Saturday 11 October 2008

Setting standards

A few days ago I was discussing here some recent threads on several British “metal detecting” forums. In them, individuals were admitting they had learnt of people who had found some of the Stixwourth hoard gold coins during this rally. The implication was being made that not all of them had been reported as the law of the land requires. For several reasons, this clearly needs further investigation. Some of these members of the metal detecting community potentially have information which would be able to determine whether an illegal act had been committed and if so establish some at least of the culprits. There should be no mistake here, if this is indeed what had happened during this rally, this would have been theft. Any coins not declared as part of the hoard cannot be included in the overall valuation of the find, and the landowner (who generally receives 50% of the reward in cases like these) is cheated out of what is rightfully his – even though he had trustingly allowed this group of metal detector users onto his land as a result of which they found these precious and archaeologically significant items. Has his trust really been repaid by some of them being simply pocketed by selfish and dishonest people?

One of these forums to which I posted a link was the British forum, administered by Shane Rear. This apparently caused some considerable consternation among its members. It seems they think they should be able to shut themselves away from the rest of the world to discuss what they and other detector users are doing to the United Kingdom’s archaeological heritage without any of the other stakeholders in what happens to this finite and fragile resource even being able to look in.* This is of course not at all in accord with the social bargain embodied in the liberal policies embodied, for example, by the Portable Antiquities Scheme. What would responsible artefact hunters (the “unsung heroes of the British heritage”) have to hide?

Anyway the portal of this forum cordially informs viewers interested in what “metal detectorists” do and discussing it that if they register and explore it further, they will be given a “warm welcome” among a community which is described as “active and thriving”. Perhaps all those interested in the welfare of the heritage and the realities behind what Derek Fincham writes about the “benefits” (sic) to the national heritage brought by “metal detecting” in Britain would like to register with the forum and drop in and have a look around what is being discussed there. After all, at the top it proclaims they are “Setting the standard in online metal detecting communities”.

It may be unfashionably old-fashioned of me these days, but to my mind the course of action as a responsible citizen for anyone who has information that an illegal act may have been committed seems clear. For example, if someone gets a good look at and note the car registration number of a person acting suspiciously around a property which the next day they learn had been burgled. Most responsible and law-abiding people would surely make sure that this information reaches the investigating authorities, even if it turns out to be a false alarm. What excuse would they have for not passing on that information to those concerned for further investigation?

I would therefore be interested to learn what steps those “online communities” (especially the one that prides itself on “setting standards”) have done in the interim to appraise the authorities and the landowner that some among them have specific information of this type and that it (together with contact details of the persons claiming to have such information) will be made available in the case that an investigation. I presume that the further continuation of the thread to which I gave a link in my previous post on this matter will fill in the story of what was done with this information. I trust that the landowner has been made fully aware that there seems some doubt whether all the coins taken from his land were reported as the law requires (who would have informed him, “detectorists”, rally organizers or the PAS?). Obviously just sweeping this matter under the carpet would only be in the interests of irresponsible “metal detectorists” and those intent on upholding the “fluffy bunny” image of “metal detecting” with which the British public is being fobbed off with.

There is also the problem of how this problem can be dealt with in the eventual publication of the hoard since there seems to be reason to believe from what observers at the rally seem to be suggesting, that the means of discovery meant that only incomplete information was recovered. If this is so, this would significantly reducing the evidential value of this assemblage and obviously anyone studying this assemblage must examine these claims and make an assessment of what may have been lost from the original deposit. Since the Treasure Act (especially after the Treasure (Designation) Order 2002) is primarily concerned with protecting contextual association, what archaeological justification could there be for paying the full reward in this case? Are the finders being rewarded for recovering some more “gold” and doing what the law anyway obliges them to do, or being thanked for supplying reliable archaeological information for us all? What is the state buying from them and why? Here the provisos of the Code of Practice of the Treasure Act (points 79 (iii –v and ix) and 80) should be borne in mind. This might be enough to convince British “metal detectorists” in future to ensure responsible standards are upheld by all finders of a group of objects that fall under this Act.

It seems clear that there are many questions around the application of the Treasure Act that seem worth exploring further with reference to artefact hunting and portable antiquity collection and trade in general.

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