Thursday, 31 March 2011

It's (shrug) legal innit?

I came back from Egypt to find 1000 or so unread emails in the inbox in my deliberately stationary office computer. One of them was the link I want to discuss here, this one from a British archaeologist (and why can't he discuss it himself?). Its about a month out of date as a news item, but still worth highlighting. It is about a new shop opened by a father and son team speaking about their treasure hunting (and now treasure-selling) passion. Sadly you do not seem to be able to embed the video, readers will have to make do with clicking here. The BBC-blurb to the video says:
A new shop full of unearthed hidden treasure is opening in the East Sussex town of Eastbourne. The artefacts, some of which are thousands of years old, can be legally offered for sale under treasure trove rules.
Here's an edited transcript of part of the script...

Cultured voice over [Robin Gibson](dramatic mood music):"They are hundreds, even thousands of years old and they are here because they were dug up by Treasure seekers",
Estuary English bloke in a suit: "[...] some roman keys, we find hammered silver coins, there's a Celtic toggle",
Cultured Voice over: "Coins, rings, daggers, you'd think this was a museum, but in a few days' time anyone will be able to come in here and buy them".
Estuary English bloke in a tie (notably avoiding eye contact): "One or two pieces are for display, um, but, yeah basically, you know, legally you can buy all of these items (shrugs) and, you know, its basically a pleasure to see these people's faces as they open their wallets..."
[...] [more stuff, like son filmed against the backdrop of a case full of gold artefacts, ending with]
Cultured Voice Over: "It's likely to be a talking point - the shop where, if you can afford it, you really can buy buried treasures".

This gratuitous plug for a newly-opened business does not state the shop's name, but we learn that the owner's name is Simon Wicks, and he has "spent his whole life digging for artefacts and curios underground". We learn more from the Eastbourne Herald - the shop is called Britanicus and its in Terminus Road, Eastbourne. He also sells (what else could he sell?) metal detectors. There's a nice bit of calling-a-spade-a-spade in the newspaper article: "Simon Wicks has been legally plundering historical sites for the past 40 years [...]" Thank you Eastbourne Herald for getting it right and using a word (the P-word) few British archaeologists would dare mouth with regard their "partners with metal detectors". If the British archaeological community is not going to do conscientious public outreach about artefact hunting, its good to see some journalists who are not swallowing the PAS-fluffy bunny "partnership" pap. (Some "metal detectorists" did not appreciate the collocation, but do not seem really to explore the issue of the sale of these items very deeply.)

Coming back to the BBC (which does not use the P-word). How many times do people have to be told what the law is CALLED? IT IS NOT THE "TREASURE TROVE LAW" ANY MORE. Millions of pounds worth of PAS outreach and not even the BBC can get it right.

What about this statement "yeah basically, you know, legally you can buy all of these items"? Well, that is indeed so if (Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003) they are not tainted . Let's assume that all the potential treasure items of English and Welsh origin have been reported to the Coroner and released, let us assume that none came from Scotland or northern Ireland where different rules apply. But what about that plate brooch at 1:35? That's not a British find is it? Crimea? Danubian Plain? Southern Europe? (I've seen some very good fakes of these recently, from the Ukraine, is this one of them? We'd have to see the back to resolve that one, I'm a bit puzzled by what we can see of the pin mechanism). Not to mention the copper alloy Roman cavalry helmet mask, if real.

How many of those copper alloy artefacts were bought direct from local metal detectorists able to show the purchaser a valid landowners' agreement, and how many come from job lots of metal detected stuff from unknown foreign sites? Those arrowheads fleetingly shown at the beginning of the film are not typically British types, very similar ones do occur in the Balkans and across eastern Europe and central Asia. If those finds were dug up on the continent and came into the UK without the relevant paperwork (including export licences) they would fall under the definition of tainted artefacts in the terms of the 2003 Act (and before anyone suggests, "well those items might not be for sale", first look properly at article 3 of the 2003 Act). Britain has in fact some very strict laws about even handling this type of material - but of course it is all a hopeless sham, because that law has never actually been enforced (I stand to be corrected, but I believe it is still the case that - despite the tonnes of items on the UK market of dodgy provenance - that act has never once resulted in a successful prosecution). You will note as an indication of its irrelevance to the treatment of portable antiquities in the UK that there appears not to be even a link to its text on the Portable Antiquities Scheme website (not even here, though it is mentioned in passing right at the bottom).

But is "it's (shrug) legal innit" actually a justification for this? Legal, maybe, what about the ethical and moral issues? Is this the way to treat the archaeological record, as a source of collectables a resource to be eroded away for entertainment and profit? Now what Britain does with its archaeological heritage is up to the Brits to decide (which they can't do when the knottier issues are eternally skated over in the interests of maintaining an erosive "partnership"). It is however quite clear that, like the US antiquities trade, it is not just local sites which are being trashed to keep up the supply of goods in these markets. To those who follow such things, it is obvious that British artefact dealers, both the bigger auction houses but especially the dealers in so-called "minor antiquities" (a classification I do not accept) are not being supplied from the "legal plundering" of the archaeological record in their own country alone. The whole trade is all-too-obviously bolstered by dugup goods imported from other countries, in most cases where the exploitation of the archaeological record in this manner (to the detriment of the whole of society) is illegal. These artefacts are tainted because they were obtained by illegal activity, an activity which their incorporation (no-questions-asked) into the foreign market facilitates and encourages. In the case of the bigger dealers, its things like Greek pots and Egyptian sculptures, much of it from tomb-robbing. In the case of the "minor" (sic) dealers, the damage done by their source of supply is (though they will vehemently deny it) the wholesale destructive metal-detecting (sometimes accompanied by the use of heavy earth-moving plant) of archaeological sites to produce job lots of "partifacts" and coins which after sorting find their own niches in the market. Mr Wicks too has a pile of "uncleaned ancient" coins on display in his shop.

Has the local FLO visited Mr Wicks' shop? I think we'd all be interested to hear what she said to him about it as part of the PAS archaeological outreach to the public on portable antiquity matters. For Sussex that's Stephanie Smith, the Sussex Archaeological Society in Lewes, just down the road.

[Concerning one reaction to the news of the reputed find by Simon Wicks of Anne Boleyn's jewellery see here].

Illustrations: screen grabs from BBC video

No comments:

Creative Commons License
Ten utwór jest dostępny na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa-Bez utworów zależnych 3.0 Unported.