Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Crosby Garrett Helmet Findspot



Tullie House Museum have produced a booklet to accompany their display of the Crosby Garrett Helmet (D.J. Breeze and M.C. Bishop (eds.) The Crosby Garrett Helmet , The Armatura Press, 2013 48pp, five pounds). As a book, it is pretty. As archaeology, it leaves a whole lot to be desired. The text skates round a whole load of information you'd find in any normal account of any other object and its context. This brings into question the whole issue of the value of the totally non-transparent manner in which this object continues to be handled. For some reason (embarrassment?) the current owner (presumed to be the person that motivated by purely personal greed to 'have' something nobody else has, outbid a museum which had raised a large amount from an interested public) continues to remain anonymous. Quite apart from that however there is no indication of the nature of the transaction we now witness, is it a loan (for how long under what conditions) or a gift? Who knows? The publication assumes nobody needs to know that.

Then there is a very cagey skirting round the issue of who found it and how. There is now another version of the story of the find (by Dot Boughton- though there was an earlier account by Sally Worrell  [UPDATE see now David Gill's comments on that]). I'm more interested in the photo of somebody holding the visor right after excavation. The one used in the publication is a different version from the one which mysteriously surfaced in the internet, published on the 'Roman Army Talk' forum and then vanished when people began discussing it. This one has neither of the the two features I pointed out in the middle of December 2010 may be of significance in investigating the early history of this find. Accident? (I'm beginning to sound like Mr ACCG Conspiracy Theory here....).

After discovery, top: 'Roman Army Talk' fotrum;
bottom after  Boughton in D.J. Breeze
and M.C. Bishop (eds.)

The briefest of accounts of the restoration of the object is a disgrace. What is on display has been heavily reshaped and restored, and the viewer deserves to know how much of what they are perusing is due to the creativity of Fabricius the Roman, and how much the creativity of the hammer-man beneath the railway arches. The half page report (p. 20
the rest of the page is filled with a picture) leaves us clueless.  

Most normal accounts of an archaeological find would have a map showing where the survey area is in relation to the topography. This one does not. The text says the findspot is above the Eden valley. When eventually you find the fields in the photographs on Google Earth, they are nowhere of the kind  (they are 1.6 km to the NW of where I thought the scant information the PAS was putting out at the time indicated the findspot was, part of which turned out to be a false lead).

There is no mention in the report of the fieldwork of the excavators identifying any holes dug down from present ground surface by the metal detectorist, except one - the one they were shown (by whom? That potentially significant information is not given) as the one by which the helmet had been extracted from the archaeological record. Is this due to poor visibility, because the archaeologists were not looking carefully enough, or were there absolutely no other holes dug by the pasture-searching metal detectorists in the vicinity? If the latter, one interpretation of the archaeological evidence is that the artefact hunters came right on top of the helmet before they switched their machine on. There is in fact no archaeological evidence from this investigation to corroborate the story of the seven years search of this same area (same field?) prior to the reported discovery of the helmet here.

There is another anomaly. There is absolutely no indication on any of the figures in the publication at what point of that permanent pasture with its ancient earthworks the finders dug their (1.15 x 1.10m) hole through those earthworks into the untouched archaeological layers below. Not even a hint. It is difficult to believe this is an accident. Somebody wants to hide that information. Why, if the helmet has gone?  That hole was found and excavated (half-sectioned at least) by the archaeologists. 

That hole is an odd shape. With what digging tool was it dug?

The helmet was found in this hole - so they say:
Healey in Boughton in D.J. Breeze and M.C. Bishop (eds.)
The bottom, where they stopped digging from the photos (and the prone ranging rod used as a scale)  looks to be 55cm below ground surface. Let us envisage by what mechanism a metal detector ("we only detect fings in the top six inches, machines don't go deeper,  innit?") found a fragmented object represented by fragments of thin sheet scattered at a depth of 55cm in stoney soil containing other masking metal objects. Odd that. And if the object was not that deep, why was the pretty sizeable hole dug to such a depth in what the photos show was a very stoney layer? That's a lot of work if nobody is following any beeps. There is something here to be explained. I learn from the archaeologist excavating the site that he has never met the finders to discuss what they did here on this ancient earthwork site with its shallowly-buried archaeology that day which won them a million-pound prize. It is a shame that they were not induced to visit the site when the trenches were open to elucidate.

Why, when the artefact hunters dug a socking great hole in brown soil containing pretty hefty stones and then backfilled it, is the fill cleanish black soil with very few stones? Where did the stones go and why? Apparently at the press confernce [pers. comm. Chris Healey, Director Minerva Heritage Ltd, who carried out the evaluation] a suggestion was made that the different character of the soil filling the metal detectorists' hole was because they had emptied a pit containing the helmet and filled with this black relatively stoneless soil, hoiked out the helmet pieces (leaving only a few crumbs) and dumped the pit fill back in the hoik-hole. This would mean that the helmet was in an archaeological feature that cut the stony layer containing [Healer pers comm.] one of the two fourth century coins. This is interesting because the helmet until now has been dated "late 1st-mid-3rd century AD", which would mean it was already old when buried.  

 Thank goodness that the metal detectorists artefact hunting on ancient earthworks on old (permanent?) pasture had not hoiked out the two coins found in the investigations thus leaving nothing behind for archaeological analysis. How many other metal objects had already been hoiked here from under the old turf before the investigations began? This is a prime example of the problems of artefact hunting hoiking datable objects out of shallow archaeological assemblages, potentially damaging our ability to understand the site. Of course there is not a word about this in the publication laid before the public by the Museum. 

I am very grateful to Trish Shaw and Chris Healey for discussing (remaining within the bounds of their contractual obligations) their public presentations of their necessarily brief periods of work on the site in December 2011 and the excavation in May/June 2012. Any errors of fact in the above are of course my own responsibility

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