Thursday 15 December 2011


US Coin dealer Alfredo De La Fe has a blog, and today's latest post is the predictable US coiney reaction to the latest PAS 'whoopee' news-spin:
New Viking Ruler Discovered by a Metal detectorist?
In today’s telegraph there is a story about the potential discovery of a new viking ruler based on the discovery of viking hoard by a metal detectorist. [the Silverdale Hoard of course]. This is a great example of how the Portable Antiquities Scheme works and contributes to our understanding of the past. Imagine if similar systems were in place in other source countries as opposed to restrictive laws which force the local markets under ground.
It is probably going to take another couple of decades before these dumb transatlantic people work out that the Treasure Act is administered through the Coroner, and the Portable Antiquities Scheme is something QUITE DIFFERENT. In fact the Treasure Act is exactly the same kind of vesting law that De La Fe labels "restrictive laws". If you do not report archaeological (and other) finds that fall in its remit and had them over to the Coroner in 14 days you run the risk of going to jail. I fail to see finding out the bare fact that some guy existed and called himself 'king' is such an earth-shattering event - lots of people existed in the past who we'll never learn the names of, but that is not the only aim of historic enquiry. Is our "knowledge of the past" entirely dependent on knowing which Torre, Dicke or Harthacnut briefly claimed deo-gratia kingship in Northumbria or thereabouts in the 890s before succumbing to a rival's axe at the next territorial punch-up ? Battles and Kings history is just one kind of view of the past. Surely of importance here is to understand the landscape and site context of the findspot of that lead container which when the finder hoiked it out, the "silver fell out" (or was it "prised open"?). As an archaeologist I would say that is potentially more important to our knowledge of the historical processes of this complex period than a mere king-list. Northumbria at the end of the ninth and beginning of the tenth centuries had many 'kings', in the tenth it was to have many more, but what social processes lie behind this procession of names, the shifting of power-blocks delimited by the nice broad lines on the historian's maps? That some bloke called Airdeconut struck a coin (with a p.c. Christian monogram on the reverse) is good news fodder and may be exciting to coineys, but hardly advances our knowledge of the processes operating on the rest of society. This of course will not be known while all we have are a couple of hundred bits of metal hoiked out of the ground here and there and no context to put them in.

Let us be clear why the vesting legislation the coineys criticise do not work. If Terence Thugwit metal detectorist finds something like this in the Republic of Distopia which declares all finds to be the property of the state, he can avoid trouble by declaring it and be thankful he is not locked up for trashing archaeological sites with his spade and metal detector. On the other hand, he may have a mate who knows a bloke that might give him a couple of hundred (!) Euros for it. Now that bloke can only realise his investment if HE in turn finds somebody who will give him a nice profit on his money (it's a risky business breaking the law in Distopia, best to get the dodgy goods out of the country, where anyway there are better profits to be made in Can't-touch-you-for-it-land). But he knows this Bavarian dealer who has contacts in the US market...

Should there be laws about people trashing the archaeological record for entertainment and profit? I of course have to say yes - as an archaeologist I believe firmly that there should.

Should there be laws which if effective and obeyed by citizens ensure that all archaeological finds are reported and made available for study? I again would say yes (with the proviso that I personally think there should ideally also be systematic data gathering by state-funded teams as we have in Poland).

Should the citizens who go out and trash sites for entertainment and profit be made aware by every possible means of the laws and their consequences, and if caught punished with the fullest severity of the law? Yes.

Should opportunities be made available for people who want to engage in real archaeological work in the landscape (even with metal detectors if done properly)? Absolutely.

What however should be stopped is a situation where people go out with tools to trash archaeological sites (do not do so according to "best practice"), squirrel away the information and artefacts, and clandestinely sell the unreported artefacts to willing dealers. Both they and the dealers buying illicit goods should be caught and punished to the maximum extent of the law. What those countries whose archaeological heritage is being clandestinely looted away need to do is cut off culture criminals who loot sites from the irresponsible people that will give them lots of money no-questions-asked for anything they bring along for sale. These people too are aiding and abetting culture crime, and in some cases committing it themselves. And cutting the US market off from these culture criminals (artefact smugglers and their fellows) is exactly the application of the CCPIA in the US is intended to achieve and the application of these measures is exactly what the ACCG (to which Alfredo De La Fe belongs) are trying to prevent - which is why he posts nonsense about "imagine if other countries had a PAS...".

Is he suggesting that if other countries had a PAS there would be no need for the CCPIA and coin dealers would then not have to worry about documentation of legal export of the items they stock? What nonsense, the PAS has no connection whatsoever with fighting illicit exports of cultural property.

UPDATE 15.12.11: Mr DLF ("Understanding Our (sic) Past") clearly does not understand the point I made about there being other kinds of history than "Battles and Kings"... Neither does he even notice (let alone respond to it) that what was discussed in my post above was his fundamental point that if other countries had a PAS-clone, there would be no need for the CCPIA to be applied in the USA, probably because even he realises that what he postulated in dealery self-interest is nonsense ("The response over on Paul Barford’s blog was predictable").

[The word, by the way, I think you are striving for, Mr De La Fe, is "drivel", "dribble" is what you do with a football over here.]

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