Friday 5 August 2011

Daily Mail Archaeology: "How the West was Won"

The Daily Mail's Archaeology Correspondent working incognito has written an enthusiastic article about a hoard found by PAS "partners" with their metal detectors. "The discovery of a hoard of 100 ancient coins could prove the Romans conquered more of the South West than thought, it has been claimed. It had been believed that Exeter, in Devon, was the last major outpost of the ancient empire. But the chance find of the treasure and evidence of a huge settlement further west may force historians into a rethink. As one of the 'most significant Roman discoveries for many decades', it has challenged the theory that fierce resistance from local tribes to the invaders stopped them from moving any further.
This text has got coineys over the sea ever so excited. Californian dugup artefact dealer Dave Welsh would apparently like to sell his clients "ancient coins like this one" (just look more closely at the picture) found by site-plundering artefact hunters under Britain's ever-so-liberal laws and thinks:
"This discovery and the responsible manner in which it was reported to authorities is only the latest of many examples of how effectively the UK's Treasure Act/PAS scheme has brought all classes and interest groups in that nation together in their determination to responsibly explore and protect their ancient heritage".
Washington lawyer Peter Tompa claims:
Here is yet another example of how a hoard reported by amateurs has given a lead to archaeologists that has resulted in a reassessment of local history. [...] what are the odds archaeologists would have ever found the remains of Roman settlement had they not been alerted by metal detectorists?
Now it is true that archaeological expeditions rarely get out into the wilds of Devon. My colleague, archaeo-explorer John Forbes-Fortescue at Exeter University tells me that every time they send one out in the badlands west of Exeter, their car is followed down the moorland track by crowds of wide-eyed native children running barefoot shouting after it, while the adults start furtively gathering the kindling under the village wicker man. A large part of this year's university fieldwork budget went on buying coloured glass beads to be used in an effort to determine from the natives what happened to the ten-man expedition that was sent out to Okehampton last March and disappeared. Such a region was obviously entirely outside the area of interest of early antiquaries, and in contrast to other areas of Britain, the illiterates in country churches and local notables were not a bit interested in antiquarian studies. To even think of the existence here of a learned society of any kind amongst such savages is obviously a total misapprehension. It is therefore understandable that the archaeological record of the whole of this region is an almost total blank. It obviously therefore is absolutely no exaggeration for Bloomsbury Sam of the British Museum to admit in the Daily Mail article being used as the sole source of information by Tompa and Welsh that finding Roman coins in Devon is: "the beginning of a process that promises to transform our understanding of the Roman invasion and occupation of Devon". We are just at the beginning of understanding how the Romans invaded the island as a whole of course, scholars have only been examining the question for a few years, the subject was not at all popular in Britain for so many decades. Our understanding of the Roman occupation, which left so few traces in either the historical or archaeological record is scant. I am sure Bloomsbury Sam and his legions of artefact hunters can set the record straight after centuries of scholarly neglect. (Just in case somebody reading this has not caught on, all of the above is sarcasm written in 'ironic script').

Let us have a look at this exciting, allegedly paradigm-smashing hoard. In the "crime" section of the local newspaper, the finders are named as "six members from the East Devon Metal Detecting Society – Colin Hancock, Anthony Osbourne, John Evans, John Hill, George Stevens and Stephen Bassett" and the date is given as February 24 and March 1, 2008, and the findspot is not a secret at all, its "on farmland in Whiddon Down, near Okehampton". The hoard consisted of 136 coins, three denarii and 133 copper alloy ones. The earliest coin was of the emperor Vespasian (AD 69-79) and the latest one was of Septimius Severus (193-211), but most of them were of second century date. Excavations indicated that the hoard was deposited in a settlement on the road to Exeter at a crossroads (yet another Roman coin hoard found in a settlement).

As a result of the finding of this hoard, it appears Danielle Wootton of the Portable Antiquities Scheme carried out a geophysical survey at the findspot last summer:
she said she was astonished to find evidence of a huge settlement on the site which, for security reasons, has only been located as 'several miles west of Exeter'. [...] She carried out a trial excavation on the site, and has already uncovered evidence of extensive trade with Europe, a road possibly linking to the major settlement at Exeter, and some intriguing structures, as well as many more coins.
"Trade with Europe" eh? Who would've thought of it? All those years ago (sorry, more sarcasm).

