Friday, 17 August 2012

Metal Detecting Under the Microscope: Vandalising Artefacts

In the post above I describe how I was alerted to an eBay seller of dug-up artefacts and concentrated on the items from Avebury he was selling. But that was not got my blood boiling. It is bad enough that the internet is full of people selling artefacts that come from very questionable sources, like metal detecting "in Avebury". What this Cambridge dwelling dealer is doing to artefacts is to my mind far worse. Take this 'Stunning Medieval Bronze Ring Cleaned &  Polished'. "Stunning" is not a word I would use, but certainly "cleaned and polished" it is, so much so you can see the seller's reflection in it and it's not a pretty sight.  
Polished at my local jewellers with a jewellery polishing machine. Bright. Circa 15th century AD. Found in Eynsham,Oxfordshire. Lovely condition. Inner diameter 19mm. Ref 2003.
Funnily enough in the PAS notes for conservation of finds made by "members of the public", no mention is made of the use of a "jewellery polishing machine". I doubt whether there are many archaeological conservators trained in their use. If you look at this sellers current offering of 126 antiquities on sale, 79 are brought up be searching the description for the word "polished", and only 25 for the word patina (five of those refer to all traces of patina REMOVED). This seller has transformed the artefacts he is selling into glittering geegaws. Glittering wearable trophy geegaws for showing off  ("Oh that? Yes'it's quite unusual, isn't it? Mmedieval you know, isn't it just so cute?"). But that is not all this (Cambridge?) jeweller can do to ancient artefacts, oh no! look at this:
Magnifico Roman Bronze Arrowhead (Sold As Pendant) This is quite a wonderful looking Roman Arrowhead that is being sold as a pendant and looks an absolute beauty. My jeweller has taken a piece from a Roman Fibula, drilled holes, filed and cemented the piece into the centre of the Arrowhead. Please note my jeweller is a very clever craftsman and works to a very high standard. 
Hmmm. Can't see the join. Wonderful. Wearable jewellery from archaeological finds. The photo is crap, so its difficult to see where one object ends and the other begins, but my guess is that the arrowhead is not British ('Thracian'/'Scythian'/'Pontic' regions?) but whatever it is, it has been totally destroyed as an archaeological artefact by the "clever" ("crafty"?) jeweller.

Then we have the rings which have their "original" stones reset by a modern jeweller. Why they needed resetting is not stated, one has a piece of "very colourful"(ly corroded) original glass set in it. Was it really corroded like that in Roman times? What about the Roman ring with the original (facetted) garnet "reset" in it? I wonder if anyone can show us an unaltered ring with either of these characteristics in the large number collected in the PAS database? (Of course the examples I am discussing are not there either - that goes without saying.) 

The producing of wearable jewellery from archaeological material can have two forms, the restringing of loose unassociated beads to make  a "necklace", the (reversible) setting of a denarius into a hoop mount. In such cases false associations are made between items, and the objects are subject to loss or damage in the wearing. But far, far worse are treatments which totally alter the structure and nature of the object, like stripping the original surface off with the "patina" with a jewellers' polishing machine, putting new stones in rings from which they are lacking and so on. that is sheer vandalism of archaeological material, just as much as deliberately taking a hammer and chisel to a SE Asian temple statue of Buddha or a Roman floor mosaic to produce more portable sized pieces (e.g., a head or a single panel) for sale. Both surely  should be considered culture-crime.

Some of these objects, sold by this dealer in the "British antiquities" section are apparently metal detector finds from the UK, some have vague find locations given (on what basis is not clear - none have any mention of documentation from landowners confirming transfer of ownership to the finder). The rest have no findspot mentioned, and this includes the majority of the 'polished' ones. Certainly some of these items are coming from outside the British Isles, a generic "Balkan" source seems possible for the bulk of them, it is very suggestive that this person has bought a sorted job lot of those metal detected finds from somewhere in southeast Europe and decided the best way to make them marketable is to tart them up so they can be sold as novelty wearable jewellery (hence the attention paid to hoop diameter).  These items are not being dug up so that people can "learn about the past"  from them. They are dug up so people can "have something cool". Archaeological sites somewhere (and we do not even know where) are being trashed so people can have something cool to show off.

Why it is important is it shows that the antiquities market is nowhere near being sustainable exploitation  of a finite record. Sellers like this trying to market artefacts to collectors' needs as something else shows that many more objects are being taken from the archaeological record than the collectors' market requires. Artefact hunters are not just meeting a need, out of greed they are exceeding it. The alteration of collectables to make them into another commodity is one very clear symptom of the general malaise of this market. This is why it needs regulation, and if collectors are not going to do it themselves, then others will have to step in and do something before the damage becomes total.

Once again, is Britain's Portable Antiquities Scheme going to take an interest in any of this and take a stand against this kind of treatment of archaeological material? Don't hold your breath.

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