Thursday, 8 January 2009

Welsh Treasure System Failure

Another treasure find from the United Kingdom, land of opportunity for artefact hunting metal detector users, is in the news. Early to Middle Bronze Age items found at Rossett in Wrexham county, North Wales in 2004 (the so-called Burton Hoard just off the A483) were declared treasure and the three finders William May, Joseph Perry and Peter Skelly, all from Liverpool, shared the £85,000 reward with farmer Derry Willis.

Farmer Willis likes treasure hunters, one of them thanked him and the other landowners recently “for their hospitality over the years; they’ve looked after us with cups of tea and have even phoned us when the field is being ploughed.”

So after a recent ploughing the three men were back on the treasure field in late August 2007 with a “a hi-tech computerised metal detector”. Just two inches down, and ten metres away from the original find, they found more gold, declared Treasure in an inquest last month. The Wrexham Mail notes dryly “The addition to the Burton Hoard has now prompted the National Museum of Wales to commission a survey of the field which could lead to further discoveries”.

This is ridiculous. Three responsible guys do what the law requires, and report a find which goes – as it should – to a public collection. The findspot will have been recorded in the archaeological record. Now it turns out that although money was raised to buy the objects, not enough fnds were made available to investigate the site to give the recovered objects a proper context (which anybody can see should include making sure that there were no more related finds lying just two inches down ten metres away). The whole point of the Treasure Act and its Code of Practice was not just to get sparkly goodies into museum collections (otherwise they could be bought – and possibly cheaper – on eBay). It was to allow the recovery of archaeological information about their contexts of deposition. The fact that more gold items are coming out of this field shows that in the case of the Burton hoard, we do not have as much information about that as we might have. Also we are now having another Treasure inquest about objects that should have been included in the first one. How many more associated items are there in this part of the field?

We saw the same thing happened in the case of the Newark Torc where the context of deposition remains totally unclear (by the way the PAS never did clarify the position over that airplane wreck search permit). We saw that after the Cold Brayfield hoard was reported just a tiny hole was all the local archaeologists could manage to try and find its context of deposition (failing here too to do so). To my mind, if there was gold left lying in farmer Derry Willis’ fields, there are a number of ways an enterprising “nighthawk” could increase their chances of finding it. This is why the Stixwould hoard was revisited under archaeological control to recover what the nighthawks had not yet had the time to pinch. At Burton, they’ve had three years. It seems to me that some better archaeology-oriented strategy needs adopting here to make sure that the archaeological aspects of the reported discoveries do not lag behind the "glomworthy shiny goodies" ones.

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