Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Johnny Nonnymus: "Me and My Mates Found the Sandridge Hoad With a Metal Detector and a JCB"

Leon Watson, 'Novice treasure hunter who bought basic metal detector found 40 Roman coins worth £100,000', Daily Mail 16 October 2012.

An unnamed man, let's call him Johnny Nonnymus, bought a Garrett Ace 150 metal detector (retailing at around £135 and described as being ideal for children to use for a hobby) and went out into some woodland to the north of St Albans and within a few weeks had dug up a bunch of Roman gold coins.  Anyway when he'd hoiked out forty of them, he went back to the metal detector shop where he'd bought his gold-locating machine, asking them: 'What do I do with this?' The staff of the metal detecting shop Hidden History (David Sewell and Mark Becher) in Berkhamsted, Hertfordshire, helped the finder arrange what the newspaper article describes as "the permits they needed" (and what would they be then? Did Mr Nonnymus not have already a permit to be searching and artefact-digging in those woods?) and "armed with a JCB [...] and [...] a couple of slightly more potent machines", together they "pulled 119 more coins out of the ground".  The find is believed to be one of the largest Roman gold coin hoards ever discovered in the UK  Local heritage officials have "refused to identify the exact site of the discovery or the landowner to stop others from trying to cash in. They also would not name the person who found them, who could profit from a share of the proceeds from the [sale of the] coins". They reckon that the hoard had been disturbed in the past by some sort of quarry activity or ploughing, as the coins were scattered over a distance of 15 metres. The hoard is now going through the Ttreasure process.

Well, anyway, it's difficult to keep a secret if tekkies are involved. As the web is reporting, the find was made at Sandridge in Hertfordhire, the finder's name seems to be "Simon" (?), the Regton simple-English presentation of the hoard (also revealing the parish name) is here. More importantly, there are two videos (one here and the other one here ) of the recovery at the beginning of this month on the 'Hidden History' website which should be more than enough to confirm exactly where to dig.

The videos show chaotic digging, the mechanical excavator is stripping an uneven area, and not doing a very neat job of it, the 'planum' is not at all level and covered with spill. Nobody is actually observing what is being dug away, people are too busy grubbing around for gold coins elsewhere on the site.  There are piles of spoil everywhere, not a single grid peg or laser theodolite visible. Men are working by (with their backs to!) an active machine with no protective clothing - hi-vis vests or hard hats. [Part of the background chat on the soundtrack is boasting that "we are all covered by insurance", not if basic Health and Safety principles are ignored, you are not, but you can sue the director of the project for negligence in the case of injury.] The archaeologists are standing around with their hands in their pockets watching the digging of narrow holes into the 'cleared' surface and with not a notebook, camera or tape measure in sight. Julian Watters turns up half way through the day. There is soil dumped on an area which is then subsequently being shown as being searched. What kind of ersatz guerilla-"archaeology" is this? It appears from the commentary of the video that the work took place in just three days.

I doubt looking at the leached soil that there has been ploughing on this part of this site, not even in WW2. If that is what the archaeologists want to claim, why not strip the area properly and document plough furrows in the subsoil? We areled to assume that it does not matter how carefully the recording is done as the finds are "without context". I would rather think that should be the subject of documentation, rather than an a priori assumption. What we see in the videos is not archaeology, its a mere hunt for artefacts.

Now we know where the find was made, we may observe that there is some detailed information  available to the armchair searcher about Roman Sandridge, and this includes (included because it seems to have been removed) a map of previous Roman coin finds made in the area by local postmaster and amateur historian Reg Auckland. Was this hoard found in this patch of woodland because the metal detectorist was targeting a likely site on the grounds of previous discoveries, thus increasing his chances of hitting it rich? Of course there is no way of knowing this as everybody concerned is keeping quiet about the actual circumstances of the discovery.  This total lack of transparency is at odds with officially stated English Heritage policy of allowing everybody free access to information about the heritage. Any heritage that is not findable with a metal detector, that is reserved for a special group of "partners".

If I were to guess where this is, I'd note the stretch of planted woodland 2.5 km to the east of the village, just north of a quarry (quarry activity is mentioned in the newspaper accounts). They say they are protecting the location to stop "others (other than whom?) from cashing in" on the find. First of all that totally ignores that piece of pro-collecting stuff and nonsens,  that by hoiking out finds like this artefact hunters are protecting ("rescuing") them from "rotting in the ground" (those agrichemicals and plough damage you understand - here in woodland). Secondly if that dig-and-run pseudo-archaeology did not recover all the finds (nationally important hoard they say), then why can we not hope that somebody else will finish the job of recovery?  Here though there is a problem, if Bazza Thugwit comes, gets permission, does it all by the book, plotting each coin and its attitude in the soil to the micro-centimetre,  he cannot 'cash in' on his work, under current UK law he'll not see a penny of the value. As the Treasure Act is written today, half of that would go to the original finder because the archaeologists did not recover all of "his" find. On finding another bit of this hoard, Bazza Thugwit can either be a good citizen and enrich his fellow tekkie - or say he found them somewhere else. Frankly, looking at those videos, it does not seem to me very likely that the archaeologists have recovered the whole deposit. If that is the case, then they are not doing the landowner any favours as anyone else coming at night is not going to share the profits of their digging with the landowner, the landowner will be out of pocket if the archaeologists do not do, did not do, the job properly. In fact it is in the landowner's interests now to hold a rally in his woods.

Photo: Johnny Nonnymus with his little machine is kept busy out of the working area while the metal detector dealers do the digging and the achaeologists watch on from the sidelines.

1 comment:

kyri said...

the coins are in apparently "mint condition"being in the ground for 1700 years didnt do them any harm at all.on the bbc the reporter said the location was being kept secret to protect the site from "treasure hunters"ie, metal detectorists but your right,im sure the location is allready out there.
i hope the st albans museum gets the coins but at what cost i wonder.

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