Thursday, 16 September 2010

BM Had Doubts on Provenance of the Crosby Garrett Helment in July 2010?

I was looking into the winged griffin attached to the top of the restored Crosby Garrett helmet and revisited Dr Ralph Jackson's report published on the PAS website and something else caught my eye.

The finder who we have established from stories about him in the local news media lives in Peterlee, County Durham asserts that the object was dug up "somewhere" by him some time in May but at the beginning of June (having slipped through the hands of the local PAS) it was already down in London at Christie's, where according to Roger Bland it was seen by Sally Worrell. It was however only on 30th August (again according to Bland) that the findspot was revealed. I published my first post on this on the afternoon of 9th September (let it be recalled on being alerted earlier on in the day by metal detectorists concerned about some aspects of this find - it was already being discussed on MD forums earlier that day, but there had not been a peep of information from the PAS before 9th September nor was there to be for some time afterwards). From the beginning I raised the question of how it was ascertained that this newly-surfaced item had not been 'planted'. Questions which the PAS has curtly dismissed.

It was only later (13th September) that the PAS broke their silence about its existence (oddly this report now carries the date 16th September - yesterday). This was well after it had "surfaced" in the Christie's catalogue and in the local and national newspapers. Roger Bland added further details in comments to this blog received about midday on 15th Septemeber.

The PAS "announcement" carries a link to a report written by Dr Ralph Jackson Senior Curator of Romano-British Collections of the British Museum, so a major respected authority. It is clearly dated at the bottom "9th September 2010" (i.e., the date I first published the news about the item questioning the steps taken to verify the stated provenance). This report has an odd beginning:
The helmet was examined by the writer on 22nd July 2010 at Christie’s Auction House Old Brompton Road. It was part way through a process of restoration in preparation for sale at auction. The form of the helmet, its condition, patina, corrosion products and soil accretions appeared entirely consistent with its former use, demise, burial and rediscovery in Cumbria and I see no reason to doubt its given provenance.
So, seven weeks on into the conservation, the object still had "soil accretions"? This was after the restoration was part complete (Jackson uses the form "has been reconstructed" later in his report of the July examination). Was the object being assembled from uncleaned (and therefore unstabilised?) pieces of corroded bronze? Oh, I really would like to see the documentation of this "conservation". Is there dirt and unstabilised crud under the Christie's paint?

But that is aside from the real issue. If it was only after - according to what Roger Bland says - three people had been talking to the finder from Durham three months that the actual findspot in Cumbria was revealed (30th August according to Bland), then to what "given provenance" was Jackson comparing its state to on July 22nd? More to the point, why in fact when visiting Christie's was the first question which Jackson addresses in his report not authenticity (which would be usual in the case of recently "surfaced" antiquities) but the provenance?

Look at this:
"The form of the helmet [...] appeared entirely consistent with its former use, demise, burial and rediscovery in Cumbria ..."
"The [...] condition [of the helmet] appeared entirely consistent with its former use, demise, burial and rediscovery in Cumbria ..."
"The [...] patina, [...] appeared entirely consistent with its former use, demise, burial and rediscovery in Cumbria..."
"The [...] corrosion products [...] appeared entirely consistent with its former use, demise, burial and rediscovery in Cumbria..."
"The [...] soil accretions appeared entirely consistent with its former use, demise, burial and rediscovery in Cumbria,
and I see no reason to doubt its given provenance."

Question one, what "given provenance" on July 22nd? How can any of these things be conclusive that it came from this "given provenance" since the head of the PAS tells us this was not given until the end of August? Patina and soil accretions in particular, there are a lot of soil types across even just Cumbria (but remember that the finder comes from County Durham), so this seems an extraordinary statement and it would be useful to learn just what the author of this brief report knew about the provenance at the time of his visit and what he means by what he wrote six weeks later.

How can any of these things (like soil accretions) talk about the "use and demise" of the object? The form of the object is not typically "Cumbrian", how can the form of the object remove any doubts that the object was found in "Cumbria"? The dent on the nose ("condition"), Jackson asserts is consistent with it being used "in Cumbria". I'd like to know how even the top BM specialist can differentiate a "Cumbrian" dent on the nose from a Syrian or Pannonian one [for example made before it was brought to northern Britain].

What I think Dr Jackson is getting at is the patina and soil accretions he saw on 22nd July were consistent with a findspot in "Cumbria". It is therefore amusing to note that Roger Bland stresses in his version that "As for the suggestion that the helmet has a different patina from other finds recorded by PAS from the parish, this is not relevant. First, the helmet has been completely restored by Christie’s so that its external appearance now is very different from when it was found". By his own account, Jackson saw the object part way through this restoration so presumably did not see it in its "as found" state, but is adamant that it had typical "Cumbrian" corrosion products and soil accretions on it when he saw it.

This is all very confusing. At what stage and why did Dr Jackson insert that passage into his report of his examination of the state of the object on 22nd Jul 2010? At what stage in the investigations of the provenance did "Cumbria" figure as the findspot? What corrosion products and soil accretions did Dr Jackson see and with what is he comparing them?

Dr Jackson may "see no reason to doubt its given provenance", but based on that opinion legitimising this sale, somebody will be parting with hundreds of thousands of pounds. More to the point, in the end when an export licence is deferred, it will be the British public that will be digging into their own pockets to contribute this cash to match the auction price plus additional costs. I think they (who pay Dr Jackson's salary as a staff member of the national museum) are justified in expecting a little more than a bald statement in effect "I see nothing wrong" starting this report. The public report begins with a conclusion which was reached on the basis of evidence it simply does not detail.

Once again the question arises of what specific due diligence steps were taken by the British Museum, and the Portable Antiquities Scheme in particular, to ascertain the veracity of the reported findspot before they allowed the addition of their authorative voice to legitimising this anonymous private antiquities sale?

UPDATE: Since this was written, photos have become available on the Roman Army Talk forum of the inside of the helmet. There it can be seen that there is no trace of the hinge "at the centre of the brow within the curly hair" which Jackson claims to have seen in his examination of the object. He also said that the helmet was fastened shut with a leather strap "which encircled the nape of the head piece and was secured by its eyeleted ends to an iron stud beneath each ear of the mask". Although there is iron corrosion on the jawline on one side at least - the mask has no ears. Also I would be very interested to hear from somebody who can show me corrosion products on dugup metalwork from Cumbria which are like those in the interior of the mask visible in those photos, and quite clearly not cleaned off.

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