In reality over three hundred years of fieldwork and reported chance finds (made with the eyes before people started buying metal detectors), have given us a fairly clear view of the archaeology of the southwestern tip of the British Isles in the period between the beginning of the first century AD right through into the fifth and sixth centuries (and beyond of course). While we can always add detail, the broad picture is clear, and that is that the area was neither empty of archaeologically detectable settlements of the Roman period, nor devoid of contact with the rest of the province (or Empire). The area is outside the 'villa zone' (as are other parts of the province in the west particularly) but was fully coin using, as is evidenced by many previously known coin finds from the region to the end of the use of coinage. After that, however the whole region was quite well supplied by North African Red Slip Ware and Mediterranean amphorae, showing that the region was well-and-truly part of the Roman world. Far from "the theory" (whose? Cornish separatists'?) "that fierce resistance from local tribes to the invaders stopped [the Romans] from moving any further west", my understanding is the more usual interpretation is of the Dumnonians existing as a client kingdom beyond the Fosse Way, but certainly in no way rejecting Roman culture. The region has produced many coin finds (Map produced from PAS data alone to 1997), had a road system, was recipient of imports such as terra sigillata and metalwork. The Ravenna Cosmology lists a Statio Deventiasteno between the unidentified entries Devionisso and Duriarno, probably somewhere on the Dumnonian peninsula. There is a well-known Roman village at Chysauster in Cornwall, and a Flavian fort at Nunstallon, inscribed milestones, tin mines and iron producing area on the north coast of Devon. While the settlement pattern and density differed from that to the east and (particularly) northeast, this was hardly an area beyond the fringes of the Empire. We do not need metal detectorists hoiking loose finds out of context to tell us that. An additional point, there are amateur archaeological societies in both Cornwall and Devon which do excellent work, it is somewhat insulting to them to suggest that all that is needed to"make a beginning" studying the past in the area is to buy a metal detector.

Roman coin finds and Roman roads in Devon and Cornwall.

It is somewhat annoying that archaeologists like Ms Wootton and BM coiney Sam Moorhead, when called to say something to the newspapers, cannot take a deep breath and say something archaeologically sensible. They apparently feel that every find made and reported by a metal detectorist in Britain has to be made to sound somehow Indiana-Jones-"exciting" and paradigm-shattering significant. It has to be "narrativised" with reference to some stereotypical arguments such as those about "wild tribes versus invaders" (the coin hoard is a century and a half AFTER the invasions had finished in the lowland region of Britain) and telling people that it somehow "challenges" some "theory" or other. A "theory" which in reality is thrown into question by evidence produced by research going back several centuries, to which the Daily Mail account ("archaeological outreach") of Wootton and Moorhead makes absolutely no reference. The British public is systematically being given a totally false picture of current thought on the history of the region virtually every time the PAS start their glib dumbed-down narrativisation of the bric-a-brac metal detectorists show them, and a totally false picture of archaeological research. The PAS is supposed to be conducting archaeological "outreach" but fails to do so almost every time they open their mouths. Still the coineys over the sea think the PAS are doing a good job.

Vignette (top): Conditions for archaeological fieldwork in Devon are notoriously rough.

UPDATE: I am grateful to David Gill for showing that it's not just Bloomsbury Sam the Coiney that has ideas that this hoard is "peeple's revisionist history in da making" . Richard Birch "Exploring what the Romans did for us", Express & Echo (Exeter UK), January 20, 2011.

Also he points out another find is announced as "earth shattering" in the same way, this time from the BBC: Roman fort found in Cornwall 'rewrites history'
A Roman fort which has been discovered in Cornwall is challenging previous historical views about the South West. Pottery and pieces of slag have been found at the undisclosed location near St Austell, suggesting an ironworks. Experts said the discovery challenges previous thinking about the region's history as it had been thought Romans did not settle much beyond Exeter. John Smith, from Cornwall Historic Environment Service, said: "This is a major discovery, no question about it".
Sort of like a record stuck in a groove isn't it? How many times can their "picture" be challenged in the same way before British archaeologists stop expressing feigned delighted surprise to the press?


