I owe one of my readers a sincere apology. This morning when, bleary-eyed, I turned on my computer I found a rather nasty comment had been sent by somebody appearing to be a metal detectorist (?) from Hungary referring to a video posted on the Internet about the excavation of the "Staffordshire Hoard". The comment looked like the typical anti-archaeologist stuff certain artefact collecting forums are full of at the moment. Opening the link revealed the offending film had been posted by IT guru and generally decent bloke Dan Pett, of the BM. It was a dreadful video. After watching it, the only explanation that came to mind was that Dan had been offered a day trip out of London to see the site, had taken his cell phone and captured a few candid shots. Even on the best run sites there are days when one would prefer there not to be cameras around. I assumed this was an unauthorised video a visitor (Dan) to the site had made and posted. In which case the Hungarian reader's comments were a little unfair and biased - though the video did seem to show some strange things happening, at 13 seconds the girl clunks a piece of garnet inlaid gold with her trowel, objects being yanked out of what is clearly very stiff clay for example.
Then later on after the coffee kicked in, I found fragments of this video were part of the online coverage given by the Telegraph and the BBC, which would be odd if they were Dan Pett's home movies. Then I realised that these scenes were actually credited to Birmingham Archaeology, Birmingham University's Archaeology Unit which apparently received part (?) of 25000 pounds from English Heritage to conduct this excavation. This is an official film of the investigations (which Dan confirmed when he replied to my early morning mail - he has not been to the site). This I find astounding. Apart from anything else, it shows an extraordinary lack of professionalism to release such a film to the national media.
So, here belatedly is the original comment I too hastily rejected this morning:
Karikásostor has left a new comment on your post "Huge Anglo-Saxon Gold Hoard Dug up by Finder":
Dear Paul,Theoretically I'm 100% agree with your post, however in the practice I was rather shocked after watching this video: http://vimeo.com/6737518 It's the so called professional fieldwork of the Birmingham archaeology team. I can't see too much difference between this and digging of some benevolent amateur detectorists. What can we see in this video?- People walking to the field with some larger GPS and possibly geophysical instruments.- We can see some wooden sticks, most likely grid points and some people digging in the most likely disturbed topsoil, with IRON trowels.- When they are finding some interesting find they are instantly removing each pieces and proudly showing to the camera. Frankly speaking, I had the chance to take part at several scientific archaeological field walking in my country (Hungary), when we discovered hoards, but this is not way shown in this video how some can gain valuable ARCHAEOLOGICAL information about such a spectacular find. I'm still hoping that I just misunderstood something about this film.
Well, so am I but I have a sneaking suspicion that your comments might not have been so far off the mark after all, sorry for rejecting it out of hand. Now, I suspect what we are not seeing is that before the filming each of those metal objects may have been pinpointed by metal detector (and or magnetometer) beforehand. So the slightly cavalier style of digging almost certainly is guided by the thought that they know pretty exactly where all the metal objects are. The video clearly shows that all these objects at this stage of the excavation are coming from the ploughsoil. While I would not see in such circumstances the use of trowels so much of a problem myself (you can see this is really awful stuff to dig), there certainly seems to be no record being made of the objects in the soil, we see objects exposed and immediately yanked out, and the cleaned off (the earth in the bent strip at 50 seconds could have contained organic material from the original burial environment). The site is a mess, the diggers are trampling over the spoil lying in the bottom of the trenches, the excavation units are highly irregular in shape. None of this produces the impression of a disciplined investigation. Two scenes show that one face of the artefact-bearing layer has been shaved off with a spade which in one case has passed extremely close to an object lying in situ. The objects are being yanked or levered out of the soil. What's going on? What happened to those lumps of clay - wet sieving? What kind of records were kept? This is Birmingham by the way where master excavator Phil Barker taught. Was there any kind of EH inspection to see how their 25k was being spent here?
Then I found a webpage with photos of the dig - really quite a small hole for 25000 quid - more to the point, unfenced. So what, a five by five metre trench? A thousand quid per square metre of topsoil sieving? But at least we see some wet-something (sieving? Where are the screens?) was going on of something. There is a petrie dish of three pieces of gold obviously recovered from this washing, one quite big.
Literally just as I was in the middle of drafting this post, I had an email from the French heritage group HAPPAH with a link to their newsletter. There we read some none-too-complimentary comments on British archaeology and the PAS (the latter I'll leave aside here). They judge British archaeology rather poorly from what they saw on BBC news of this what-should-have-been-a-flagship-project:
Ce sont les archéologues de Birmingham Archaeology, branche commerciale de l'université de Birmingham sur financement d'English Heritage, qui ont achevé « la fouille ». Mais peut-on vraiment parler de fouille ? D’après les films amateurs diffusés sur Internet, il s’agit plutôt d’une vulgaire quête au bel objet. Les prélèvements ne paraissent pas plus sérieux que ceux qui ont été effectués par le chasseur de trésors. Dans l’un de ces films on voit une personne prélever tous azimuts les objets, les arrachant de leur contexte stratigraphique avec une truelle trois fois trop grosse pour s’empresser de les présenter à la caméra. Les méthodes employées sont dignes des fouilles du XIXème siècle où seuls comptent les objets, leurs qualités artistiques, typologiques et symboliques. Les archéologues jugeront par eux mêmes si l’archéologie moderne est ici présentée sous son meilleur jour : http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/8272856.stmAs one metal detectorist noted on seeing this, "If I as a metal detectorist did this with my spade and trowel would you be horrified and judge me by a 2 minute video?". Yes we would, and I think we are doubly justified in asking what is going on in this cringeworthy video when its not metal detectorists but archaeologists. Now (unusual though it may be it for me to defend the PAS), it should be pointed out that these excavations are nothing to do with the PAS, the Treasure Unit or the British Museum. The Treasure Unit, oddly, has no fieldwork team of their own or even a separate budget for such excavations, so when investigations of any Treasure findspot needs to be carried out, they are reliant on the local archaeologists. In the case of the Staffordshire hoard, one wonders looking at this video and the international criticism (Poland, Hungary and France) whether a team from the British Museum with experience of dealing with finds like this may not have done a better job than we see being done in this video. This looks like a typical example of British fudgery and make-do.
Now I hope I am entirely wrong and next week we will see soon some decent photos of a site that does not look like the amateur fossickings of the Barsettshire Amateur Archaeology Group in 1961, that we will see some decent site plans and a decent description of the site methodology. Whether or not these do appear, there can only be one conclusion here.
To make the Treasure Act any kind of archaeological (and not just treasure-hunting) success, there not only has to be a way of getting to the find before it has all been taken out of the ground by artefact hunters. There also clearly has to be the resources and ability to undertake a proper archaeological investigation of the findspot. A hole 2 x 2m as we have seen on other sites dug by one bloke with the assistance of the metal detectorist in a single day is not an adequate archaeological response to one of these finds. THere is a reason why this hoard was buried at precisely this spot, a 5 x 5 m trench is not necessarily going to find that reason, the area needs a proper topographical survey and field research to put it in context. Clearly there is a need for a well-equipped and well-resourced Treasure Unit Archaeological Flying Squad ready to go out at a minute's notice and co-ordinate the work of local teams. There needs to be resources set aside for providing proper security for such sites during excavation, the full conservation, study and publication of these nationally important (so we are told) finds. This should be financed to no less a degree than the money the UK is forking out to get the artefacts. And that is the true cost of the Treasure Act to the British people.
Photo: From the Birmingham Archaeology webpage.