Thursday, 14 October 2010

Discussing the review of the Treasure Act in England

Over on the Council for British Archaeology's "Britarch' discussion list there has been some desultory discussion of the way the Crosby Garrett helmet fiasco has shown up the huge deficiencies of the 1996 act to secure important archaeological accidental finds for the nation. The problem is that when it was written archaeology could not find the public voice to say that its not about gold and silver and shiny things, so not surprisingly the law was written to only cover gold and silver and shiny things. So Mike Heyworth, CBA director broached the subject on the list a few days ago and the discussion that ensued is continuing.

Now all over the UK detecting media those "responsible folk" are unanimous that the Crosby Garrett helmet fiasco did the public image of their hobby a huge amount of damage (well, at least amongst those who did NOT immediately rush out and buy a metal detector to get rich too). Almost every UK detectorist is saying that what happened should not have, that the helmet should have gone to a museum (with of course the two million quid reward going nevertheless to their tekkie mate- 'ooevver he wuz). Over on the continent they are laughing at British archaeology that is so proud of its achievement in "partnership" with the legalised looters of ancient sites, and look what happens. So in general, all UK metal detectorists are in favour of changing the law so that spectacular bad-publicity objects like this will be 'saved for the nation' (whatever that means).

But here's the rub. All of them recognise that they themselves are about as likely to find something like this as win the lottery or be killed by a meteorite. the moment discussion shifts to talking about ncluding in the revised laws anything at all that they ARE likely to find and want to add to their collection, then they are up in arms in protest (the phrase "jackboots of archaeology" was heard in this discussion yesterday).

The problem with the CBA's archaeology discussion list is that it is infested with artefact hunters. In accordance with the policy of the former government, "they too are archaeologists", metal detecting allegedly has a common ground with archaeology. that is of course nonsense. They both use old "things" (often "dugup things"), but there the connection ends. Archaeology uses things to study and then make the results of their study externally accessible, collectors may study them but their main aim is to add things to their shut-away collection. Where is the Crosby Garrett helmet, who knows?

So instead of a measured discussion of what archaeological significance there is in loose artefacts found accidentally (or on purpose by treasure hunters) and how legislation could be formulated to encompass it, a totally different discussion has broken out on the Britarch list (in which CBA officers have joined too!). This may be characterised as 'tribalism' - archaeologists are better/no better than detectorists, more finds found by one group or the other, and then the tekkie's imaginary trump card, the threat "if all metal detectorists got together and started getting in touch with their MP’s etc the archaeological establishment would have a run for its money. You saw the effect that was put in motion when many backed the PAS and their funding review. we can do the same thing again. Its votes that swing the changes as you all well know". So there! So much then for 13 years "liaison" and "partnership", eh?

So what do English and Welsh artefact hunters have in mind when they talk about extending the Treasure Act?


Matt B. said...

You're so right.
One thing, though: on the continent we don't laugh at British archaeology. We're just as saddened and outraged as you are by these developements.
Firstly archaeology is archaeology wherever it is. Its destruction is just as bad whether it's here in Germany, in Britain or in Southeast Asia.
Secondly archaeology, especially that of such widespread phenomena as the Roman empire or the Viking expansion, needs international comparison. So destruction of UK sites affects our research negatively as well.
And lastly Britain sets a dangerous example for the legislation and handling of detectorists in other countries.
So keep up the fight. You're continental colleagues are behind you. (Well, most of us at least...)

Paul Barford said...


I know some of those who - rightly or wrongly - laugh. I also get a certain amount of stick over here for it.

I totally agree that the precedent (I'd hesitate to call it an example) is highly dangerous because of course the PAS never expand on the problems, just talk about how jolly good they are.

Mo said...

"First of all we must agree that the disciplines of metal detecting and archaeology will always be at odds with each other no matter which way people try to paint the picture."

When has metal detecting been a "discipline"? It is like saying that car booting is a discipline You do, however have to part with cash at a car boot however small the sum.

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