Thursday, 14 October 2010

English Treasure Act Review

So what should the revised Treasure Act for England and Wales look like?

Personally, I would immediately change the name. Treasure Act is simply stupid. Archaeology is not Treasure Hunting, we are not looking for "Treasure". A minimalist solution would be to add the word "National" (and frankly I cannot see why this was not done in 1996). What we are after - in a sense - are "National Treasures".

But then that covers things like the Magna Carta (not a dugup), so either the law has to define that its just about dugups, or perhaps we need a law which covers any "National Treasure" that may be accidentally found by a member of the public. A handwritten draft of one of Churchill's wartime speeches and corrected by a second hand found in a pile of old papers in some suburban shed for example.

Whether or not the law will be just about dugup Treasure is not so important to me, I'm concerned with the archaeological objects. Here, I do not think you could draft an extension that would cover all eventualities if you are going to go down the "objects of..." road. The Vindolanda Tablets voted top treasure in a BBC poll a few years back are bits of wood found in a latrine. So my suggestion would be to leave the gold and silver and three coins or a group of METAL (not bronze) in a cluster bits, and add an extension. This would have to cover things like "archaeological value" and should be independent of financial value of the items concerned.

Collectors all protest that the sort of things they buy are "minor" artefacts, not the Getty type bronzes which would be "major" artefacts. I say there is no such thing as major and minor archaeological evidence treasure hunting for a life size bronze statue of Aphrodite /Venus Kallipygos does as much damage to the site as digging out a wooden chest full of nails or two-thousand year old discarded scrap iron. But I do not agree that every single coin or metal/wood/bone fragment need be in the British legislation dividing finds of national importance from those that (by that law) are not. [This is leaving aside the whole question of whether I personally think that kind of law is helpful to the archaeologist or not - more of that perhaps another time]. So how to decide what should go to a public collection, and what can be consumed by collectors and the market?

Polish law has a category of protected object, one whose character as a "zabytek" is obvious. That word zabytek is one of those continental things, cannot really be translated into English with one word, a rough approximation would be movable and immovable historical monuments (using the latter term loosely). The possibilities and problems associated with that phrase are easily spotted, obvious to whom and on what basis?

But paradoxically, I think this is the way to go with extending the Treasure Act: "and any object in the case of which its value as a National treasure is obvious". The Crosby Garrett helmet obviously is such a case. It should be the PAS (to whom all found archaeological objects should be reported by law for the purpose of their assessment) to nominate these other items. Clearly however this cannot be left hanging in the air. Since there is already a system of inquests for treasure, by extension the inquest could look at claims and counter-claims that an item's "character as a National Treasure is obvious". The finder and landowner might challenge the state's claim, giving arguments why the helmet is not a national Treasure (for example in order to sell it at Christie's and not be reliant on a valuation by the TVC), and the inquest would give a verdict. It would be open to debate whether or not this would also be the function of the coroner's court (if I understand the coroner's function correctly, I think it has to be).

Obviously the decision would have to be made on the basis of a set of criteria (so like the Waverly decision process, the scheduling process for field monuments). So what criteria might they be in addition to the existing ones? From the top of my head I suggest things like the following criteria, so anything made of anything (let us say if we are restricting this to archaeology that its objects of a certain age - like more than 300 years old as the PAS records are at present) which exhibits to a considerable degree the following values:
1) Research value: The value of a find like a unique Roman lantern, more complete than any found in this country before, a cavalry helmet which has not yet been properly described and analysed, a complex of finds found together. This would be a synonym for "archaeological value" which derives both from the nature of the object itself as well as an object from a specific context. The reasearch done on it need not be entirely archaeological (numismatic, someone might want to look at the corrosion products, and even microbiology).
2) Educational value: The sort of thing that should be in museums for school parties to see to help understand "the Romans" or "the Normans" or whatever.
3) Mona Lisa value: Since we are being mercenary, what draws the tourists (which if we are being honest is what most Treasure cases are about these days anyway).
4) Commemorative value: an artefact particularly associated with a particular person (Nuada's silver hand) or event (a fine group of relics from a battlefield of importance) or phenomenon (the Little Ice Age).
5) Aesthetic value: Artefacts are traditionally seen as "ancient art", so let's add that to the criteria of why some objects in the words of the immortal Indy "belong in a museum".
6) conservation value: some objects by their nature are so fragile/unstable that it would be madness to entrust them to a private collection when it is clear they need considerable investment of resources to keep them in existence (I have in mind deep frozen mammoths, but not many of them are found by British artefact hunters in Surrey, but a waterlogged boat might be a more realistic example).

I expect there are more one could think of. I would imagine that in the decision-making process each category being assessed individually, so an object or group of objects might have a little research value, perhaps "a little" aesthetic value, a little value in a museum display, but even so there are not enough to consider the object a national treasure. Whereas the Crosby Garrett helmet would fulfil all of these categories and it is unlikely that a treasure hunter or landowner would be able to persuade a court that it is not really as important as the archaeologists/museum men/ newspapers say. This would be a workable and transparent system - and indeed one in which the public (through public submissions) could also play a part in deciding what happens to their heritage.

A separate (?) problem though would be working out who would have to pay for it, how and with what?

In the book I have written with Nigel Swift - in press as they say - there is a whole chapter on how we think (thought) the Treasure Act should be amended - but (although a name change is postulated) from a different point of view. That was pre-Crosby Garrett.

of course let us not forget that Scotland has a much more archaeological "Treasure system", as does Northern Ireland, it is just sad old England and Wales lagging behind.

Vignette: Hellenistic Kallipygos


LG said...

Hi Paul,

Have you seen this?

Paul Barford said...

Nice. If I'd seen it on ebay I would suspect it was a fake, the engraving looks a bit like its done with modern tools, the surface of the cabochon looks a bit odd and the apparent file marks on the bezel puzzle. Shame though he went out detecting that day in his pyjamas...

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