Thursday, 9 September 2010

The Crosby Garret Helmet is not a national Treasure, cos it ain't gold...

This object was found "somewhere" in or near Crosby Garret, Cumbria (that's by Kirkby Stephen if you want to GoogleEarth it) by an unnamed metal detectorist in May 2010. Metal-detectorist gossip seems to suggest that even fellow tekkies are being kept in the dark concerning the identity of the finder, who it is rumoured steadfastly refuused at first to tell the PAS where the object was found since he was not required to by law. The object was reported (initially sans information on findspot) to the PAS and is recorded on their database ("LANCUM-E48D73" according to Christies, but when their catalogue went to press, that information was not yet released to the public, another piece of "partnership"?). The photos sort of speak for themselves. Dating is a bit wobbly, PAS say "late 1st-mid-3rd century AD.", Christies' "circa late 1st to second century AD".

Metal detectorists are getting themselves in a right state about it: .
See also here:

This is precisely where the whole British system breaks down, the object is not gold and silver and was not found in a hoard, so is not Treasure. If it had been found in Scotland, it would be. Anyway, it was (apparently) not, so just four months after being hoiked out of the ground and after being kept secret - known to only a few metal detectorists and archaeologists - it is being offered in the upcoming October 7th antiquities sale by Christies' (see their e-catalogue here, but you need the patience of an angel to navigate it so you can actually see what's what). There is also a PAS description with nice zoomable photos (do zoom them to see the condition of the metal).

What is interesting is the low estimate 200-300 000 quid. That seems rather low for such a stunning object, not to say in certain ways unique and unrepeatable. Why could this be? Are Christies perhaps erring on the side of caution because there are some rather questionable features about this discovery?

That is leaving aside the finder and landowners being anonymous, this is "traditional" in such circles. Also leaving aside that the finder was not willing to let on where it was found (I believe he has now and the FLO has visited the site where the finder claims to have discovered it). Detectorists are selfish oiks and do not want others poaching on "their" (productive) sites.

I have some other questions. The PAS page says its a metal detector find from "Grassland, Heathland" but in the line below assures us that its not permanent pasture (that would be against the Code of Responsible Metal Detecting) but "disturbed" (so I guess they mean fallow land but previously ploughed). Where is the "damage from the plough and artificial fertilisers" we hear so much about from the apologists of metal detecting? The photos (nicer on the showroom's catalogue, grungier in the PAS shots before it was tarted-up, show that this object has a smooth 'noble' patina and not particularly plough-battered. The weight of metal is not given by Christies, how can an average metal detector detect an isolated thin metal sheet object in pieces (see below) from well below plough level like this if it was unaccompanied by any other metal objects? (Or WAS it?).

So how to explain that patina? It just so happens PAS has records of several finds from this precise area, all of them with a different patina from that which we see on this object: NCL-DEABA0 Stud, NCL-DF9B94 Harness Pendant, and for example a Medieval fingerring NCL-DFAA42. Compare the patina from the local soils with what we see in the Christies photos. These artefacts (and you can use the PAS database to check right across the area where you will find the pattern is repeated) have dark green moderately crusty and relatively thick and flakey corrosion products. The cavalry helmet has thin light green coherent (noble) patina, nothing like the other objects from the soil of the region in the PAS database. Did the local FLO, Sally Worrell, spot this? Why is this not commented upon in the full record?

So perhaps the cavalry helmet has been expertly given a thorough mechanical cleaning? Having myself a lot of experience with the time it takes conservators to work their way through a batch of small problem-free objects from an excavation project, I have some doubts about when there would have been time to do this properly between discovery and sale if it was sitting in the PAS office for part of this time (and let us remember the time needed to print the Christies' catalogue). More to the point, the PAS record says: "The helmet [...] was found in 33 fragments, with 34 smaller fragments found in association". If you look at the Christies' photos the mends are pretty invisible, nice work. So this thing has been cleaned (it has been cleaned before the PAS photos were taken), then recorded by the PAS (including receiving at least one expert opinion), reconstructed (before the PAS recording as the photo shows), gap filled (compare the PAS and Christies' photos of the neck guard for example), cleaned more carefully, tarted-up and then trundled down to London to Christies. Now what conservator would even sign a contract that they would do all that in a few weeks? Where was the conservation work done and by whom? Was any of this done at public expense in the British Museum?

But then again, looking at the photos on page 118 of the online catalogue, where there is a closeup of the finial and a traced floral pattern next to it. What an odd appearance both have. In the top left hand corner of the incised decoration shot you can see nobody has even been near it with a scalpel or anything else. The griffin has scabs of removable (to my eye) corrosion. Why was it left on? Lack of time? Or to add authenticity?

What environment was it buried in to get such odd (for northern Britain) corrosion products? One metal detectorist on a forum suggested a tomb (a dry tomb?). Why are there only "slight remains of iron corrosion surviving" of the iron strap used to close it? If it had been buried in soil, the reaction series would ensure that the iron would corrode sacrificially, producing a huge effloresecence of iron corrosion products - so where is it?

