Battlefield Recovery

Members of the Society's Council have received representations from the Fellowship about the appalling practices demonstrated in Channel 5's broadcast of Battlefield Recovery. As a result, we have braced ourselves and watched the programmes, and have taken the view that a response from the Society to Channel 5 and to its regulators is indeed warranted.

As reported in our e-newsletter, Salon, we have written to express our great concern and dismay. 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. Important opportunities were lost to learn about the battlefields and the identities of the people recovered – whether they have living relatives and how they spent the ends of their lives. Battlefield archaeology is a well-developed field with respected specialists, codes of conduct and some exemplary practice, and there is no excuse for work of this standard, nor its positive publicity in the media. The broadcast of these programmes in a congratulatory fashion on prime-time television is at best in very poor taste, creating an extremely misleading impression of battlefield archaeology, and at worst encourages others to operate in a similar, cavalier fashion. We hope that they will cease to show further episodes of this programme.

A copy of the Society's letter, signed by the General Secretary, is below. Click here to download a PDF.

Update (10 February 2016):

We have received a response from Channel 5, and have published their response below, in it's entirety.

Letter from the Society to Channel 5

2 February 2016

Dear Mr. Frow

RE: “Battlefield Recovery”

The Society of Antiquaries of London is the senior national Learned Society in Britain concerned with the study and understanding of the past and is a registered charity. Founded in 1707, the Society is charged by its Royal Charter of 1751 with ‘the encouragement, advancement and furtherance of the study and knowledge of the antiquities and history of this and other countries’. Our Statement of Values today ( recognizes that understanding the past is relevant to present and future generations and that research and debate about, and respect and appreciation for, the material remains of the past are fundamental to our understanding of ourselves. Safeguarding, protecting and disseminating knowledge about heritage are thus important for the world today.

We are writing to you to express our great concern and dismay about the Channel 5 series Battlefield Recovery. This programme was brought to our attention by a number of our Fellows and, having seen the three episodes screened so far, we are writing to you to object to the appalling standards of work and insensitive treatment of remains that are portrayed in the films. They bring the excavation of battlefields (whether described as archaeology or recovery) into disrepute. These poor practices, some of which would be deemed illegal in the UK, are being shown in the most congratulatory manner on prime time television.  As battlefield archaeology is a well-developed discipline with respected specialists and some exemplary practice, there is no excuse for work of this standard, nor its positive publicity in the media.

Our main criticism centres on the treatment of the human remains discovered. These were recovered with little or no care, certainly destroying important evidence about the human beings buried and how they died (for example, some of the bones were pulled individually out of the ground as though they were potatoes, and little or no attention seems to have given to recovering all the skeletal remains, particularly in Episode 2). The bodies were excavated in front of the camera in a most undignified and disrespectful manner, and there was no effort to collect evidence, such as DNA, in order to attempt to trace living relatives (as has proved possible on a number of recent excavations).

Other finds recovered were also treated in a cavalier fashion, being brushed and washed on site, for example, with total disregard for the impact on their future survival; sacrificial victims for the camera. The wallet containing coins and other fragments that were tipped out onto a nearby table in Episode 3 is another good example. Although there were caveats shown on screen stating that finds were being recorded, there was no evidence of plotting and planning and no apparent attempt to sieve the soil to find smaller, non-metallic items. The way that ordnance was treated exemplified the naive and gung-ho attitudes of the protagonists; it was also very dangerous and would be illegal in the UK. It is so disappointing that opportunities have been lost to learn so much more about battlefield conditions and how the individuals who died spent the ends of their lives.

Additional concerns relate to the inability of the main characters to recognise features such as grave edges, and the sides and bottoms of trenches: basic archaeological technique. As a result they made their jobs much harder and the chances of understanding the sites and the circumstances of finds deposition almost impossible. The work was also extremely dangerous at times. This was apparent particularly in the excavations in Latvia in Episode 1, where a mechanical excavator was sitting on the top edge of a deep trench, in and around which people were working without any safety clothing/equipment even when they were standing next to the machine bucket. This contravenes not just British Health and Safety legislation but also European Union directives. A serious accident could easily have ensued.

The broadcast of these programmes, which condone unacceptable standards and a gung-ho approach to battlefield recovery, is at best misleading and in extremely bad taste, creating a poor impression of battlefield archaeology. At worst, it has not only precluded a proper investigation of these sites, but encourages others to operate in a similar, cavalier fashion. We hope that you will cease to show further episodes of this programme.

Yours sincerely,

John S.C. Lewis FSA
General Secretary
On behalf of the Society of Antiquaries of London.

Response from Channel 5

Date: 8 February 2016
Dear Mr Lewis     
Thank you for your recent e-mail and letter addressed to Ben Frow, who has requested that we respond on his behalf.
We have noted your objections to World War II Battlefield Recovery which began transmission on Saturday 9th January and was in four parts. 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, we are grateful to you for raising your concerns and have logged your comments in the Viewer Enquiries Report which is circulated throughout the company.
Yours sincerely,