Sunday, 10 July 2011

The State Purchases an Archaeological Site to Protect it From Being Ploughed and metal-Detected Away


There was an interesting piece of news (Maeve Kennedy, 'Roman town of Venta Icenorum site bought for public ownership' Guardian, 8th July 2011). The site of the Roman town at Venta Icenorum which now lies under open fields has been bought with English Heritage, National Heritage Memorial Fund and local authority money in an unusual move to preserve it in public ownership. Part of the site was excavated in the early 1930s when the first aerial photographs showed the buried structures, but most of it remains unexcavated, though there is an ongoing long-running research excavation project led by Will Bowden of Nottingham University.

The site on the river Tas on the outskirts of the modern village of Caistor St Edmund was an important centre of the Roman administration in the region of the Iceni tribe (the ones Boudicca led in her revolt). It is one of the few centres of this rank which did not develop into a medieval town, and is thus in open farmland (other greenfield sites include Wroxeter, Silchester and Caerwent). This has meant that its remains were being damaged by ploughing. More to the point, every time the land was ploughed, the footprints of unauthorised metal detectors were seen in the fields.
The land has now been bought with grants of £374,000 from the National Heritage Memorial Fund – a fund of last resort, which is administered by the Heritage Lottery Fund, but can move faster when a case is seen as urgent – along with £40,000 from English Heritage and £20,000 from South Norfolk council, and money raised by the Norfolk Archaeological Trust, a rare move to bring an archaeolog[ical] site into public ownership, and the first time the NHMF has bought a site purely for its archaeological value. The land will be added to the 49 hectares (120 acres) of the site acquired by the trust in the 1990s that is let for sheep grazing and interpreted by signs explaining the buried town to walkers.
Peter Wade-Martins, director of the Norfolk Archaeological Trust is quoted as saying: "We believed the danger to the buried archaeology from ploughing and metal detecting was very real [...] Our priority will be to return the whole site to grass and gentle countryside enjoyment for the public". It is worth noting that although the illegal artefact hunting was taking place on this prominent Roman site in Norfolk every time the site was ploughed, it is not listed as one of the sites affected in Oxford Archaeology's "Nighthawking Report" (You know, the one that claims the problem had disappeared). If such an egregious case can escape notice, how many more sites are being affected by this activity which are not listed in that report?

The problem is, how many sites can the UK afford to place under public ownership to stop the artefact hunters plundering them for collectables? In any case, will this stop them? It seems obvious to me that Britain needs to adopt a different approach to artefact hunting and collecting to preserve the archaeological record.

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