Saturday 4 October 2008

Get yer pieces of 'istory 'ere

Channel 4's archaeology reality show format programme "Time Team" has a forum. Recently on it a concerned viewer (Anne W.) asked:

Have just been to my local antique arcade - there in one display were a number of Roman Rings, an Elizabethan clothes fastener, Roman knife, a 'celtic woad grinder'! They were advertised as 2,000 years old etc, priced in the hundreds. Where do these things come from that they can be put on sale like this? Are they genuine?
A good question addressed to the archaeologists from a reflective member of the public interested in the past. Although there are a number of metal detector users on the Time Team forum (normally all too willing to post "good news" items culled from the biased British media coverage of artefact hunting and collecting)... nobody seemed to be interested in telling her. As one heritage activist noted:

No response, just the sound of tumbleweed drifting by! Here's the likely answer to each of your questions [heritage alerts, metal detecting artefact erosion counter] ...
The viewer, being obviously a person of principle, replied:

so, if the nation's heritage is seen as being sold off -why can't it be claimed by the state? [...] It just makes me mad to see at least 6 so named Roman rings on sale and for a few hundreds - if I wasn't an OAP [old age pensioner] I would buy a few and present them to the local museum (but Gordon [Brown] is eroding my spare cash, perhaps I am not altruistic enough!).

It makes some of us mad too Anne. But I would not buy them, you never know whose pockets you are putting money into with things like this. But let us note that Anne - being interested in the past - instead of regretting she cannot buy them for herself in the manner of the collectors who welcome such stuff being on sale for them to snap up, regrets she cannot afford to be altruistic enough to add them to a public collection.

So what about the state's ability to obtain this sort of material to be used to everybody's benefit? The heritage activist has this comment:

It already is in Scotland but (apart from items classed as Treasure) England and Wales have an alternative system based upon political cowardice in which the vast majority are there for the taking. Like rare birds eggs and orchids, but legal. Not that those items are all necessarily British. Unprovenanced items come from wherever the finder or dealer say - and invariable they are described as from an old collection, not from a scheduled monument, gathered with the landowner's permission and most definitely not from Eastern Europe where not only digging them up is illegal but exporting is as well.What you saw is probably the tip of a very large iceberg - see EBay. It's a magical place where things can be instantly transmuted and re-provenanced by the stroke of a keypad. And of course, since the British have more liberal laws than anyone else in the world they mostly get turned into "British" artefacts. Tell Gordon [Brown] you resent that as well as everything else!
Personally I do not think Gordon Brown is a bit interested in what people like Anne, or Nigel, or any of us think about it. British policy on artefact hunting and collecting and the illicit market in antiquities is very much based entirely on political cowardice, apathy and sweeping uncomfortable things under the carpet. How many voting citizens like Anne see this lack of coherent policy as fundamentally wrong when they actually see for themselves what is involved? How many can see that dealers and collectors have a vested interest in people from outside the hobby not learning what actually is going on?

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