Tuesday 23 August 2011

What They Are Teaching These Days: Doubly Profiting From the Past ("Should widely be publicised as a good example of how it should be done... "

(A little bit fictionalised, but based on real events). A metal detectorist out detecting in an undisclosed location in darkest "Oxfordshire" found a twisty piece of copper alloy, dug it up and put it in his pocket. Got it home, put it under the tap and thought "Celtic, I can get a few quid for that". Thought about taking it to the PAS, but thought he'd not bother being responsible this week either. Sold it to a dealer, spends the money on petrol to go and plunder more archaeological sites. Dealer puts it on a website, and there it sits. Over the other side of the Atlantic, a collector who imagines himself a bit of an expert in Celtic stuff (can drop the names of half a dozen scholars who he's written to about it in a single email) sees it. "I'll have that", he says. He buys it. It's shipped off to him after the dealer got an export licence for it. The collector starts fondling it at home. It's what he's always wanted. He reckons its a missing link, an early example of a style he's wanted to write about for ages. He excitedly sends off some "look what I've got!" emails to all and sundry who will listen. They all write back saying "Oooo, Aren't you a lucky boy, how CLEVER of you to have spotted it!". Collector glows with gratitude and self-satisfaction. Writes to a forum to tell everybody how pleased he is with himself.

Back in the UK on a night time visit, with the petrol he bought with the money from selling the twisty metal and other bits and bobs, the metal detectorist finishes emptying another Anglo-Saxon cemetery. He never goes back to the field where the Twisty bit was found as he felt he'd already "hammered" that site, nothing left in it now. The archaeologists never got to know about it because not a single item from it was reported to the PAS before nine months later a bypass was built running right through the site, destroying it utterly.

Back in Canada collector gets some analyses done, has some professional photos made, writes an article in "Squirls", the Celtic Art Lover's Group annual journal. His five minutes. He has established how important this object was, and that the object should never really have been allowed out of the country.

On the suggestion that it might be donated to a museum, the expert art historian refuses to countenance this idea.
No-- I will allow the British Museum to buy it if they wish, or I might well put it in a British auction [...]. Professor [of Archaeology & Heritage, Bangor] Raimund Karl (Ray) sees nothing wrong with me making some money over this, he says: "I actually think that the story of the 'Hooker finial' is actually something that should get a lot of publicity. After all, this is not about making loads of money [...], but rather about learning loads about the past [...]. And it's particularly the way you dealt with it - getting if for its scholarly significance; immediately showing it to the leading experts on the subject in the world, who in turn passed it on the the wider scholarly community; ensuring that it will be subjected to all kinds of analyses; etc. - that's a very different story from 'metal detectorist hits the coin jackpot', and one that should widely be publicised as a good example of how it should be done... "
Really? Is that what they teach as "heritage studies" in the UK now? I'll "publicise" it gladly. Well, yes a lot of people made money out of it, the detectorist, the dealer, and then the collector when he sells it back to the nation. The fact that nobody knows where it came from, that the place it came from might have resulted in us "learning lots about the past" before it was trashed unrecorded by the detectorist who then for all we know, could have let it unreported be bulldozed and built over by now. Or not, who knows? We will in any case never ever know the connection between the find and the findspot and other finds and findspots around it. That a piece of so-called "ancient art" which might or might not (of course the object has not been published yet) have been of national significance was not spotted as such and was exported without a second thought. In this case it was spotted by a Kitchen table Scholar who realised it was important, but it might have been bought by an Argentinian racehorse owner's teenage daughter looking for an exotic looking pendant for her hobby of stringing beads into fun necklaces to give her unappreciative friends. Now the Kitchen Table Scholar wants the BM to buy it from him.

Is this really "a good example of how it should be done"? Frankly I think it is a very sad example of what is wrong with the way the British treat the archaeological heritage. A potentially important object has been plundered at random from an unknown site to end up with a random foreign collector. How is that a good thing? Not a single one of the safeguards in place to prevent important material disappearing without record worked here.

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