Tuesday, 8 October 2019

Focus on Metal Detecting Dishonesty (V): False Findspot for Foreign Find

Not all artefact hunters in the UK are as "responsible" or even "law biding" as claimed by their supporters. It seems the time is coming where we might look at some of those that got caught, and consider how many dishonest tekkies are simply 'not caught yet'?
Thursday, 7 November 2013 Focus on Metal Detecting: False Provenance detected at Weekend Wanderers' Rally by FLO

Finds Liaison Officer David Williams caused a bit of a fracas at the Monday meeting of the Reigate-based Weald and Downland Metal Detecting Club when he dismissed two Roman brooches handed in for recording as modern plants. They had both come from "a huge rally held in Oxfordshire in September". Presumably this means the Weekend Wanderers' "Big Rally"at Segsbury Castle - Oxfordshire.

The first object he questioned was a "large ornate brooch [...] dug out of the ground by Alison Harrison, of Epsom". This, when found, had "caused much excitement [...]  and was hailed as one of the event’s best finds".
Williams announced the brooch’s provenance was questionable. “It is almost certainly from Bulgaria or Romania and brooches like this simply do not turn up in English soil. My colleagues who are experts agree.” Mr Williams said there was no evidence of traces of Oxfordshire downland soil in the grooves of the brooch. 
Another find from the same rally which was handed in to him (apparently by a different finder) for recording with the Portable Antiquities Scheme was also questionable. On looking at it carefully he found it:
to have been coated with a thin protective film of plastic. “I notice d that there were two blue felt-tip pen marks on the brooch and when I went to brush them off, little pieces of plastic were coming off.” 
Alison Harrington, apparently disappointed to learn that she had paid good money only to find herself on a site with finds of dubious origins, reportedly contacted Peter Welch, of the Weekend Wanderers, who organised the Oxfordshire rally in September.
He said it was “out of the question” that anyone would have been involved in “planting” the brooches. Mr Williams had the same response from Mr Welch when he contacted him. [...] Ms Harrington said: “I just cannot understand why anyone would want to plant something. Why?”
So it would seem that Mr Welch is reportedly asking us to believe that Romans covered their brooches in plastic film and felt-tip pen marks before abandoning Britain? How would Mr Welch account for these anomalies then? I really would like to know what, apart from denying any knowledge, Mr Welch has to offer in the way of an explanation of this "mystery" connected with a rally he organized. Perhaps if nobody human was involved, it was the crop-circle aliens wot dunnit? Or it might be magpies. As for the FLO, he is not best pleased:
Speaking at the Reigate meeting, Mr Williams called for new laws making it an offence to waste the time of archaeological finds officers by “planting” objects in the ground which misled people trying to plot the history of England. 
On what legal basis Mr Williams? There is no legal obligation to report non-Treasure finds in England and Wales, so there is no legal obligation to report them truthfully. Pie in the sky Mr Williams, until the UK gets a change in the law. But really it would seem that the FLO has not thought this through at all:
He said there could be a number of explanations regarding the two brooches. They could have been purchased cheaply from a dealer at a detectorists’ rally held in the area previously or planted as a mischievous act or for other unknown reasons. 
I am not sure how the FLO infers the listener would see the connection between being "purchased cheaply from a dealer at a detectorists’ rally held in the area previously" and them ending up in the field. Maybe he could explain in more detail what he has in mind. And why, oh why in the name of partnership, does he not state the obvious. The FLO surely will be aware of the possibility that the sites where rallies and 'club digs' are to be held, particularly if the venue is repeatedly gone over, year after year, like the area around Segsbury might be seeded by rally organisers (or landowners) anxious to keep the punters coming. This has been suspected in a number of cases, it would seem that here there could be grounds for believing (unless somebody comes up with a better explanation for the facts) that this has been happening here (and again, Mr Williams, there is nothing illegal in this, if it was done with the landowner's consent).

