Monday 8 June 2009

Beautiful plumage, the Norwegian Blue…

Roger Bland’s comments on my recent post concerning the Heritage Action Erosion Counter don’t really bring us any closer to why we have to search for and present these data and the PAS cannot. He does bring up though “Roman” votive axes, though one might wonder what relevance they have to the question…. According to Mr Bland, instead of discussing the effects on the archaeological record of current policies:

Is it not more relevant to compare the situation in Britain with that in other countries? A recent study of Roman miniature axes from the Roman North-West by a Canadian researcher, Philip Kiernan (`Miniature Votive Offerings in the Roman North-West', Verlag Franz Philipp Rutzen, Mainz) has details of 120 specimens, more than half of which (64) are from Britain and 27 of the 64 British examples were recorded by PAS. Kiernan only recorded 21 examples from the whole of France, despite the fact that it is at least twice as large as Britain.
Oh whoopee. More axes, contexts poorly known of course, but some dots to put on a distribution map. Three points, I really do not see why we have to assume that Roman period Gallic worshippers were depositing votive objects in the same pattern as insular ones, secondly if we are talking about accidental finds by modern members of the public, France has a much lower population density (115/km2) than the UK (246/km2). Thirdly at this very moment there are seven of these axes identified as "British antiquities" on eBay (so one seventh the number recovered in over a hundred years of collecting, a quarter of the number accumulated in the ten-million quid in the PAS database, probably next week, next month there could be seven more, and so on). Presumably these items were found by “metal detectorists” under the current regime in the UK and simply not recorded. If these represent the sale of duplicates to the searchers’ own collections, heaven knows how many votive axes have been dug out and simply hidden away somewhere in the ten year period of operation of the PAS. I really do not think that looking more carefully at the evidence advanced shows that things are any degree “better” than in any other country. Furthermore looking at the number of items which this suggests are being recovered and not reported, one wonders about the use of the record of just 27 of them in the PAS record. Are these a statistically valid random sample, or is there an inherent bias in the ones that are finding their way into the record, compared with those that are not? It seems to me that Mr Kiernan's book does not look at this problem at all, to judge from the contents I found online. What use are these data for detailed research when we have no information whatsoever from the PAS of what is getting thorough in what quantities? This brings us back to the original point.

Here are the seven I found on eBay today. The first is the familiar figure of "Antiqubottledigger" from Nottingham mentioned in several earlier posts here. He has one. Then there is the seller "Boarsandhorses" in Essex. He has three: here, here and here (are they from the same site?). "Empireantiquities", Retford, also in Nottinghamshire has one "found in Lincolnshire". "Hiddenhistory" in PAS Paradiseland, Norfolk has a Roman Votive Bronze Axe. Comes complete with Museum report, see pic's. Found Norfolk”. But I do not think that is a PAS artefact report, pretty basic, no provenance mentioned. Then for completeness let's mention "roberth6979" selling “Roman bronze decorations artifacts UK lot of 21” from Aurora, Ilinois, United States (export licence?), but I suspect looking at the fibula fragments that this is Balkan stuff and the identification of the 'axe' is anyway a bit dubious. [Note by the way what this tells us about the ultimate fate of many of the artefacts dug up from sites thus trashed, shipped across international borders to collectors, stuffed in a box and sold off when the owner gets bored of the thrill of having "old stuff" to fondle].

Photo: Votive axe, one of two shown on a UK metal detectorist's website, no mention there of the PAS either. There are another three on the UKDFD, one only is recorded with the PAS.

[For the uninitiated, the title of this post comes from a Monty Python sketch - while thousands of objects are coming out of the ground and scattered without record among innumerable personal collections, we've still got 27 votive axes in the ten million quid database, the parrot may be dead, but it has beautiful plumage]


PK said...

Dear Mr. Barford,

Thank you for quoting my book in your blog. In fact, 38 miniature axes are known from France, and 87 from the U.K. and 79 from Switzerland. The entire catalogue includes 217 examples. The discrepancy in distribution between the modern countries is discussed on pages 134 and 136, which are, sadly, not accessible in the table of contents you viewed online (though you might have deduced it would come up in the section entitled "4.8. The geographical distribution of axe models"). But not to fear, if your local library has yet to obtain a copy, you can order one yourself for just 39 euros at the same website:


Philip Kiernan

Paul Barford said...

Well actually thanks, I think I'll give the book a miss. The figures I quoted were from Roger Bland, who says they are yours, so I'd be interested to know what HE makes of teh Swiss figures which - smehow - he seems to have "forgotten" to mention.

Anyway you miss my point, I was NOT talking (unlike Dr Bland) about the differences between countries, but the factors governing reporting/ non-reporting within the countries.

What do you think of the relevance of the Heritage Action Erosion Counter to the statistical reliability of your sample? There is now a French one too you know. It seems to me if they are an indication of what is going on, any considerations of "The geographical distribution of ...." is based on woefully selective data. That is the point I was making.

We are being presented with a very one-sided picture concenmtrating on the alleged "benefits" of being in partnership with those denuding the archaeological record of collectables, while hushing up the shady side of the whole business. Also the suppression of the information on the Swiss axe finds is a typical example precisely of "lovely plumage the Norwegian blue" - the colour of the feathers is not the most important characteristic.

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