Anonymous said...

It's the Daily Mail-- what do you expect ? Middle-brow and stupid.

kyri said...

paul,i dont see why you loath the pas so much,its not perfect by all means but its better than the systems currently in use in most source countrys.
personally i think policing all the archaeological sites in these countrys is impossible and is doing nothing to stop the looting or smuggling of chance finds.
i know of a few instances in cyprus were people have stumbled across archaeoological sites and have not reported them to the authorities as they have no incentive to do so.
i also believe that more archaeology is lost because of the draconian laws in cyprus than by the looting itself.
im not suggesting we have a free for all,only that some sort of system be put in place were a reward be offerd so that people will have the incentive to report finds.
in the uk we seem to be having a hoard coming out of the ground every few weeks,dont you think that as many,if not more are found in cyprus,turkey ect,common sence suggests that in these countrys were ancient coins were in circulation for many more years and in greater nombers,that many more hoards are in the ground compared to the uk but because they dont have a pas of their own,these coins end up on the illicit market and ALL information is lost,surely that cant be better than what we have in the uk.or do you want to drive it all underground.i think the pas is the only way to try and have some controll on what will be happening with or without it.

Paul Barford said...

Kyri, The problem (my problem) with the PAS is it was set up to do one thing, and under the present leadership is consistently doing something quite different which hinders what it is supposed to do.

"Better than the systems in other countries" is collector-talk for chalk and cheese. The PAS makes no pretence whatsoever of trying to stop sites being exploited destructively as a source of collectables. It actively encourages it. So its not "better than", it is "different from". And that is where the problem lies.

Obviously, the issue is not to get (finds) reported/recorded, but stop the erosion, the destruction. That the PAS is FAILING to do. Is that really so difficult to understand?

"in the uk we seem to be having a hoard coming out of the ground every few weeks",
No, if there are 800 reported a year by metal detectorists, it means they are digging them out of the ground at a rate of FIFTEEN A WEEK. For the most part they are coming from undisturbed deposits under plough level, some of the, as here, from archaeological sites.

Now Cyprus, what would happen to you if you were spotted on an archaeological site with a metal detector and spade over there? The answer to that is why you do not hear of fifteen Cypriot hoards a week coming onto the market, licit or not.

It cannot be stressed enough that coins end up on an illicit market only because collectors and dealers agree to buy them from criminals and trade in illicitly-obtained coins. No other reason.

The PAS is not solving any of the issues, instead it is making their discussion a hundred times more difficult - which is odd because you would have thought that it would be the scheme which would be the focus of the most lively archaeological discussion of them all. Instead they sit silently and passively hoping that the issues would just go away and leave them alone to their introspective goodie-fondling and storytelling.

Paul Barford said...

@40something - but read by coin collectors, dealers and their supporters... 'Nuff said.

kyri said...

thats the point paul,you will never stop
the "erosion/destruction"the chinese cant even control their archaeological sites and they live in a police state were people get executed for stealing culturall property.the people running the pas know this and are trying to work with the detectorists people to record and excavate any important sites that detectorists do find.also the crown has the first refusal on important finds[all though the law should be extended to include any find so that we dont have another crosby garrette fiasco.
in cyprus you would be arrested but is that a good thing?i dont think so,how many important archaeological sites are quickly coverd up by cypriots rather than reporting them and having their construction site suspended indefinitely.this i feel is doing more damage to the archaeology of cyprus ,more than anything else.there might be hundreds of hoards every week in cyprus,but we will never know.this cant be a good thing,can it?
last year i went to a lecture at the ucl were james cuno was speaking,in the debate one italian student from rome said that her father,while building an extension to their house uncoverd a fantastic mosaic.she said that he wouldnt dare report it,he just coverd it may find the debate online somewere as i think it was recorded.
you must agree that something has to be done,mou,s are not going to do anything apart from drive the trade further underground.
i think the source countrys should try to take controll of the situation and not try to build a house of cards in a storm.
you may not like this but i have some sympathy for coin dealers,an illicit coin is much more harder to spot than an illicit antiquitie,as with any business there is a trust factor.
personally i think that %75 of coins are from illicit sources,best to try and controll the market through co-operation rather than confrontation and stem the illicit flow at an ideal world,dealers would not buy anything suspicious but in the real world thats not going to happen,is it.there will allways be someone willing to i said befor the PAS is not perfect,but it is better than nothing,instead of knocking it all the time,try to influence the decision makers to make it a better system than what it is.
ps,i read the guardian,dose that make me a marxist,cos im not.

