Wednesday 5 November 2008

Britain's Treasure Act, what's it for?

Over on the Cultural Property Observer blog, I find a comment posted by a "Voz [Earl]" which reads as follows:

In my reply to Paul Barford's post on the subject (which apparently will never see the light of day on his blog) I asked whether he thought these coins would have ever been found if not for detectorists. Is there any reason to believe this midden would have been recognized and excavated? Thanks to the UK system we will at least be able to glean some information from this hoard. Paul cited various paragraphs from the applicable legal code to which I replied:"In reading through the paragraphs you cite, I'm once again impressed with the UK system. They have obviously taken human nature into consideration, i.e., 'you may receive a greater reward for finds left intact,' 'archaeologists are to keep original finder appraised as to progress with subsequent excavation,' etc.

It seems to me that the best thing in this regard would be for archaeologists to actively publicize these provisions to detectorist groups--tout them as incentives for cooperation. How about a simple presentation with real-world scenarios...'you're out digging and you see XYZ, you're excited and want to quickly uncover the find to see what it is, but the best thing you can do at this point is to stop digging and contact such and such person/agency--don't worry, you will not lose whatever you are entitled to by law and will be kept appraised of what is eventually uncovered. By doing this you will help to preserve much valuable information.' As long as the detectorists feel secure that they aren't going to lose the just rewards of their labor and good fortune, I believe they would be eager to cooperate.

Well, first of all as far as I can see, no such comment posted on this blog ever reached me, so I am unable to test the truth of the assertion that it was sent. Certainly it is not a comment that I would have rejected. It illustrates well the extent of the misconceptions there are in the US collecting world* concerning the Treasure Act and the workings of the PAS which this milieu holds up as a model for the rest of the world to follow. So you'd expect them to at least understand how it works and what it is for.

Voz Earl muddles the legislation of the Act itself and the Code of Practice (which is guidance not law). With regard his last paragraph, I wonder what precisely he thinks the PAS has been doing for eleven years of outreach!! Surely every artefact hunter with a metal detector in England, Wales and Northern Ireland should make it their business to read and understand the Treasure Act and accompanying Codes of Practice, but yes the PAS is there to help them understand their rights and obligations. Just a phone call or email away. If metal detectorists ignore their responsibilities under the Treasure Act, then its certainly not for a want of being told what they are.

Voz asks whether "these coins would have ever been found if not for detectorists. Is there any reason to believe this midden would have been recognized and excavated? Thanks to the UK system we will at least be able to glean some information from this hoard." Hmm. Was a midden found? I don't know. I know that an archaeologist was called out into the middle of a muddy field on a December day to dig a 2x2m trench where some time before two guys with a metal detector had hoiked out 1400 coins in the dark from a hole they say was "a metre deep". The trench was an intervention in an unthreatened archaeological site to investigate whether anything remained of the context of discovery of the hoard made by the "metal detectorists". It had not. The intervention was not designed as a full-scale investigation of the site itself, which if its a metre down is not under any immediate threat - except, now, from other treasure hunters.

Mr Earl seems unaware of the fact that before this hoard was hoiked out, the site was known to be a site producing Roman finds, it was therefore (I presume) already on the region's Historic Environment Record. There had also already been other metal detected finds from it, some of which [including late Roman bronze coins of the same date as in the hoard] were previously examined (I understand) in the British Museum. In such a situation then, what possible justification is there for continued "metal detecting" of that site? Regardless of what is and what is not reported, what reason can we give for allowing a known Roman site to be exploited by a few individuals as a source of collectables for entertainment and profit? I do not think we can even claim that what was happening here was "producing information" We knew it was a Roman site, we knew it had fourth century occupation, we knew there were coins there. I suspect that there was not even plotting of findspots of any previous finds going on by these "detectorists" (putting the detailed findspots on a large scale Ordnance Survey map would of course have revealed which side of the county boundary they were on). As I said earlier, British "metal detectorists" target "productive sites", and what could be more "productive" of collectables for entertainment or profit than a known Roman site?