In a discussion of this on a metal detecting forum  near you, two members make the point which the FLO for some reason avoids articulating (George and Margaret, 7th November 6:07 pm):
Does not suprise me, bet this type of thing has been going on for years, i have seen Artifacts at rallies, and thought to myself, if it was found here i will eat my hat, some people "Find" things at rallies that have been obtained somewhere else just so they can get Provenance, so they can sell them.
Another detectorist on the Friendly Metal Detecting Forum (Alan, 11-07-2013, 01:37 PM ) says:
It's no secret that seeding of rally sites goes on, but no need to make it so obvious.
On the same forum though Dark Chameleon (11-07-2013, 03:49 PM) has an alternative hypothesis:
The obvious thought would be the finders planted them to appear to have great finds...we have seen that story a few times appear here and even the club I belonged to had hinted at people doing that to get 'finds of the month'. I'd rather find only an iron horseshoe then a seeded 'con' find...
Whatever the true situation, this case is important for two reasons. Firstly a comparatively large proportion of finds in the PAS database come from their attendance at commercial artefact hunting rallies. These however are a specific environment. Among other things, here there are ample opportunities for "finds" to be "witnessed" by a number of people all eager to confirm to even the most sceptical FLO that "Bazza found it there, I seen him". Also in this specific environment  (see Dark Chameleon's comments above) there is a lot of competition to be seen by fellows as having found the "most" or "best" finds - and how many cannot resist the temptation to turn up with a few things already in their pocket to pretend they found "on the day"? In this way the PAS database may end up containing many artefacts which in fact do not come from where their finders say they did. In some cases the finders are deliberately misleading, in others  they themselves have been misled by third parties.

At this point, it is worth noting that when it comes to artefacts from the Balkans, Bulgaria in particular, there are many heavily patinated fakes being sold mixed in with authentic dugups. So far one means of spotting them is that they are of types that do not turn up in archaeological contexts. Should any of them be found after somebody has planted them in a field and then get past the FLO and get entered on the PAS database as (supposedly) "genuine finds from the British Isles", this has the potential of legitimising a whole category of fakes as genuine artefacts, which has cognitive consequences.   

The second reason that this is important is that it is particularly the massive Weekend Wanderers' rallies at Wantage and Segsbury (starting from the "King Alfred's" meet) that have become PAS showplace rallies, where plotting of the finds brought in by artefact-hunting "partners" has been claimed to provide useful research material and revealing past landscape use. Not if an unknown proportion of the finds have been 'planted' they are not. Some of the artefact types from the Balkans are characteristic and can be spotted as "out of place artefacts" as the fibula Williams spotted, others (coins, buckles, strapends, knives, studs, strip mounts, keys, etc.) are types which are found throughout the Roman Empire and mixed in with local finds cannot be told apart by bare-eye scrutiny. This story raises the question of how often this in fact happens? The PAS will say it is "rare" no doubt, but that is not the real answer - which is "it so far has been rarely detected" which is not the same thing at all, is it?

There was a follow-up on this when I did a FOI request from PAS: Thursday, 26 February 2015


Hougenai said...

The only thing that surprises me here is that the 'Detectorists' haven't suggested some bloke from Poland has had a jolly to the mother country and salted a rally site just so he can diss good honest, salt of the earth, hobbyists.

Jamie said...

David Williams will have trouble responding to your demand for answers as he died almost two years ago.

Paul Barford said...

I am very well aware of that, very sad, great guy, but he died in the first week of December 2017 and if you look, this post dates to November 2013 - so he had four years to say what he knew/thought on the legal issues of the point he raised and the issue of dealers on rallies (I understand he was in attendance at quite a number at public expense - so why did he not feel the public is entitled to some more details for that money?). I rather would have thought the public debate on artefact hunting is not something that can be put off until we are all dead... Why are not more FLOs taking part in it?

Jamie said...

And I am aware it is an old article, but If you knew that Mr. Williams had died, then perhaps it would have been appropriate to have said so. In not doing so, you allow those who don't know of his passing to possibly labour under the impression that he still couldn't or wouldn't address your points. Besides which, it would be common decency, I believe, to have just mentioned his death at the beginning of your post.

Paul Barford said...

"In not doing so, you allow those who don't know of his passing to possibly labour under the impression that he still couldn't or wouldn't address your points."

In four years he did not. How much longer do you think one would need to actually get into some "public engagement" on a point like that? That is after all what FLOs are employed to do.

Maybe some other FLO could add a comment on the issues raised - six years ago now.

I do not see it as my job to run an "archaeology births and deaths notification" service here.

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