Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The Crosby Garrett helmet, The PAS and Archaeological Ethics

Yesterday I made a further post here about the Crosby Garett helmet which suddenly "surfaced" in a catalogue of the auctioneer Christie's. I am grateful that Dr Roger Bland has taken the time to reply to some of my comments on this blog (six comments starting here) on this object and the circumstances surrounding it coming onto the market. It is good to know that although my earlier letter to the PAS was ignored, the Scheme is after all “happy to put our involvement in it on the record” for the non-auction-going public whose archaeological heritage this is on the block. Good.

The PAS confirms that the finder has not previously reported finds to PAS (“but his father has”). The attractive Christie's lady tells us that the 21 year old had been metal detecting on this piece of land since he was fourteen ("seven years") and "found nothing" there - odd then that he kept going back.... We now learn that the object was in fact not reported to the local FLO, but to a London specialist who happens also to work for the PAS and the PAS only got involved later. What we do not learn from Mr Bland was the finder’s declared motivation for contacting Ms Worrell. Bland confirms that the finder was initially “reluctant to give” information on the findspot and stressed that it was “the landowner” who wished to sell the helmet off at auction. The object was already in Christie’s when seen by Ms Worrell, and the site was not visited until August. In fact the 30th August, two weeks ago (would that not be AFTER the Christie’s catalogue had gone to print?). The field apparently is grassland which has preserved earthworks.

Dr Bland says:
Of course we could have declined to have had anything to do with this find, in which case it would still have come on the market but without a good provenance and no museum could have considered acquiring it.
Well, this is precisely my point, the involvement of the PAS has achieved very little in archaeological terms, but has done a vast amount to facilitate its sale for a good price. Let US collectors (coineys particularly) who wish to use the PAS as an ally against closer regulation of the market, note the emnphasis placed by PAS on that awkward (for them) issue of "provenance".

Dr Bland continues:
Unlike Mr Barford, PAS does not start from the point of view that `detectorists are selfish oiks’ (to quote his original posting on the helmet).
Well, I thought that the PAS was supposed to be doing archaeological outreach. I would say that artefact hunters who trash archaeological sites in order to get out of them collectable items for their own personal use (entertainment and financial profit), and by so doing making it impossible to use the archaeological record which that site contained for any nuanced study of the past by archaeological means are by definition behaving in a self-centred and selfish manner. Unlike (apparently) the PAS, I see no differentiation between artefact hunting in the archaeological record in a field in the UK and in the archaeological record in a field anywhere else, the existence of the PAS does not render artefact hunting and collecting as a whole less damaging to the archaeological record.

According to Dr Bland, I am a bad guy and in contrast to me, the PAS believes that
detectorists who report finds to us are human beings who deserve to be treated with respect and that we are more likely to gain the information that we all want to obtain by working with them than by publicly denouncing them when they have not broken any law”.
Unlike the PAS, I feel that archaeological ethics extends beyond merely that which the law allows. Mr No-Name-detectorist would be perfectly at liberty if the landowner agrees to drive his car over the Crosby Garrett helmet smashing it into smaller bits, that does not make such treatment of that artefact in any way ethical. Likewise many things the law allows fall far short of being ethica, that goes for archaeology as well as other things. That PAS will not denounce artefact hunters for anything that is within the law is part of the problem with its brand of “partnership” with collectors (and of course in no way will it lead to the change in public awareness that getting the law changed requires). By consistently siding with the tekkies (to win their "trust' and 'respect"), the PAS is missing an opportunity to inform the wider public, the non-collecting public, what the issues with "portable antiquities" are. But then, who pays for the PAS and why, what should it be doing?

It has to be said that thirteen years of expensive "outreach" by the PAS including “treating with respect” has not yet got us very far in this case. Mr No-name has reported his first object to the PAS (even though he has been detecting since he was fourteen and was presumably made aware of the scheme by his dad), we have learnt he’s been detecting grassland with earthworks in it, that he can show a hole where he said he found the grunged up bits of a helmet. Big deal. Has the PAS told him and the landowner that the code of responsible detecting says to keep off such areas? Has the PAS reacted to this find in that way either on their own website or a metal detecting forum?

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