Thursday, 14 May 2009

Iconic equestrian portable antiquity in the news again

A few months ago the much-awaited PAS review was published [the one which will go down in the annals of archaeological infamy as the one that established that British archaeology was in some way "in partnership" with artefact collectors]. I pointed out on this blog the unfortunate choice for the cover of an object which was found by a metal detectorist on some Roman site and recorded in Suffolk by the Scheme under the number of “SF-99E3E4”. It was merely given the provenence “Cambridgeshire” and the information it was found by an anonymous finder “about 10.2006”. It seemed to me that using in the review as a symbol of the Scheme an archaeological object that could have been found anywhere within a general area of 3389 km² really was not giving out the right message on the nature of the record that was being compiled for the expenditure of 9.78 million pounds and which the review was supposed to be assessing.

But the story does not end there. By no means. The item is back in the news. When the PAS record breaks off, we are told it was “returned to finder” (anonymous/access restricted - but in fact a man called Duncan Pangborn). Pangborn is quoted in the newspapers when this item was being feted as a 2006 PAS "success" as saying “It’s about finding something that hasn’t been seen, in this case, for 1,700 or 1,800 years. It’s about being the first person to handle it since the Roman owner, the link with the past” and "" This is part of our history and it was fantastic to find and hold it," he said, adding that it now occupied pride of place on his mantlepiece at home." Not for long though.
Already by May 2008 (as David Gill spotted, thanks to him for the information, see also here), the metal detecting owner of this archaeological find so "passionately interested in the past" had tired of having the object on his mantelpiece. It was sold at an auction at Bonhams in London's New Bond Street (Sale 15940 - Antiquities 1 May 2008 -Lot 278. The online catalogue entry presents information not available in the PAS 'report' (but also spells archaeological "site" as "sight" - duh!). Interestingly from the auction catalogue we learn something that is absent from the PAS 'report'. The object now gets a slightly more precise provenance, the entry says it was "a metal detecting find made in Stow Cum Quy, Cambridgeshire, October 2006".

We are not told who bought this object, but just six months of so after it was dug up in a field it had managed to fetch the 'not-in-it-fer-th'-money' detector user £10,200. I presume he will be splitting it fifty-fifty with the landowner. The object was given added value by being “accompanied by a full report, technical drawings and a British Museum report of '2006 Finds Highlights'” supplied courtesy of the publicly funded PAS. This paperwork could have been treated as a Certificate of Authenticity were it not for the fact that the PAS says the object is 94.12 mm mm long, while Bonhams (and later the DCMS) both say it is 89mm long. The horse figurine on the PAS website photos measures 92mm according to the scale (and is said to be from “Suffolk”). The PAS dates the one they saw to between 43AD and 410 AD while Bonhams dates it to “c. 3rd-4th century AD” (a date accepted by the DCMS who thus ignore the earlier PAS dating). The Bonhams photo shows details not visible in the PAS one. The buyer may well wonder if we are really dealing with the same horse. I think we are, this is just careless description by the PAS. This is no way to do “preservation by record” of such an object - certainly not ten million quids' worth.

By the way, in case anyone wants to use the tired old "plough damage/ agrichemical erosion damage" argument to suggest that hoiking this archaeological evidence out of its context is "preserving" it, one look at the Bonhams photos shows that despite coming from an arable field in one of the most heavily exploited hedge-stripped chemically-doused agrarian regions of the United Kingdom, the object in question (like so many others) has not been suffering any damage of that nature, all the breaks are (explicitly recorded as) old breaks, the corrosion is a stable patina.

The new owner has now applied for an export licence for this "piece of our history". In April this year, the issuing of this licence was deferred (DCMS press release ‘Culture Minister reigns (sic) in export of statuette of horse’) on the grounds that:
It is one of a very small number of such statuettes known, and its elaborate composition and high quality of workmanship make it a key piece for the study of this group of objects. The juxtaposition of stylised horse and classical rider will throw light on the study of art in Roman Britain, and it will also contribute to our understanding of the relationship between native and Roman religion. Dr Catherine Johns, Reviewing Committee member, said: “This statuette is of outstanding significance for study because it expresses the complex fusion of native and classical elements in the art and religion of Roman Britain.
In the DCMS press release about the licence deferral we read yet another piece of information which is lacking from the PAS ‘report’ (and this has not been modified to include this new information, despite it being made public elsewhere). The object was “found by a metal detectorist in Cambridgeshire, and associated with a temple site” (and the DCMS repeats the information from the Bonhams catalogue rather than the PAS 'record': it “was a metal detecting find in Stow Cum Quy, Cambridgeshire, in October 2006”). The deferral of the issue of a licence until June is to allow a British institution to raise the estimated market price (now, mysteriously “£22066.81”). So far it seems that the money has not been found.

So, we may well ask what this case shows the British public - a stakeholder in the portable antiquity heritage is actually getting from the current laissez faire system in England and Wales. This object which is clearly an important part of the archaeological (and I suppose "artistic") heritage was up for grabs at Bonhams. It was not being cherished by the artefact hunter "passionately interested in the past" who took it from an archaeological site (temple?) in Stow cum Quy. Because it was not shiny gold or silver it slipped through England's leaky "Treasure" system. More to the point, if there is a temple site known at Stow cum Quy (a parish by the way noted on the ARCHI database for metal detectorists as containing a "Roman villa") why is it being denuded of who-knows-what artefacts, some of which are turning up at Bonhams, and the rest... well, who knows? What kind of "preservation" of the archaeological record is that?

Thanks to Nigel Swift for reminding me of the finder's name and supplying the quotes supposedly giving the finder's motives.


Paul Barford said...

See now David Gill's further comments on the questions raised about the sale of this object.

Marcus Preen said...

Hmmm, not like I read it in the paper or heard it on Radio 4 then?

I think this case suggests a further term needs adding to the lexicon of artefact collecting:

Mantlepiece Curation -

Easily confused with "Curation" and "History lover" but not necessarily the same thing since it may sometimes be merely a temporary stage, lasting in some cases not much longer than it takes to speak to the media.

Related terms: "verbal provenance" "find spot" "British" and "honest guv".

US Usage: "Fine"

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