Voz reckons that "due to the UK (sic) system, we will at least be able to glean some information from this hoard". Well, firstly a bunch of coins is just a bunch of coins; as archaeological evidence, hoiked out of context as here they are rendered virtually useless. No "stratigraphic context could be established". So what about this mythical "numismatic context" Californian coin dealer Dave Welsh reckons 'no-questions-asked' coin collectors are "saving from the archaeologists"? Well, it just so happens that into my hands has fallen the coin report of this hoard (I imagine interested coin collectors could also obtain a copy from the British Museum). Its pretty disappointing as a piece of numismatic scholarship and I hope its not typical of the sort of thing being churned out as 'preservation by documentation' of Treasure finds at tax-payers' expense. The question is whether if these coins were scattered among US and UK 'heap-of-loose-coins-on-my-table' collectors, we would get any more information from them.

I really am at a loss for words concerning the main post of Cultural Property Observer. The title ("Context Lost -- So What?") really says it all.

*Voz [I am unclear if that's his real name] Earl is a coin collector known to me from previous exchange on Unidroit-L and other forums. We rarely see eye-to-eye.


Voz Earl said...


You only managed one "sic" in this post--I'm quite disappointed.

Well now the facts as you tell them are changing the story entirely. The account I read said nothing about this being a 'known Roman site' or having produced other finds or being on the "Historic Environment Record," I believe the words used were something along the lines of a 'ploughed field.' So am I to take it then that you are saying this site would eventually have undergone a professional excavation? If so, then naturally I would agree that treasure hunters shouldn't have been digging there. But if not, then I reiterate that learning something from the found hoard is better than learning nothing at all.

With regard to the PAS and the rest of it--I've never claimed to be any sort of an expert on it. When I refer to "the UK system" I simply mean that system whereby private citizens can go out searching for ancient coins in a legal manner and keep what they find within certain guidelines. That is a system which is rare today and one which I'd like to see implemented elsewhere. It's just that simple.

Voz Earl

Paul Barford said...

Well, the 'sic' is there to indicate that to talk of "THE United Kingdom system" is misleading when (on dry land alone) there are three different systems, of two very different types. But you are not alone among US collectors in being confused about this - despite being told and having every opportiunity to find out more about the background and functioning of the Scheme you all love so much to talk about.

"That is a system which is rare today and one which I'd like to see implemented elsewhere." Why? Can you not do this in the US? What is stopping you? (Think about it, the answer might be recvealing).

So the poor villagers at Qerna thrown out of their houses among the Theban tombs, would you give them the same freedoms? Where would you draw the line and on what basis? Why not actually let each country establish the heritage laws it wants without outside interference?

As for whether or not the site was a known one, as I pointed out in my answer to Peter Tompa, many "metal detectorists" in Britain tend to go to sites which they know will be "productive" - which by definition is an archaeological site. Easier than finding one by your own searching is to find out where sites have already been found, for example public records made available by archaeologists. So, many sites being exploited by "detectorists" are already known, some in great detail already, continued extraction of artefacts from them is merely eroding their information content.

The site at Cold Brayfield has as much likelihood to be excavated as any other site in the region of a similar nature. Archaeological conservation (as the name implies) is not about "digging everything up now", it is about preserving the resource for future wise use.

I am sure you have heard other collectors argue that we have enough "dug up now" to fill museums, the coin market is saturated (ancient coins are sold off by dealers by the kilogramme to make room for more). There is more than enough above ground already to keep archaeologists and finds buffs busy for a goodly few decades. Let us preserve as much as possible of what is still in the ground, leave some for those who come after us - as in the case of any finite resource.

As for what the reporting of this hoard has added to our knowledge, we have a known Roman site which now has two small holes dug into it, one after another. We have a bunch of late fourth century coins which might have been an associated group, we have a few handfulls of pottery, which cannot stratigraphically be related to anything much... whoopee. Public money well-spent there, eh?

I think this is the danger of US collectors sitting over there pontificating about what the Brits should and should not do, and on that basis what other foreigners should and should not do. These things have to be seen in context, and not just of US private collectors getting their hands on somebody else's "pieces of the past".

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