Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Cold Brayfield Inquest

A few days ago, as the result of my request for further information, I received from Rodney Corner (HM Coroner for the County and  District of Milton Keynes) a copy of some of the documentation of the inquest 28th October 2008 concerning Treasure 2006/T.631 (Cold Brayfield). I found it disturbing in its implications for the light it sheds on the way “metal detecting” finds which fall into the category of Treasure cases are being handled in England. I am grateful to the Coroner for his helpful approach, rarely met these days in the UK heritage debate where portable antiquities are concerned.

The document reveals that the story presented at the inquest was more or less what the newspaper account of the inquest had reported. The date of the find was accepted (without query it seems) as 1st December – despite the fact that we have seen in the local metal detecting milieu there are accounts which suggest it was earlier. This is significant as by the terms of the Treasure Act, to stay within the law and obtain the reward the finder has 14 days to report the discovery and we find from the inquest documentation that the report was only made “on the 14th December 2006” (why?).

So what evidence was required to confirm this later date of discovery? Well, interestingly enough not confirmatory evidence from the landowner when these people by their own account had been digging three foot deep holes in their land. From the documentation I was given, it appears that the landowner was not represented at the inquest. I was surprised to learn from the Coroner (pers. Comm. 17.11.08) that evidence that the consent of the landowner was obtained “is not strictly necessary […] for a Treasure Inquest”. Now if that is the case that illegal metal detecting can also be rewarded by the state administered Treasure process of which the coroner's inquest is the first major step, it is nothing short of scandalous.

In my naivety I assumed that the function of a coroner’s inquest (like that which attends the discovery of a dead body) was concerned with ascertaining the exact circumstances surrounding the discovery. It seems not. Comparing the document which I received with what is currently being said by local metal detectorists suggests this one was a rather superficial rubber-stamp affair. Three witnesses were called: the finders, Phillips and Plasom and Watters (who was not even there when the Treasure was found) and a letter from the BM was read. I presume that this was accompanied by the BM report by Richard Abdy and Richard Hobbs which has been discussed here and by David Gill.

How strange then to read that the inquest found that the finders had “with the aid of metal detectors found between 1456 and 1471 coins” (the BM report only catalogues 1456), but that they had been “deposited in an ancient rubbish pit or midden”. This is despite the fact that the BM report, presumably submitted as evidence and drawing on documentation sent by the investigating archaeologist (Watters) states clearly that “due to the fact that the find had already been removed prior to investigation a stratigraphical relationship could not be established”. The fact that the finders had removed almost the entire find before reporting it is nowhere mentioned in the Coroner’s report. Neither is there any mention of whether proper procedure had been followed. So in the English Treasure process, whose responsibility is establishing this, if not the Coroner’s?

We have seen that there is doubt in the local metal detecting milieu whether the whole hoard was in the hands of the authorities. This is a claim that should have been made known to the authorities and not just dismissed as "just one of those whispers that accompanies finds of this type" and investigated. This question was apparently not discussed at the inquest. No evidence was sought that the bronze stains in the pot corresponded to the volume of coins presented to the authorities for example. The old Treasure Trove laws of the time of Edward I were far more exacting than the 1996 Treasure Act. In his seu Commentarius juris Anglicani, the anonymous jurist known as ‘Fleta’ writing about 1290 tells us that in his day:
"The coroner and sheriff, gaining knowledge of the finding of treasure, ought diligently to enquire who were the finders and the nature and amount of treasure, whether any had been carried away and all particulars of those in possession and whether there had been any concealment by anyone. The coroner must then attach all those having any knowledge of the treasure and hold anyone carrying it off until the coming of the justices..."
The current procedure seems a step backward with regard to the policies of Edward the First.

Vignette: Edward I who one suspects would have known of an effective means of dealing with non-reporting "metal detectorists".

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