Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The Crosby Garrett Helmet, the PAS and Provenance

In the post above I discuss more general issues raised by Roger Bland's several comments to my recent remarks on the Crosby Garrett helmet. Here I'd like to go back to what I was saying about the issue of the provenance and the role of the PAS in establishing a "pedigree" for items that come onto the market. This is obviously a serious issue with wide implications and deserves not to be dismissed. Authenticity of provenance is an important issue in archaelogy - take the Piltdown Man, Dorak Affair, the Getty Kouroi etc. and I do not see why we cannot discuss it in relation to finds made by members of the public reported for various reasons to museums or the PAS.

From the beginning I have raised the issue of how we know this spectacular object actually had indeed been found where and when the finder says. Bland dismisses what I say as “groundless assertions”. I do however quite clearly state the grounds on which I raise some issues about this find, Dr Bland merely dismisses or misunderstands them.

The PAS suggest the object is a genuine British find because the FLO has now (several months later) seen the hole it came from and the finder:
is an unemployed former student and it seems incredible that he could have bought this find in Europe and have gone to this trouble to give it a false UK provenance. Apart from anything else, if he had bought it abroad, he could easily have sold it in the UK as a foreign find. As it is, he is selling it with the agreement of the landowner and is sharing the proceeds with him”.
Really, this sounds so naïve. Firstly we know of other cases where some bloke dug a hole in a piece of land to say that’s where he found stuff he’d illegally obtained elsewhere. In any case the object was in Christies 4th June, but the hole was only shown 30th August, plenty of time for anyone (like the landowner) to go to the findspot dig a hole and scatter a few bits of crud from the bottom of the bag used to take the bits to London to add verisimilitude to the story that "this" was the precise findspot. "Seeing the hole" is obviously not enough.

That Mr Unemployed No-name was himself the purchaser of a ‘hot’ find from outside the UK is not actually the type of hypothetical scenario I had in mind. I was rather thinking hypothetically of a third person who’d smuggled a ‘hot’ find out of (say) Turkey or Libya who in order to sell it openly would be seeking contacts with people who for a consideration can act as a “finder” and cut a friendly landowner in on the deal (or of course maybe the third party would seek a landowner who cuts a trusted “lucky finder” in on the deal). How do we know this is not the case in any portable antiquities "find"?

In contrast to Dr Bland's suggestion that hypothetical hot goods (about which I was writing) acquired abroad "could easily [be] sold [...] in the UK as a foreign find", I think these days (despite some recent lapses in the news), it is getting more and more risky to attempt to sell items that have been smuggled out of foreign lands at a reputable London auction house. As Dr Bland admits in this case, without a decent provenance “no museum could have considered acquiring [it]”. One way of getting round this in such a scenario could be to make up a believable false provenance, all the better if you can get a museum or other trusted institution to accept it. “Found in a Field” in a country with liberal antiquities laws is just as good as “from a New York Collection” for the purpose of laundering ‘hot’ finds, with the added benefit that no Cambridge or Swansea researcher is going to come along with a photo showing it in a different “collection”.

With regard to my earlier comments about the type of burial environment this object appears to have come from, which might lead to more searching questions about its provenance, Dr Bland adds:
As for the suggestion that the helmet has a different patina from other finds recorded by PAS from the parish, this is not relevant.
I beg to differ. It is actually very relevant. As any archaeologist and archaeological conservator will tell Dr Bland, the corrosion products of an archaeological metal item are created over a period of time when it comes to an equilibrium with the burial environment, different burial environments produce different corrosion products. All the available information suggests that this object had and has a very odd range of corrosion products for something supposedly found in a Cumbrian field. The argument that this had somehow been altered by Christie's conservation (even if that is of undocumented nature) really cannot explain this away so easily. The appearance of the object before Christie’s restoration is visible in the photos on the PAS website; on the Christie’s closeup photos as I said, one can see that in some areas, the original corrosion products have not been removed even in its “as sold” state.

