Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Focus on UK Metal Detecting: Muddling Through Nicely (Dug Up, Poorly Recorded and Donated - at a Cost)

From the BBC: 
A rare medieval badge that was found in a field near Preston has been donated to a Lancashire museum. The silver badge, showing one of the companions of St Ursula, was found by Paul King when he was trying out a new metal detector last summer. Valued at about £500, the artefact will go on display at the Museum of Lancashire in Preston.
More coyness, he was not actually "metal detecting" you see, just "trying out a new metal detector".
King, a member of the South Ribble metal detecting club, found the silver plaque at the end of April in a field some miles from his home in Walton-le-Dale, where he had already found several hundred Victorian coins, but returned with the blessing of the landowner for a sweep with his new more high-powered metal detector. "I knew immediately she was something special," he said. "I think she was hidden deliberately – she was folded over, not damaged by a plough strike in any way. It is extraordinary and moving to think how much history is locked up in this little piece of metal." [...] British Museum curator James Robinson said he was "beside myself with excitement" when he saw an image of the find.
Note the stressing of the "blessing" of the landowner. Interesting is the characterisation of the finder: 
The artistic bit of twisted silver was found by detectorist Paul King, a budding archaeologist [...]  Michael Lewis, at the British Museum, said: “It is an incredibly exciting find.”
Frankly, if Mr King was any sort of archaeologist, budding or not, he'd most likely have been very disappointed on seeing the "description" created by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (Record ID: LANCUM-61F133). This is a pretty pathetic description (written 1st June 2011 and like the majority of finds on the database, STILL "awaiting validation"). This is what it currently says:
Unusual and beautifully cast religious icon made of silver which is probably a pilgrims mount dating to the early 16th century AD. Found in the vicinity of Preston. It bears an uncanny resemblance to the bust reliquary of a female saint (South Netherlandish ca.1500-1530). It's perfectly possible that it may be a souvenir of pilgrimage to Cologne or other sites that held relics of St Ursula and her companion. The silver 'mount' is in the form of a female bust, in quarter profile (left) wearing a 'kennel-shaped' head-dress with the hair loose beneath which is unusual and wearing a cruciform pendant with a twisted border on lower edge. The mount was originally attached by three circular loops, one behind the head and the others juxtaposed in each corner one now missing. The loops would perhaps have been attached to textile. The length is 45mm, width 30mm, thickness 10mm, and the weight is 16g.
This seems to me to be a good example of what I was taught many years ago is a way NOT to write a finds description. First of all, the text makes no distinction between what is description of the object and what is interpretation, they are muddled in together - alongside information repeated in other fields of the record (findspot, weight). But there is a whole lot missing. The author says it is "cast" but cites no evidence either of that, or what kind of mould seems to have been used (two-piece, cire perdue), no mention of casting flashes, sprue removal. If the whole object (loops and all) weighs just sixteen grammes, how thick is this casting? There is no mention of the appearance of the reverse of the object, let alone its edges (filing?). There are "loops" mentioned, no idea of their form, size (size of perforation), one is just about visible in the (very poor) record photo, the actual position in the "corners" and orientation of the other two are left to our guesswork. The punctuation and construction of the text leave a lot to be desired ("The silver 'mount' is in the form of a female bust, in quarter profile (left) wearing a 'kennel-shaped' head-dress with the hair loose beneath which is unusual and wearing a cruciform pendant with a twisted border on lower edge").

It is not clear to what the cited measurements refer ("Length: 45 mm Width: 30 mm Thickness: 10 mm". The photo shows that the object measures 48mm along its base for example. Unrolled, the object would be more than 45mm tall, so what is going on here? I think one should assume that the recorder has merely roughly measured the rolled-up piece without making any attempt to determine the measurements of the mount he describes itself. (Assuming that, the "45 mm" is the length of the base, is the scale wrong or the measurement incorrectly cited?). 

Quite inexplicable in the latter context then, is the absence of any mention of the 'folding' of the object, if that is what it is. The finder spotted it and comments on it, the recorder fails to make any mention of it - even though he notes the measurements of what resulted from it. This 'folding' however is a key piece of information concerning its context of deposition, it's not a casual loss, dropped off whatever it was affixed to, but was removed and folded and probably deliberately deposited. Not a word of any of that in the PAS record.

The photos are dark, lacking contrast, poorly-lit. It would be totally impossible to understand fully what they show from that awful description and the two scrappy shots of the scrunched-up piece. Somebody has since produced a digitally 'straightened out' photo of the object (I assume that is the case since recent photos of the finder posing with it show it is still scrunched-up) - so why is that not in the PAS record, which it says at the bottom was "Updated: Friday 7th December 2012"? [UPDATE, I now realise that the photo shows something else, see the next post]

Ideally, since such a photo was probably unavailable at the time of recording, for such an object the recorder should have made a proper drawing of the item, representing it in unrolled form. Only such a drawing could be used by anyone using the database as a source of information (for example seeking parallels), the two dark ill-lit photos of the scrunched-up object are no use to man nor beast.

 The objects recorded by the PAS will be disappearing when they leave the recorder's hands, and any description - to be worth anything - has to be full, accurate and unambiguous. Surely the PAS is not deliberately sacrificing quality to quantity?

[Note, in the context of another discussion, the object was found "eight inches down" in an area of minimum tillage and is noted as not having been damaged by the plough.]

As for this "donation", it has become fashionable for the BM to stress how many (sic) of the treasure finds made by metal detector using Treasure hunters are donated, and the nation is not forced to buy back its own heritage from them. So here's a good news case being highlighted from this point of view, though it is not clear whether the donation was by finder or landowner or both. Matters however are far from simple. The local newspapers give a slightly more nuanced view:
Valued at around £500, the badge [...]  has now come home to Preston and will be on temporary display in the MoL for two months. It will then be conserved before being displayed permanently in the museum. Local firm Conlon Construction, who completed MoL's £1.7million redevelopment in November 2011, donated funds to enable the museum to keep the Pilgrim badge in Preston for the local community and visitors to enjoy. [...] Charlotte Steels, Lancashire County Council's museum manager at the MoL, added: "It's wonderful to have such a rare object donated to the museum and we are very grateful to Conlon for their generosity.   
Funny kind of "donation" if you ask me. I suppose being charitable, we could assume that Conlon Construction is paying only for the conservation and the purchase of a secure case of inert materials for the display of a sensitive piece of dugup silver, to keep the Pilgrim badge in Preston for the local community and visitors to enjoy. Or maybe they are paying somebody to make for the Museum's documentation the proper record and drawing of the item which the fifteen million pound ("wotta-lotta-stuf-we-got") PAS could not manage. Is that so? 

Admin, 'Metal detectorists silver art find from a Ribble Valley field' Scottish Detecting Forum, June 24th, 2011. (accessed 12th December 2012),

Maev Kennedy, 'Badge dug up in field is medieval treasure', The Guardian, 20 June 2011,

BBC, 'Rare St Ursula badge donated to Museum of Lancashire',

News : St Ursula badge donated to the Museum of Lancashire',  PR 12/0646, 6th December 2012.

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