What was it doing in the middle of a field in Crosby Garrett? There is no military garrison known anywhere near the findspot. The PAS suggest that there is limited evidence that "votive offering or hoarding of loot might better explain its deposition at this findspot, but in the absence of excavation this must remain speculative". Well, indeed, one wonders when that will take place and what it will find. Obviously producing "speculation" is not what we are pumping millions of pounds into the Portable Antiquity Scheme for. Where again is the condemnation that a detectorist hoiked out the thin plate fragments himself from an undisturbed contexct below plough level? We are not paying millions of quid for the PAS to sit passively by while this pattern is repeated time and time again.

Readers of this blog will know I have a nasty suspicious mind (I prefer to call it critical thinking), and the more I look at this helmet and the gaps in the story, I wonder whether there is the possibility that its not a British find at all. Anyone could say they found it, cutting a landowning pal into the deal, on behalf of a contact who had 'hot' goods to get rid of from another country with more stringent export licencing laws . The rather "Thracian" style of the decoration keeps nagging me. Of course - that is how it is supposed to look, and it could have been made anywhere in the Empire and brought to soggy Britain before being buried, but I cannot help wondering tonight if it was not buried somewhere else before it was bought to soggy Britian with its leniant antiquity laws. The general anonymity of the "finder" and the lack of any firm details which can be independently checked does not really inspire much confidence. It is not at all unknown for 'hot' antiquities to be 'laundered' by giving them a spurious provenance (the Sevso treasure a case in point, see also here).

But let's say I'm being overly cynical and the thing really was dug up in a soggy Cumbrian field by Mr No-Name detectorist. Surely THIS is precisely the sort of object the Treasure Act should be getting for the nation from such treasure-hunting metal detectorists. Obviously it should, this is no "minor" object that we can blithely release onto the international internet shopping no-questions-asked antiquities market like the bucketloads of coins and other antiquities so eagerly snapped up by foreign buyers. Even metal detectorists (see the threads I link above) are convinced that "this belongs in a museum". Probably it will, but at what price? If the Getty and Miho and the St Louis Art Museum and a few greedy collectors are bidding for it, the price could well go up, and up beyond the Christies' estimate. Of course the British Minister of Culture will slap a temporary export ban on it, to give British museums a chance to raise the hefty funds to buy it back. To buy back what should be national heritage - in other words ours by right?. From whom? From a treasure hunter with a metal detector hoovering finds out from below ploughsoil level on Roman sites in Northern England?

Surely the British law needs to recognise that it is not just glittery archaeological finds of gold and silver which need protecting. A few years ago there was a 'Meet the Ancestors" (a TV programme) competition to name the top ten British treasures, and at the top were the Vindolanda tablets (wood) and a near runner up were the Lewis chessmen (walrus ivory etc). Let's have a better definition from British lawmakers of what is a (national archaeological) Treasure. Let us have that law giving some attention to better protecting the archaeological context of such finds of national treaures than the current cop-out law does.

I'd like to put on record that though there were tricklings on the grapevine, my attention was drawn to this story by a UK metal detectorist, one of the more reflexive among the number I have come across. It might cause him embarrassment if his peers learnt he reads this blog, so I will thank him without naming him. Thanks.

Photos: taken from the thread of a metal detecting forum, but apparently scanned or downloaded by the anonymous author os that post from the Christies' catalogue. I claim fair use here.


Paul Barford said...

I really don't believe this, my tracking software shows the British Museum has looked in on this blog several times throughout the day and at 22:29 there is still somebody there and they've just read the Crosby Garrett helmet article. Perhaps its just a bored security guard. Hi guys, go home, it's late.

David Gill said...

The timescale for the conservation work is 'impressive'. I cannot see the name of the conservator. Who did the work?
Best wishes

Paul Barford said...

well, I think we should know, such speedy work deserves advertisement - unless it does not all fall apart and break out in spots soon after the auction. What I cannot work out is how the "folded" (in the words of the PAS) thin sheet was straightened out to produce the smooth surface we see in the Christies' photos. Something that has been in the coorosice Cumbrian soil nigh on 2000 years would be too brittle to simply 'unbend'.

I hope the new purchaser demands from the seller a FULL conservation report (with 'before' and 'after' photographic documentation and a description of what was done to which parts), in case of future troubles with what was done. (There is of course no mention of such a document being in existence in the Christies' catalogue).

As I say, I think we should learn whether this value-boosting operation was carried out, or partly carried out at public expense in the British Museum. They have had the reputation in the past of being very good at reforming bent metal 'treasures'.

Anonymous said...

According to todays PAS blog the restoration to its current state has been done by Christies

Paul Barford said...

Christie's is a shopkeeper, not a conservation body. We may justifiably ask then, whether the object has been conserved, or merely restored. Where is the report?

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