, academics, and heritage professionals across the UK and abroad.

Battlefield Recovery, produced by London-based ClearStory Ltd, features four self-styled ‘diggers’: British metal-detectorists Steven Taylor, Kris Rodgers, and Adrian Kostromski, and American dealer in Nazi memorabilia Craig Gottlieb.

The series is a repackaged version of Nazi War Diggers, which the National Geographic Channel planned to show in May 2014, but was forced to cancel after heavy criticism. It follows the group as they roam the battlefields of World War II’s Eastern Front, searching for relics of the conflict, under the pretext of historical investigation.

The show’s sensationalist tone aside, critics have complained of its apparent emphasis on the financial rewards of unearthing historic items from the battlefields.

‘We’re like kids in a candy shop. There are relics everywhere. You don’t even have to dig,’ claims Gottlieb, excitedly, in the fourth and final episode of the series.

When they come across a heap of discarded WWII objects, the group take great pains to define themselves against unlicensed so-called ‘black diggers’. ‘These are people who just go in and are looking for things that are worth something,’ says Rodgers. ‘They’re not really bothered about the historical aspect of things, like we are.’

In the same episode, however, the group visit a storage facility where professional Latvian recovery team Legenda (the team reportedly supervising the diggers) preserve their finds, and memorabilia dealer Gottlieb proceeds to state the market values of some of the many items on display.

Aware that some viewers might disapprove of the show, producers attempted to dispel criticism in advance. Each episode is preceded with an onscreen message that reads: ‘The stories filmed for this series portray elements of excavations undertaken over several weeks.

‘The team was supervised at all times by internationally recognised, licensed organisations working in accordance with local laws, landowner permissions, and government permits.

‘This work is not archaeology. It is battlefield recovery. All finds were documented, preserved, and offered to local museums. Recovered combatants were buried with due honour by war graves commissions.’

But the series continues to show the group apparently endangering themselves on the battlefield. After the diggers are seen crouching over a part-buried, unexploded shell, the episode cuts to Rodgers, who admits, ‘I don’t know anything about bombs, but this thing looks like it could go bang.’

‘This place is dangerous,’ says Taylor, who is inexplicably kitted out in full camouflage. Viewers are informed that Legenda have called in Explosive Ordnance Disposal, who excavate the shell, before the episode cuts to footage of it exploding.

Another scene shows the group as they discover a German stick grenade, and an onscreen message reads, ‘Ordnance was confirmed to be inert before filming continued.’ But the show’s statements do not exempt the show from its apparent disregard for standard archaeological procedure and its careless cutting of scenes, which in the end serves to promote unsafe and unregulated practice.

A letter issued by the Society of Antiquaries of London to Ben Frow, Channel 5’s Director of Programming, stated, ‘Our criticism focuses on the careless, insensitive, and unethical treatment of the human remains, but also the mistreatment of other finds, the inept standards of excavation, and the shocking disregard for safe systems of working.’

Responding on Frow’s behalf, a Viewer Advisor replied, ‘We are satisfied that the programme, a sensitively produced documentary series made with the support of the relevant local authorities and with an ambition to help protect the history of World War II’s Eastern Front, was fully compliant with the Ofcom Broadcasting Code.’

Nevertheless, several viewers have agreed that the show’s cavalier approach amounts to disrespectful treatment of the dead. Informing viewers that the conflict in this area resulted in many deaths during WWII, the team explicitly go searching for bodies.

On finding a deceased German soldier, Gottlieb tips the man’s skull from his helmet, into Taylor’s hands. In this grotesque sequence, no member of Legenda is included in the shot, and the team does not appear to record any information relating to the find (although yet another onscreen message reads: ‘These sequences reflect longer excavations within the permit boundaries. Data on finds and position have been recorded and protected.’).

As the soldier’s skull is held up to the camera, Rodgers is heard reflecting on the emotional significance of digging up a deceased human being. But several critics have noted the show’s hypocritical broadcasting of footage of foreign soldiers’ remains.

Under Ministry of Defence and Commonwealth War Graves Commission rules for showing images of injured and deceased personnel, Channel 5 could not have broadcast these images if the remains found were those of a British soldier, lest this should offend any of his living relatives.

Battlefield Recovery thus shows little respect for the families of those German and Russian soldiers who died fighting along the Eastern Front.

The series has been cancelled by broadcasters in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.

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