As for Bland’s additional point that my comment were being made “comparing images shot at different times, in different lighting conditions” they are comments made to a great degree on the basis of the only images provided as mitigation ("preservation by documentation") by the multi-million pound public scheme (the PAS) as a permanent “record” of the appearance of objects which are lost to further study because they since entered scattered ephemeral personal collections. I hope we can trust that these images (the only ones we will possess) are of a sufficient standard to actually be able to use them as evidence for various types of study. Is that not so? Finally, according to Dr Bland:
the other objects with which it is being compared were found in a different part of the parish
well, I was using the evidence available through the PAS to the British public (the real stakeholders in the UK's collected-away-archaeological-heritage). It is not my fault that this is incomplete, preventing their proper interpretation.

Anyhow, Dr Bland apparently wishes to explain away the differences by suggesting that in a "different part of the parish" metal objects are found which have corrosion products like the Crosby Garrett helmet because they are in a different soil type on a totally different geology. Hmmm. Can Dr Bland or his Cumbria-Lancashire FLOs show us three objects metal-detected from the same soil type on the same geology (it does not have to be the same site, let it be from anywhere in Lancashire and Cumbria) with the same corrosion products with the same characteristics as those seen on the PAS photos of the Crossby Garrett helmet? Just three will do.

So I ask again, given a number of odd circumstances in a case like this, can we learn what measures would be taken by the PAS to determine that a detectorist (like one who we now learn had not built up trust through having previously collaborated with the PAS, and remains anonymous) had actually found what they say they did in a particular field and it had not earlier been handed to someone in a box in a clandestine meeting with a guy in dark glasses and foreign accent in a supermarket carpark? It's a simple enough question.


Portable said...

I have set out PAS’s involvement in this find in my response to your previous posting on the helmet. Unlike you, PAS does not subscribe to the unqualified view that `detectorists are selfish oiks’, nor do we indulge in the character assassination of private individuals who will find it difficult to defend themselves, as you have attempted in your latest post.
Three of our staff have met the finder and talked to him at length; two of them have visited the findspot and have written a report on it, the main points of which I summarised in my earlier response. On that basis we are content that we do know where this object was found.
We are happy to allow unbiased readers of your blog to judge for themselves between our statement of the facts and your groundless assertions.

Paul Barford said...

Thank you Roger, or is it again Dan this time?

Whoever it is, I am not sure why when I ask what measures were applied to verify the provenance, it becomes "character assassination". I am sure the PAS are as aware (possibly more so) than me of what DOES go on in the anonymity of the global antiquities market, and - like it or not - the PAS surely has to exercise perpetual vigilance so the record is not corrupted by people in whose interest it is for one reason or another to obscure true provenances of freshly "surfaced" finds. There is a lot of it around these days.

I was asking what the guarantees are taking this recently "surfaced" find as a test case; basically what you are saying is that after twelve weeks of "talking" by three people you eventually get a provenance from him and have seen a hole in a field. Sorry that I do not really regard that a satisfactory display of due diligence when so many questions remain and the PAS can only offer "speculation" about some aspects of this find. That is the way I see it.

The unbiased readers of my blog will indeed make up their own minds what the surfacing of this object on the market so soon after being anonymously hoiked out of the ground says about British policies on "protecting the heritage" in the face of rampant exploitation of the UK's archaeological record as a source of collectables for personal entertainment and profit.

They can also judge the likely value of the information that is produced and carefully archived on the database if really you are not able to show how the data are filtered. Basically it seems that the upshot of all this is that anyone can say they found anything anywhere and it has a chance of getting onto the PAS database.

I do not accept that that conclusion is a "groundless assertion" in the light of what we have learnt [and still not learnt] about this case, taken with other cases we both know about, not all of which are discussed here. It seems to me that there is a serious problem here which only increases with the quantities of unverifiable data accepted onto your database, and the monetary value that can be associated with attaching the 'right' provenance [or title to sell] to an object on a market where nobody asks searching questions.

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