A new television series describing the exploits of metal-detecting Britons has come under fire from archaeologists fearful that it will encourage treasure hunters who can damage ancient sites.
The British Museum has become embroiled in the controversy after opening its archives to the programme-makers and providing expert help.
Diana Friendship-Taylor, the chair of Rescue, otherwise known as the British Archaeological Trust, said: "We are, frankly, astonished, that the British Museum is prepared to lend its considerable weight to the furtherance of a method of historical inquiry which belongs in the distant past, and which has as much relevance to the practice of modern archaeology as the use of the cranial trepanation has to modern medicine.
"The apparent endorsement of this destructive activity by a body such as the British Museum will do nothing to lessen its impact on our buried archaeological heritage."
She warned that the series would encourage more people to buy the equipment and go out in search of "buried treasure".
While metal-detector enthusiasts have unearthed some of Britain's most valuable historical discoveries, their actions can create "collateral damage" to the sites they plunder, preventing serious archaeologists from studying artefacts in situ, according to Rescue. Much can be learnt from the context in which an artefact is found.
Britain's Secret Treasures, a series being developed by ITV 1, sets out to tell the stories of people who have struck gold, such as Terry Herbert. He stumbled upon the Staffordshire hoard – the largest and most valuable collection of Saxon gold ever found.
More than 1,500 items of treasure dating from the 7th or 8th century were found buried in a Staffordshire field. Jobless Mr Herbert ended up sharing £3m with the landowner when the hoard was bought by two West Midlands museums.
The British Museum last night dismissed concerns about the TV series. "The museum has made it clear that its co-operation is dependent on the issues involved in the discovery of objects by the public – especially metal detectorists – being dealt with in a responsible way," it said.
Rescue also questioned the effectiveness of the British Museum's Portable Antiquities Scheme, which relies upon people reporting what they find. Rescue claims it does little to stop artefacts vanishing into private collections or being sold on the internet.
The controversy comes just weeks after heritage chiefs launched a national crackdown on heritage thieves. Illegal metal detecting, known as "night hawking", is a growing problem. A 2009 survey found that more than a third of sites attacked by night hawkers between 1995 and 2008 were categorised as "nationally important". These are, in theory, legally protected.
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