Sunday, 3 February 2013

Heritage Action: Recent Nighthawking Activity on the Staffordshire Hoard Field

A vitally important piece of the world's archaeological heritage is being destroyed under the noses of the British heritage management (I use the term loosely) authorities as you read this. They are not even lifting a finger to stop it. The site is left unprotected, open to depredation, and the material in it is of such a nature that this depredation will inevitably continue.

I am writing of the Staffordshire hoard field, just off the A5 and M6, officially in Hammerwich (I say Brownhills) - location given for all the world to see by Wikipedia. A Heritage Action member was there yesterday, on a totally random visit, just to see what the site looks like three years on from the discovery of a massive and financially very valuable scatterd gold hoard of the Anglo-Saxon period. I spent most of the evening on the phone to them and was sent a selection of the many photos taken. To say I am shocked by what I learnt of the state of the site is an understatement. See Heritage Action's post this morning ('Recent nighthawking activity on the Staffordshire Hoard field' 03/02/2013 )

The find was made 5 July 2009 and as a result the archaeologists mounted a small dig (I'll not call it an excavation) in an area 9 by 13 metres and over 3,500 pieces of gold jewellery were recovered. Despite attempts to keep it secret, it was possible to work out the findspot very soon after the first coy announcements. It was solemnly announced that scanning of the site "using specialist equipment [...] did not suggest any further artefacts remained to be found". That's a tale repeated to the masses after a second season of archaeological investigations (100m2 that's a hole 10 x 10 m) in late March 2010.
According to Staffordshire county archaeologist, Stephen Dean, there is no more gold or treasure to recover from the site, ...
If they really believed that, there would be no archaeological justification for getting funds to mount in November 2012  (so an enormous 32 months of inaction later) a comparatively large campaign of survey including the participation of metal detectorists ("archaeologists and metal detectorists from Archaeology Warwickshire, working for Staffordshire County Council and English Heritage, visited the field after it had been ploughed").  Items from what is being interpreted as a separate deposit (hoard?) were also recovered from another part of the field. I do not think that now anybody is under any illusions that there is no gold and important artefacts in that field. There obviously is, so what is stopping any Tom, Dick or Harry going there for his own piece of the past? Actually Nothing. Nothing prevents it being an ideal site for nighthawks - not even a decent fence.

Why is this site not even properly fenced? Farmer Fred Johnson got £1,642,500 from the 2009 objects (and is getting some more from the next TVC ruling). Yet the fence around the gold-bearing field is in atrocious condition. On the Northeast corner for example it is broken down. There is no fence here, nothing to stop anybody walking up the slope and straight onto the field (or make a quick getaway if spotted).

Lo and behold, on that random day, Heritage Action, staying strictly outside the field, was able to document several holes within a stone's throw of the fence (which footprints in the soil indicated had not been any obstacle to somebody used to hopping over fences). Here is a photo of one area of activity.

Holes immediately adjacent to Staffordshire Hoard findspot 2nd Feb 2013 (copyright/ courtesy Heritage Action)

In my opinion, and looking at the other photos in the series, there are at least three infilled holes in the middle foreground left (one of them with a fist-sized stone on top with the earth still on it unlike those in the field around which are well rain-washed). Behind them - by the marker stick with the plastic bag tied to it -  are two areas where the freshly sprouted crop has been scuffed, as if filling in other holes. To the right is an unfilled  hole which is seen in more detail in Heritage Action's post on the topic. This as can be seen in Heritage Action's photos is vertical sided, has trample on the left and on the right an area where the soil has been hoiked out and then spread about radially. From it a line of footprints (seen on HJ) lead directly to the fence.

'Missing History Hole' immediately adjacent to Staffordshire Hoard findspot 2nd Feb 2013 (copyright/ courtesy Heritage Action)
To my mind, this looks very much like the traces of a hit-and-run theft. A car was parked on a side-road, the clandestine metal detectorist went up the slope, hopped over the fence, was there long enough to dig some six-ish holes (the ones we can see) and after digging the final one did not fill it in, but instead apparently legged-it off the site suddenly (to me the depth of those prints suggest he or she was running). Were they disturbed, or did they find something that it would be bothersome to have in your pocket on a scheduled site, but safe enough to have the other side of the fence ("found it in my garden officer, just on my way to report it tomorrow")? 

 The significance if this is that if a casual (and possibly quite brief) search in January/February 2013 can still find metal targets in a field that has repeatedly decared to be void of any metal artefacts within reach of a metal detector, then those claiming to have 'cleared' the field quite simply are not telling the truth. The public has been deceived. The job has not been done. British archaeology is not equipped to deal with a situation (I would add, a crisis situation) created by its own policies. This, "vexatious" though it may be, has long been clear. Precious little effective action has even been attempted to create alternative conditions, or change the policies leading to this imbalance.

 Let us note, there seem not to be any footprints around these traces suggesting that any police, or archaeological resource managers (I use the term loosely) have detected this breach of the site's integrity and made any kind of record or investigation. Is anybody actually keeping a proper eye on this site?

There are two features visible in the (other) Heritage Action photos of this area of the field which I suspect are 'markers' left on the site by somebody as 'X marks the spot' for something. Were they placed there by the farmer for some purpose, by those working on the archaeological team, or by clandestine nocturnal visitors out a-thieving? Is somebody going back to that part of the field again? Maybe tonight? Why this part of the field, several tens of metres away from the Hoard findspot? Is there a 'productive' concentration of collectable or saleable finds here that the archaeologists do not know about being rifled for private gain? 

 British archaeologists shrug their shoulders. Not their problem.

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