Wednesday 10 December 2008

Newark Torc questions

In February 2005, “metal detectorist” Maurice Richardson found an electrum torc of Snettisham type dated to 200-50BC in a field near Newark in Nottinghamshire (Martin Wainwright, 'Iron age necklace discovered' Guardian, 18th Feb 2005):

The 700g (1.5lb) necklace was buried beneath a field which has been ploughed for years on the outskirts of Newark. Mr Richardson said: "I got down on my stomach and scraped away and that was when a glint of gold came into view. It took me another half an hour to get it out of the ground because I was so nervous.

The object is intact "It came out as though I had bought it from the shop yesterday, It shone, it was solid and perfect in every way". Not plough-battered, then. The finder reports that he dug it out from "about two foot four inches down". This is therefore another object recovered without any kind of archaeological recording from deposits below plough level. After going through the ‘Treasure process’, the object was one of the star exhibits at the British museum a couple of weeks ago at the launching of the 2005/6 Treasure report at (where it is discussed as case 2005 T52 (Cat 82) on page 30 and illustrated on the cover). It also got a lot of press coverage. Most of the reports mentioned that it was worth 350,000 pounds which “is the most expensive single Treasure find in recent history”. Apart from the fact that it was removed without record from below plough level, there is one other detail that the many press articles did not touch upon, and it is interesting to reflect why. What was Mr Richardson doing in that field (which, incidentally is owned by Trinity College Cambridge)? 

The PAS webpage carries a blog entry for November 19, 2008 which looks like it comes from a press release. It says “Mr Richardson was searching for a crashed WW2 aircraft when he discovered this important find.” The 24 Hours Museum news, usually a close follower of PAS sources (Richard Moss, ‘Museums, metal detectorists and our archaeological heritage’ 23 Nov 2008). says the same: "The amateur metal detectorist was searching for the remains of a crashed aircraft in a field". The BBC reports a similar story (anon. ‘Treasure hunters boost gold finds', 19 November 2008), “a gold Iron Age choker, valued at £360,000, which was found by a man searching for remains of crashed WWII aircraft in Nottinghamshire”. Another BBC text (anon ‘Busy year for UK treasure hunters' 19th Nov 2008) says “It was unearthed by a man who was looking for parts of crashed World War II aircraft”. The next day the Times reported a similar version (Laura Dixon and Ben Hoyle, ' Paydirt at last after 40 years of prospecting for gold', 20 Nov 2008) “Then one rainy day, using his metal detector to look for parts of a Second World War aircraft, he stumbled across the most expensive single find in recent history”. In a similar vein was the article in the Daily Mail (James Tozer, 'Pictured: The Ł350,000 Iron Age neckband discovered by one man and his metal detector' Dail Mail 19th Nov 2008): "he almost ignored an unpromising-sounding beep as he searched for debris from a wartime air crash while being pelted with rain". These accounts all seem likely to derive at least in part and maybe wholly from material supplied to journalists by the British Museum press office and therefore supplied for public consumption by the British Museum, the Treasure Unit and Portable Antiquities Scheme. The accounts released for the 19th November all inform us that Mr Richardson was searching the field for "remains of" or "parts of" a crashed WW2 aircraft. 

But on 20th November another story started to circulate. It seems to have originated with the Guardian (Maev Kennedy ‘£350,000 gold collar hailed as best iron age find in 50 years’, 20 Nov, 2008). This version attempts to suggest that the finder was not looking for any crashed military aircraft. It reads:
“I was only in the field because a customer kept me late," Maurice Richardson, a tree surgeon from Newark, said yesterday. "Normally I'd never want to go into this field because a plane crashed there in the last war, and the whole place is littered with bits of metal." The first beep from his detector was indeed a chunk of wartime scrap metal, but as he bent down to discard it, his machine gave a louder signal. Expecting to find a bigger chunk of fuselage, he instead discovered the 2,200-year-old collar.
This changed version is the one that was picked up by the AFP and was later spread around the world.

Why is this important? In general, metal detecting for relics of the past is not restricted very much in England and Wales (or Scotland, despite the differing laws there on finds). There are however some situations even in the UK where metal detectors cannot freely be used in this way (without a permit). Scheduled archaeological sites and monuments are one of them. Aeroplane crash sites of the Second World War are another. Under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 , all military aircraft crash sites in the United Kingdom (UK), its territorial waters, or British aircraft in international waters (and irrespective of whether they are war graves), are controlled sites. It is an offence under this act to tamper with, damage, move or unearth any items at such sites, unless the Ministry of Defence has issued a licence authorizing such activity. They are issued by its Service Personnel and Veterans Agency (SPVA) who issue about fifty search licences annually. A slightly awkward problem for finders of valuable items is that: “Notwithstanding the issuing of a licence, all items recovered remain the property of the Crown. Excavations are licensed on the understanding that the Ministry of Defence may require the licensee to surrender all items recovered to the Department without compensation.” 

Did Mr Richardson have the requisite licence to be searching this crash site in February 2005? If he did, it is odd no mention was made of this in any of the accounts of the find published to date. Indeed, it is interesting that half way through the 2008 media circus, the ‘official’ story was changed to remove reference to him actively searching for plane fragments. Given the very clear legal restrictions on searching such sites and the status of finds from such a search, I would like to ask the PAS and British Museum Treasure unit whether, in processing this treasure case, the legality of searching a wartime aircraft crash site was at any stage considered and raised with the finder and whether he was asked to produce the licence which would have shown that his search in that field was done with regard to due legal procedure? Surely, it is hardly possible that the organization responsible for outreach to and instilling “best practice” in artefact hunters would have omitted to do this. If it turns out that the search was carried out in defiance of current legislation, should the full reward be paid? 

I was interested to follow this up. Just after the launch of the treasure report, a preliminary enquiry was made at the SPVA, listing 32 aircraft crash sites in the broad vicinity of Newark and asking if any licences were issued for searching any of them in and around Feb 2005. Sadly since the actual findspot of the Newark torc has not been made public by the PAS, the SPVA had to search the records of each of them in order to answer this query. Today the answer was received that according to SPVA records, no such search licence had been issued at that time for the disturbance of or metal detecting activities on any of those military aircraft crash sites in the vicinity of Newark. One application (a Lancaster bomber in Newark itself) was refused due to the presence of bombs and human remains (it is a military grave).

So what is going on? The PAS has been putting out the information that the finder was searching an aircraft crash site when it appears on information I have received that no permit for such an operation has been issued in the area. There is more than one type of illegal metal detecting, has the PAS turned a blind eye to an example here? Or is there something I am missing about this case? I would love to learn more.

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