Thursday, 30 October 2008

The Washington Lawyer and the Metal Detectorists

Peter Tompa seems to want us to think he understands all about metal detecting. He is one of a number of US coin collectors who therefore presume to lecture the British archaeologists and others on where their coins "come from". Perhaps he’s out there most weekends in the fields around Washington DC with his Minelab Explorer legally digging up and reporting loads of ancient coins and metallic bits of the ancient past to stick in his display cabinet or sell on eBay, who knows? Anyway, he says

I have spoken to several classical archaeologists (with no axe to grind against collectors) that have told me that large hoards like that found here are not typically found at archaeological sites (in contrast to much smaller purse hoards). As there appears to be a difference of opinion on this point, I think it is best to focus on the fact that most hoards found by detectorists are found on ploughed land where context has already been disturbed
Hmm. I do not know how it is on the metal detecting scene in Washington, but in England most metal detect users try hard by various forms of “research” to locate a “productive” site to search. The British weather is pretty miserable most of the time (most of the detecting season in particular) and spending hours on end in the drizzle sweeping an area which produces nothing and is never likely to produce anything really is not exactly going to be regarded by anyone with a modicum of intelligence as a very fruitful pastime. For this reason, many metal detected finds do not come from fields which contain no other evidence of human activity. Maybe Washington DC detector users might like to learn for example a few tips from English metal detector users where to find Roman finds... (Finding Roman Sites - Help for Newbies, by "Bathdigger").

Some magical significance seems to be associated by US coin collectors to the words "found in ploughed fields". They seem to have in their heads the idea that anything that is in a ploughed field is not from an archaeological site. Perhaps they think it just fell there out of the sky? Or was "dropped on the way to a battle". I think they must imagine that all ancient sites in the UK apart from Stonehenge must be concreted over by now. I don't know what they'd think of major Roman sites like Durobrivae, Wroxeter, St Albans, Shore Forts such as Othona and so on... all lying in and under ploughed fields.

I have less experience than Mr Tompa of US farming practices, but in England, in the absence of massive soil movement (dumping, landslide) something reported as coming from a metre down is highly unlikely to be from recent ploughsoil. Tompa reckons however that at Cold Brayfield near Newport Pagnell:
the fact that the coins were found with broken pottery (presumably the remains of the container that initially protected the coins) still argues that earlier ploughing operations already damaged the context of the find.
This of course, as well as the date when it happened was one of the things that a proper investigation of the findspot instead of the nocturnal fossicking that took place could have revealed. An episode of (for example) Dark Age ploughing would be just as much part of the context (story of the findspot) as the deposition of the hoard. Or maybe the jar was broken to get part of the hoard out a few years after it was hidden? Or to add a second batch of coins? We will never know because the nocturnal coin grabbing probably simply mixed the whole lot up. This find was not from ploughsoil, it was most likely removed from (comprised in fact part of) undisturbed - and most likely largely unthreatened - archaeological deposits lying below it. That is the archaeological reality behind a few thousand more Late Roman bronzes entering the "numismatic" market which is already saturated with them.

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