Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Not nighthawking, really - it woz in da day

A large hoard of Roman coins was recently discovered in the Shrewsbury area by Nick Davies a "novice metal detector user" who had bought his first metal detector a month ago and this is his first find made with it. The 10,000 4th century AD coins had been placed in a storage jar. Unfortunately, according to the entry in the PAS blog, Mr Davies was on a public bridleway on land that he did not have permission to search for artefacts on. Mr Davies also excavated the hoard and dumped the lot on the desk of Peter Reavill, Finds Liaison Officer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme based with Shropshire Council Museum Service (who wrote the blog article referred to). A small excavation was undertaken with the hope of understanding how the coins were placed in the ground.

It really beats me how people think that they can just wander onto anyone's property with a metal detector and take from it whatever they fancy. Especially in a country like England. Its not exactly rocket science stuff, what was the guy thinking? This is despite the fact that the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 specifically says that metal detecting cannot be carried out on public footpaths etc. Anyhow, its a good job Mr Davies does not live in Florida, where as a collector informs us he'd get a bullet in him for stepping onto somebody else's property (here, third quote down).

Now let's see, he was on the land using a metal detector illegally, he did not follow the Treasure Act Code of Practice and leave the find alone and call in the archaeologists... full reward then for both him and the landowner, right? In what way is best practice being encouraged?

Secondly, it is difficult to see what archaeological "context" for these hoiked-out artefacts has actually been discovered here. Excavating a trench a few metres in any direction around the findspot to make sure no coins were missed is hardly going to reveal much about the place it was deposited. Was it buried in the beaten earthen floor of a timber building inhabited seasonally by migrant workers on the edge of the infield of a villa estate? Just outside the edge of an abandoned cemetery? Outside the gate of an as-yet-undiscovered fort? On a religious site (holy grove for example)? In the middle of an empty field? How on earth can anyone say we know where in relation to the surrounding features that pot was buried without that evidence? We can make up whatever romantic stories we like, about soldiers burying their savings before a battle, or a family fleeing and burying its wealth and not coming back for it or whatever, but where is the hard excavated proof from the PAS investigation?

On the Moneta-L list reporting this find ACCG activist and coin dealer Dave Welsh asks "what else would there have been to learn from this discovery that would have been gained if the excavation had instead been conducted by an archaeologist?" Well, we really do not know do we, because the artefact hunter hoiked the lot out - despite the fact that the Code of Practice to the Treasure Act specifically talks about leaving it in situ as soon as the nature of the find (as potential 'Treasure') is clear.

Having the site excavated properly is one of the things the Treasure Act was set up to ensure. But then, the PAS does not have the resources to do a proper investigation of each findspot to identify its context within the ancient landscape, neither does it have the resources to produce proper reports of such investigations. I am sure they'd throw my own arguments back at me and point out that the rest of the evidence is preserved in situ, and refer to the cumulative nature of archaeological knowledge. Fair enough, but it begs the question of why the partial evidence (the hoard) is removed without following it up. Also of course there is the unwarranted assumption that after a few years of nighthawking on the spot where a "treasure" was found, that much of that evidence left in situ in 2009 will still be there in usable form in 2019 or 2029.

Far from being an exemplar of "how well the Treasure Act is working" this is yet another of those cases that illustrates some of the severe problems that exist with the way it works in England and Wales and it would be nice to see some discussion of the archaeological aspects rather than the "look, wotta lotta goodies we've found" which tends to dominate.

(edited 15/9/09)

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