Tuesday 19 April 2011

The Archaeological Response to the Staffordshire Hoard

A while back there was a big bally-hoo in the press about a find known as "the Staffordshire hoard". The group of archaeologists involved in excavating the rest of the hoard after the finder had reported it (not before he’d reportedly spent five days recovering a major part of it himself) were very secretive about the whole project. When information emerged about what they'd been doing, some of us were appalled. I said so in a couple of posts on this blog - like here. In general however such comments were met by an embarrassed silence by British archaeologists, how could one raise a peep of criticism when the Portable Antiquities Scheme is doing such a wonderful job with our partner heritage hero metal detectorists? And anyway there was lots of GOLD. Who would criticise the team from Birmingham who were getting so much historic gold Treasure out of the ground? Shhhhhh....

So it is with some satisfaction that I read Martin Carver's comments (echoing sentiments expressed a few pages earlier by Catherine Hills) at the end of a series of articles in a recent number of Antiquity showcasing these still-contextless but jolly expensive golden geegaws. Its contents are best summed up by the title ‘The best we can do?’ (probably just a satisfying coincidence it echoes the title of my own earlier text). Carver says:
‘while we are happy to welcome the arrival of a mass of shiny things, we are bound to lament the loss of an opportunity to understand what they mean [and] the paradox of the English system: the treasure hunters are applauded and rewarded, but the archaeologists are seemingly obliged to lurk in the shadows, anxious not to spoil the party’.
He goes on to touch upon the manner in which this story was used in archaeological outreach:
‘it seems astonishing that the public presentation of the entire episode was dominated by the reward to an individual rather than the potential reward for this generation and the many to come, of the new history potentially on offer from a structured investigation’.
The essay sets out the sort of project design of a structured investigation that should have been set up as a response to the reported find (2101, 232-5). He ends by pointing out that the valuing of knowledge over treasure means a full and proper study of this assemblage which will probably cost at least as half as much as the reward the finder got for it. Where are we going to get the funds to do that (and publish all the other 700 or so Treasure finds hoiked out of the ground by metal detectorists each year - to the level of die link studies of all those Roman coins from hoards)?

Obviously Carver is one of those whom supporters of current policies on artefact hunting will be alleging "do not understand artefact hunting" when he writes - perfectly sensibly - that he deplores that the whole archaeological project carried out subsequent to the reporting of the hoard (Dean et al 2010) took place in such a ‘furtive’ manner, saying:
‘I for one would not accept the premise that the fear of nighthawks (looters) requires secrecy, speed or a total absence of consultation (especially in the six months separating the two campaigns). We do not live in an anarchy’.
Well, I think when it comes to the way England and Wales deal with those that plunder archaeological sites for collectables, we might as well be. How many people does Prof. Carver think have been in the past two years all over the fields just over the hedge from the findspot, if not that field itself at night- nobody asking, nobody knowing? One, two, five? One two or five hundred? And what have they found? Even if they had been caught, what would have happened to them? That is the extent of the anti-archaeological anarchy that artefact hunting as a whole represents.

A spot on the south slope of a low ridge at the point a major Roman road crosses a shallow stream valley in an area where charter and place name evidence shows there may have been an important centre is asking to be gone over by artefact hunters. As this site was. Mr Herbert reported his find (four days later than I think he should), what would have happened if somebody else had found five of those items and not reported them and took them to a dealer saying they'd been "in the family for years" possibly since "uncle Joe was in Normandy"? Looking at the topography, I know exactly where I'd be looking if I were a metal detectorist. That site is totally open to whoever wants to go over it - by day or night - and we can do nothing to stop it, just ask "nicely please" if the plunderer would kindly show us some of what they've got before they put it in their personal private collection or on e-Bay/V-coins/Timeline Originals or wherever. We have no "rights" to ask any plunderer not to go there, we have no "rights" even to any information found and destroyed when (its not an "if" I think) he goes there, we have no "rights" to any thing he finds (unless its shiny gold or silver, but a complete enamelled hanging bowl for example is not Treasure by English law). When instead it should be a situation that an artefact hunting plunderer has no right to trash an important part (I'd like to say "any" part -but then will be accused of being an "extremist") of the archaeological record for personal entertainment and profit.

Carver, M. 2011, ‘The Best we can do?’, Antiquity 85, 230-34 (Check it out).

Dean, S., D. Hooker, and A. Jones 2010, ‘The Staffordshire Hoard: the fieldwork’, Antiquaries Journal 90, 139-52.


Mo said...

There were other issues about the Staffordshire hoard and it's finder that were not criticised in the euphoria that followed it's finding. Namely Terry Herbert's employment status.

According to the Independant he was on disability benefit however he has been pictured with a metal detector and a spade. Obviously not that disabled.


Paul Barford said...

I think this "disabled" man was getting out in the fields quite often, and perfectly able to get down to the metal detecting club.

Do the DHSS (or whatever it is now) still have a Fraud Squad? I wonder if anyone dropped them a line that they might like to investigate this case, and whether Mr H. might be asked to return the payments he received for "not being available for work" for even a sit-down job, but perfectly available for plundering the fields.

I've got this in something I wrote about the case: "Terry Herbert, living in a council flat on a disability pension had been metal detecting eighteen years before he became the finder of the hoard of items worth a “seven-figure” sum. He is quoted as saying about this aspect of his hobby: “It’s more fun than winning the lottery. People laugh at metal detectorists. I've had people go past and go 'beep beep, he's after pennies'. Well no, we are out there to find this kind of stuff and it is out there”. He stated that before he sets out for his day's detecting he has a prayer he recites: “spirits of yesteryear take me where the coins appear”. […] My mates at the (metal detecting) club always say if there is a gold coin in a field I will be the one to find it. […] This is what metal detectorists dream of, finding stuff like this”. Mr Herbert described his feelings on discovering bagfuls of gold and garnet jewellery over five days thus: “Imagine you're at home and somebody keeps putting money through your letterbox, that was what it was like. I was going to bed and in my sleep I was seeing gold items. As soon as I closed my eyes I saw gold patterns, I didn't think it was ever going to end. I just kept thinking of what I might find the next day".

That refers to Jenny Booth, ‘Metal detector enthusiast unearths huge hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold’, Times Online September 24, 2009, http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article6847081.ece

Anon, ‘Golden dreams for man who found Anglo-Saxon hoard’ Belfast Telegraph, Thursday, 24 September 2009 http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/local-national/golden-dreams-for-man-who-found-anglosaxon-hoard-14506316.html;

Jack Malvern and Dean Valler, ‘Staffordshire hoard: treasure seekers fell out over how to handle find of a lifetime’, The Times September 25, 2009: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/article6848119.ece.

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