Wednesday 19 November 2008

The New Treasure Report

"Lotsa luvvery treasures" in the BM today as the 2005-6 Treasure report is launched coincidentally on the same day as the 2008 review of the future of the PAS. See my earlier comments here. Why they've even got some Treasure on show... an Anglo-Saxon mount which is "probably from Hampshire" another from "somewhere in Essex". Great.

From what I saw of it before the PAS server collapsed this morning, the new Treasure report looks to be a hefty and lavishly illustrated account of glittering prizes brought to light largely as a result of British policies of encouraging “metal detectorists” to engage with the past by selectively denuding the archaeological record of collectables. The material presented in this report is however just the tip of the iceberg. English, Welsh and Northern Irish law define a very narrow range of items which the state regards as national 'treasure's. The vast majority of archaeological finds do not qualify. They can if the finder wants to and the landowner agrees be dug up anyhow and any time without record, bought and sold without record, discarded and melted down as “scrap” without anyone being any the wiser. Whole archaeological sites can be collected away without anyone batting an eyelid. But no matter, the BM has done well in saving a lot of the gold and silver bits, one might say.

But how much of the information that was lost when they were taken from the ground has been saved in a reliably documented form and actually made available? We saw the other day that the inquest into one Treasure find simply did not address the detail of the circumstances of discovery and there remain lingering doubts that all was as was described - a lot of questions nobody wants to answer. In the case of the Stixwould hoard, there is considerable doubt whether the whole find has made it into the public domain, it would seem not (thus skewing the sample for any future research on the material). Then of course there are the Treasures which are never reported by their finders at all and simply sold off.

These are just three cases out of several hundred found by artefact hunters and collectors which happen to have caught my attention in the past few days. To what degree would investigation throw up similar doubts about some, or even many, of the rest? The experience of the FLO involved in the Cold Brayfield find led him to comment to me that “whispers” tend to accompany many such finds. I wonder how forthcoming the new Treasure report will be found to be on such cases when one has the liberty to leaf through it and maybe confront its narrative with other sources.

Also on show at the BM today is the Snodland hoard also found in 2006, but unlike its near contemporary at Cold Brayfield, duly reported at the moment of discovery and excavated properly.* A perhaps significant difference is this was an accidental find made by a member of the public in earthmoving, and not by artefact hunters and collectors.

There is good news in the launch for those who make their living selling metal detectors and portable antiquities. Apparently the increase in number of treasure finds has been helped, the press material cheerfully warbles, by "an increase in the the popularity of metal detectors" in the UK. Now this may be hopelessly 'unprogressive' of me, but I would have thought that a decade of archaeological outreach instilling "best practice" in the use of the archaeological record in the British public should be aiming to reduce and not increase the degree to which it is dug up willy nilly as a source of collectables for entertainment and profit. To what degree is the Portable Antiquities Scheme and archaeological institutions in Britain actually doing anything at all towards these aims?

*all those disbelieving US ancient coin collectors looking in, please note the Roman tile all around this hoard, another one to have been found actually on a Roman site.

Vignette: Odyssey's 'Volvo' Treasure, their real reason, they say, for diving off the Spanish coast recently..


lootingobserver said...

Kate Clark said: "PAS has overcome the scepticism of archaeologists and the mistrust of finders to create a partnership in the understanding of the past."

well and why doesn't she ask continental archaeologist about this? Why her bibliography consist on the PAS staff publications or metal detectorist journal?

"It also seems to have reduced the amount of illicit detecting on archaeological sites." what an important citation but where are the bibliographical references? The Oxford Survey? Or the metal detectorist or PAS staff impression?

"the amount of damage to monuments has been reduced by a half and 27% of units report problems" there's some percentages ... why no citation of the source?

but wait a minute : "It is possible that a strong, local ‘responsible’ metal detecting community might act as a ‘watch dog’ and deterrent to illicit detecting." Yes it is possible and it is possible too that martian are green..

This text is not "independent" at all, no mention of the scepticisme of heritage action about the nighthawks and the metal detector code or the european archeaolgist community, a brief note to your blog, Mr Barford (thanks for this, Mrs Clark i didn't know this blog before)

Paul Barford said...

Lootingobserver: Thanks for your comments.

I am afraid I tend to agree with you, there is little sign that this really is an "independent" report - much the same as previous MLA reviews of the Scheme clearly were not. Roy Clark says bluntly that "this report endorses..." [decisions that were already taken months ago]
and that it seems to me was its real intent and function.

It was asked to assess whether the tasks of the PAS could be done another way - well no, says Ms Clark, it cannot be done any other way.. well as you say what evidence is there in the report that she even looked properly at other ways? Certainly not through citing any literature or even discussions she has had. Terribly discourteous to the rest of us.

I too was puzzled by that phrase (p. 6) "scepticism of archaeologists" What on earth does she mean by that? Anyway the sceptics have been converted she says.

The unsupported claim of a 27% reduction of illicit metal detecting since 1995 is highly dubious. I really think we need to see the Oxford Survey results and see just how they went about gathering those data.

Paul Barford said...

Sorry, misquoted, not 27%. She's actually saying (Review p. 18) that illicit metal detecting is reduced by a "half". I feel another blog post coming on.

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