Friday, 14 February 2020

The Issue of Unverified Findspot Reports in the UK

Am I the only one that did
 not earlier see the funny face in
this archaeologists' plan
 Is this a coded message?  Is
the final report out now?
Over on Looting Matters David Gill comments on a new book about metal detector finds from the UK:
A parade helmet among 50 Roman finds
John Pearce and Sally Worrell have presented 50 largely decontextualised Roman finds from England. Among them (no. 4) is the so-called 'Crosby Garrett helmet' that some claim comes from Cumbria, though there remains a possibility that it was recovered near Catterick on the other side of the Pennines. How reliable are these reported find-spots? Why is there no discussion of the loss of archaeological context?
For some of the issues related to this helmet are discussed here.
Sally Worrell was of course the author of the article 'The Crosby Garrett Helmet' in the discussion of David Gill's polemic text in Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 20 (2010): One really wonders what the logic of that was.... She unquestioningly accepts the reported findspot and was shown a hole that it was said to have been from. Excavation of that site later raised questions about those reports.

Now I too have heard these rumours, and it would be very interesting to know whether the unnamed finder(s) had any connection with the Catterick area (we do know that they lived at the time of the discovery at Peterlee, 77km from Crosby Garrett). Possibly there are a number of detectorists that live in this place (see here for example).

David's remark however prompts me to raise an issue of professional ethics that I have raised a number of times before.

PAS handles (and sometimes stores on their office premises) artefacts that finders bring them that they assert that they have title to. I have determined by questioning FLOs that in very few (if any?) cases, the FLO receives (or is even shown) an affadavit or protocol signed by the landowner assigning title of that object to the finder. This should be a best practice requirement. Anybody can go to any FLO and show any old artefact that they claim were found at 'X-marks the spot' without providing any documentary proof of that. We know there have been cases where (a) items known or suspected to have been found at another site have been represented as being found elsewhere, (b) items bought on eBay (etc.) have been represented as  having been 'found' elsewhere, and (c) at least one case of an item that had been stolen from a showcase was presented to a FLO as having been found elsewhere.

Getting a landowner to put his name to a document asserting that the object was found on their land and assigning title (or rights to represent the landowner to the PAS/Treasure Registrars) does three things:
- it makes it more difficult for a finder to lie about where something came from,
- it protects the PAS and the host institutions from charges of handling and storing stolen property should the objects turn out to be stolen,
- producing a document with a false provenance is an offence (fraud) and prosecutions can thus be brought for misrepresenting provenances (whereas as UK law today stands, they cannot).

Instituting such a policy is (as the PAS are irritatingly fond of saying) a "win-win situation", indubitably a step towards instituting best practice and pretty crucial for the enhancing the reputation of the PAS and its database. So why are they not doing it?

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