Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Rescue on "The Lenborough Hoard"

In my opinion, though they might disagree (they did after all publish two texts of mine about it), RESCUE have in the past been disappointingly diffident about criticising knowledge loss through collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record in the UK. Perhaps that is about to change, to judge by a strongly-worded opinion piece about the Lenborough Hoard Hoik. I hope metal detectorists get to read it and read it with understanding.
Anon [who wrote this?], 'Rescue says: The Lenborough Hoard', Rescue News January 6, 2015.
The media have once again whipped themselves into a frenzy regarding buried treasure. The latest example is the Lenborough hoard – a metal detecting rally bonanza consisting of over 5,000 allegedly pristine silver coins dated (so far) to the reigns of Aethelred and Cnut – AD 978-1016 – which according to the press will net the landowner and the finder a cool £1m. This of course is all we need to know. Little need for explanation of the Treasure reporting process, or the rules regarding reporting finds, or the fact that media-driven treasure valuation claims are almost always wildly inaccurate and exaggerated. Little need for any discussion about the academic or educational value that archaeological material might have. Little need either to outline the damage that this kind of reporting – and indeed this kind of activity – does to the county’s historic environment resources.
The text then goes on (it seems almost tailor made to explain to artefact hunters the issue) to explain what archaeology is all about (read it slowly, ad TWICE, Baz) "note that only a small part of the information archaeologists’ collect listed above relates to the artefacts: equally important in constructing a narrative of the past are the context of the discoveries – the surrounding landscape, the environmental data to be obtained, the features they are buried in, the nature of the rest of the immediate site. All this information is equally important – in some cases more important than the artefacts themselves – in providing information about the past".
It is also an evolving narrative, and each new piece of information added to it changes the whole, and enhances both our understanding and our enjoyment of the richness of the historic environment. It is true that as students of the Saxon period, we have a particularly limited understanding of how and why precious hoards were buried, by whom and under what circumstances. This is all information we would like to have, and to understand more about and place it in the context of the rest of the information we have accumulated about the period – but this is never likely to happen when practically every time a hoard is discovered it is unceremoniously dragged from the ground in the minimum time possible and paraded in front of the national press for the gratification of sensationalist headline writers. The pictures of the excavation and retrieval of the Lenborough hoard make for depressing viewing. A hole in the ground surrounded by people. A Sainsbury’s bag full of silver. Whilst this might represent a tasty windfall for the finder and the landowner, for the rest of us – the other 60 million plus inhabitants of the British Isles – it represents nothing but yet another lost opportunity to add to the knowledge we have about the Saxon period and a lost opportunity to put another small piece back in to the incomplete jigsaw of our understanding of their culture.

So we now know that the Saxons made nice silver coins between the periods 978-1016. But didn’t we know this already? So we now also know is that the Saxons buried hoards of precious objects periodically. We knew that too. The question of who, how, when and why will just have to wait for the next time. If there is one. And if that hoard is not excavated similarly poorly. Unfortunately these hoards are rare, so there might never be another one and we might never be able to answer the many questions surrounding them. But you won’t read about that in the papers.
And nor will you hear that from the PAS, but (because they put Treasure in it now) their database will instantly grow by another 5200 "objects recorded", and that is supposed to be seen as some kind of a "success". The PAS is diverging more and more from the archaeology it is supposed to be supporting. How much longer will we watch potential knowledge being trashed in the name of so-called "citizen archaeology" in the full glare of the media before we decide to call a halt and rethink these laissez faire policies and the stop-gap attempted resolution that is the Portable Antiquities Scheme?

UPDATE 7.1.15
Although  'RESCUE Says' comments are intended as statements by the Trust as a whole, I have now learnt the identity of the author and would like to thank them for a really good piece which says all the right things, 2015 is off to a good start. There has already been a very positive response to it on Twitter.

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