Paul Barford said...

Kyri, if you think having a PAS stops sites being covered up in the UK if they are discovered only after building starts, you are wrong. The first publication I ever wrote was on just such a site. I hear it happens quite a lot in the UK where there was no archaeological provision in the planning process.

"in cyprus you would be arrested but is that a good thing?"
For trashing an archaeological site? Absolutely.

I have no sympathy for coin dealers who make no REAL effort to exclude illicitly obtained material from their stock and start whining about how "difficult" it all is. If they can't do that job properly, let them find a job they can do properly, like serving pizzas.

The way to "control the market" is for collectors to stop buying stuff that cannot be demonstrated not to be dodgy. While collectors continue to close their eyes and minds to this problem, the looting goes on and there is EVERY justification for saying that collectors are as bad as the looters.

I think that "better than nothing" is not something we should be applying to something that costs the taxpayer thirteen million quid all to support a minority hobby. Either we do it properly, or we decide to do things another way that does not cost thirteen million quid when that money could go to other things of greater public benefit than showing a few old coins and brooches on a website while thousands of people trash sites and report next to nothing.

",try to influence the decision makers to make it a better system than what it is."
Well, that's one way. What you have to do is persuade the public first. Only then will the decision makers see the need to pull their fingers out and do something.

Anonymous said...

Kyri -
"you will never stop the "erosion/destruction"

Lucky for the Irish they didn't believe that!

In any case, "coming to terms" with erosion/destruction which is what you seem to be advocating (and which PAS is definitely trying to do) is not something a civilised society ought to be doing if it can possible avoid it.

It may well be true that we will "never stop" burglary (for instance) but that is no reason whatsoever not to target both Bill Sykes and Fagin so that burglary is reduced. How is looting not Burglary? And how has PAS reduced the number of Sykes and Fagins? (Answer: not at all, other than in it's own propoganda)

In Ireland, on the other hand, there is not a lot of erosion/destruction and very few Sykes and Fagins. Not none, but few. "You will never stop it" is irrelevant - and the wide voicing of that view is what sustains the criminal activity (and the no questions asked dealers and collectors who incentivise it).

kyri said...

as usual paul you make some good points and i agree that the "no questions asked collector"of which there are many,are just as guilty as the looter and i have clahed on many ocasions with fellow collectors on this issue,BUT 13 million quid is a small price to pay for all the wonderfull archaeological finds/hoards that have been found over the few years the pas has been in operation,finds that might have not been reported at all if we didnt have the pas.
heritageaction,i feel the pas is trying to control/manage the erosion/destruction and until we come up with a better system we should support it.having a free for all with nothing reported as is the case in source countrys is not a solution.

Paul Barford said...

Yeah, super, spiffing.

Of course the Treasures cost a very good deal more than 13 million quid, that is just the direct state-funded cost of running the core of the PAS. The running costs of the rest of it are met by the museums and other institutions where the forty-something FLOs and finds advisors are based. The total cost of buying back the nation's heritage from the finder who-nobody-asked-to-dig-it-up is a figure you will not find in the treasure reports it must run into millions each year.

And wouldn't it be interesting if somebody could tell us the TOTAL costs of the PAS "experiment" taking all these hidden ones into account. It will be a shocking figure. For what?

Of course the point is hoiking the glittery goodies out of the ground is NOT protecting the archaeological record at the place these things were hoiked from (and if the "finds" are nationally important, it follows that their context is too).

