Sunday 28 September 2008

Heritage Heroes

A few years ago the Heritage Lottery Fund ran a "heritage heroes" award to celebrate the important and vital role volunteers play in delivering successful heritage projects which have brought about huge benefits for the heritage of the UK. The 2005 and 2006 awards are reported rather modestly.

On 17th January 2007, at the launch of the 2004 Treasure Report, David Lammy (Labour MP for Tottenham and Minister for Culture under Tessa Jowell at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport) as part of that government’s emphasis on “social inclusion” called British metal detector using artefact hunters and collectors ‘the unsung heroes of the UK's heritage’. Unlike the first set of awards, this was relatively widely reported by the media. Writing in the Guardian the next day, Maev Kennedy ('Unsung heroes of heritage' extolled for unearthing hoard of treasure) predicted that ‘the phrase will cause a sharp intake of breath among some archaeologists who still regard [detectorists] as little better than legalised looters’. She was wrong. It passed with relatively little comment in the archaeological world in Britain, most of whom are resigned to friendly collaboration with all and any artefact collectors and hunters since they apparently have little intention of facing conflict by trying to curb their activities. Most of them, like the Council for British Archaeology have adopted a conciliatory approach to metal detector using artefact hunters and collectors, preferring to praise “responsible detectorists” rather than point an accusing finger at bad practice or examining too closely the archaeological implications of its wider context with the antiquities collecting and the global antiquities market. Thus it was that the CBA took issue only on the point that not ALL collectors are “heritage heroes” – why? Because not all of them show the archaeologists what they’ve taken. [Also of course Mr Lammy was forgetting Scotland which has separate legislation and is not covered by the Treasure report he was discussing].

Even the more ‘serious’ papers are encouraged by such remarks to carry articles with titles such as “Buried treasure is yours for the taking” (Mark Bridge in the Times March 24, 2007) and Archaeological finds 'up by 45%' (BBC News 17th Jan 2007). So much for British “investigative journalism” and giving the reading public a rounded picture on which to form judgements.

Steve Weinman, in an editorial in the ‘Diver’ magazine in April 2007 however sees this in a wider context. Remarking on Lammy’s “interesting choice of words” he points out
Certainly there is no hint in them that the people who dig up artefacts long buried in the soil would be better advised to leave them where they are for others to enjoy finding at a later date. That's what divers are so often told. When did you last hear a diver described as "heroic" for recovering the bell from a long-lost wreck? He or she may have had to carry out a great deal of research and overcome many obstacles to secure the find. How difficult is it to wave a metal detector? [… This] seems to be a case of double standards in perception, between the heroic coin-shooters rummaging about on land and villainous divers rummaging about at sea.
My thoughts exactly Mr Weinman. It seems to me that this comment by David Lammy reflects some extremely woolly thinking by British archaeologists and policy-makers.

At the end of June 2007 David Lammy ceased to be Culture Minister (becoming the Minister for Skills in the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills) and by December the same year was using the word “unsung heroes” in another context.

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