Monday, 16 August 2010

PAS Does Not Care: Take the Lot, Why Don't You?

Two weeks ago I discussed here the loudly trumpeted purchase by an employee of the Ancient Coin Collectors' Guild of a piece of decorated Celtic metalwork which its new owner proudly asserts is so "nationally important" as a source of information about the insular development of celtic art that it really should never have received an export licence. He also revealed that the item had been discovered by metal detecting in Oxfordshire and it had never been reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (as the Code on Responsible Metal Detecting requires of responsible artefact hunters). As such it is one of the many thousands of potentially significant metal detected items from British soil not recorded on the PAS database.

Since the object had been discussed most widely on the closed access Yahoo "Ancient Artifacts" discussion list, it was possible that the PAS had not received this information. I therefore wrote (30th July) to the Director, Dr Roger Bland at the British Museum with a copy sent to the Oxfordshire FLO Anni Byard at the Oxfordshire Museum Resource Centre in Standlake suggesting they contact the dealer who had sold it overseas without any record being made first and get some information about where it had come from for the PAS database, and maybe adopt a standpoint on the opinions that were being expressed on collectors' forums about, for example, the "unimportance" of provenance in cases like this. Dr Bland was out of the office, so I copied the letter to his Deputy, Michael Lewis. I learnt that at about the same time Dr David Gill of the University of Swansea also wrote to them expressing similar disquiet.

Since then neither I nor (I learn just now) Dr Gill have received any response from the PAS, perhaps they are all on holiday and the Scheme is drifting like a rudderless ship at the beginning of the metal detecting season at harvest time. Or perhaps actually contacting the relevant parties about a single unrecorded item is just too much more bother, rather than going along to a metal detecting "find of the month" competition.

There are a number of reasons why it is clear that the PAS should have responded immediately to the ongoing discussion of this item [now on several online forums, reaching several thousand (literally) collectors on at least two continents]. The PAS is supposedly engaged in "outreach", but to do that, some of my readers may feel like me, it actually has to respond to situations like this when notified, and not sit back and ignore them.

Taxpayers of Oxfordshire might like to pop along to the Museums resource Centre and ask Ms Byard why an apparently unique piece of the county's history has slipped through her fingers without anyone being any the wiser, and what she has done to try and at least get some information for the database. They can then email me and let me know what she said, as I for one am interested and am apparently not going to get an answer from Oxfordshire or the apparently deserted desks of Bloomsbury.

Anyway the message to metal detectorists and antiquity dealers in the UK is clear, if you do not want to record even "significant" pieces before they are sold off, you really do not have to, and nobody cares enough in England and Wales to chase you up after it. The question is then, why bother? Everybody in the YouKay is so jubilant about the numbers of finds coming in from metal detecting club visits and rally attendance rather than even mentioning that large numbers of finds from artefact mining of archaeological sites in Britain are not being reported at all. If the numbers of finds noted on the AS database is enough to legitimise the hobby, then why bother about the rest? After all, its a waste of breath the PAS criticising irresponsible "metal detectorists" and ACCG collectors like the purchaser of this item, and only creates bad feeling, no?

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