In a world where we would not need a PAS to try (and fail) to cope with the damage, these sites would not be being plundered for the goldy goodies at the rate they are. And we'd have the archaeological record more intact for proper study, and have saved millions of pounds, some of which could perhaps be spent preserving the record and examining the bits of it that serve real research needs in a sustainable and controlled manner.

Anonymous said...

Kyri -

"BUT 13 million quid is a small price to pay for all the wonderfull archaeological finds/hoards that have been found over the few years the pas has been in operation"

Is it? And is it a good price to pay for (what we estimate to be) the more than 2,500,000 archaeological finds (many no doubt wonderful; most stripped of their contexts)that have been LEGALLY removed but not reported under the unregulated metal detecting scourge that has been allowed to continue during the years the pas has been in operation?

We have a taxpayer funded quango using it's funds to imply in thousands of press releases that most of ten thousand detectorists are right-acting heroes and more than six thousand detectorists NEVER having reported a single find to PAS over 13 years. How is that "a small price to pay" and how isn't it a public disgrace and a heritage disaster?

You say to Paul - "i dont see why you loath the pas so much,its not perfect by all means but its better than the systems currently in use in most source countrys."

Is it? Has Ireland lost 2,500,000 artefacts without trace? Or Northern Ireland? I doubt they've lost 2,500. Shouldn't you be pointing out how regulation works better than "respectablisation"?

kyri said...

alot of what you say is true,as i said its not a perfect system.
i once read an article written by brian cook[curator at the greek/roman dept bm 1976-1993]in a nutshell he said that at an archaeological conference held at accademia dei lincei rome, italian archaeologists were envious of the british system,and "were more forthright in their criticisms of their goverments policy"
its not metal detectorists running the pas,its you realy know what is coming out of the ground in ireland,i dont think you do and as in source countrys that is the sure that the majority of archaeologists in source countrys wish there was a system like the pas in place,just as the majority in this country support it.
source;antiquities trade or betrayed,kathryn w tubbb page 186

Anonymous said...


You have yet to clarify by what measure the loss of 2,500,000 artefacts (with their associated contexts and sites) is compensated for by the far, far smaller number of artefacts reported to PAS. The laissez-faire/voluntary reporting/PAS system effectively says “It is worth entirely losing most of the record in order to get to hear about some of it”. I disagree.

One might ask why anyone would support such a proposition when it is avoidable at a stroke of the legislative pen? Well.....

First, it wasn’t intended to work like this. It was intended that the great majority of detectorists could be persuaded. It is now brutally clear they can’t. All that remains is to admit the experiment has failed. How much longer will that take, and at what annual rate of cultural loss?

Second, quangos like all life forms fight like tigers for their own survival and by a quirk of fate, Britain has set up a taxpayer funded quango whose survival and continued funding depends not only upon demonstrating it’s own success but also, tragically, praising the very activity whose depredations it was set up to reduce. Imagine, the only country in the world funding a vast pro-metal detecting PR department when elsewhere it is simply heavily regulated or banned!

Third, yes, many archaeologists go along with it (though not with huge enthusiasm in most cases) why wouldn’t they, given the spin and the constant parading of a few “good guys” rather than the majority of others? They are also constantly told the division is between a few criminals and the “responsible majority” which is a complete falsehood. The division is between a few criminals, a minority of responsible detectorists and a majority who are most certainly not responsible. The harm detecting causes reflects those three groups. The worst damage is perfectly legal. Ever heard PAS admit that? Yet it’s pretty clearly in their stats.
I’m not an archaeo, I’m just an ordinary punter and taxpayer, but I’ve studied all this for almost as long as Paul – for many hours every day for many years. I don’t believe the official line, full stop.

Fourth, the support PAS has oversees is not really what they say it is. It is absolute amongst dealers alright (what does that tell us?) But it is not at all widespread amongst archaeologists in my experience. In fact I would say most that I have been in contact with think Britain is irresponsible with it’s heritage and have no time for the way metal detecting has been officially protected, promoted and flattered. A good proof of that is this: of 197 countries, 197 have declined to adopt the PAS model.

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