Wednesday 18 July 2012

Wiki-leak, its Happisburgh

I see the Wikipedia page for the TV programme Britain's Secret Treasures (see my previous note) has been updated revealing (23:18, 17 July 2012‎) the full "top fifty". Crosby Garrett is low down at number nine, while the Staffordshire hoard (which surely contains more potential "for rewriting history" than many of the other objects) is position number three, beaten for some reason by the  Ringlemere Gold Cup (I bet the reason is not revealed in the programme - unless they are going to utilise it to trot out the "rescuing this stuff from plough damage" mantra). According to this leaked list, the Number One slot is occupied by a Lower Palaeolithic handaxe found on a Norfolk beach.

How reliable is this information?  The Wikipedia updating was done by somebody going under the name "Babelstone" who seems (from his other Wiki-contributions) to have an interest and inside information about hoards found by metal detectorists. This would seem to be Andrew West (not the pianist, but here and here), but what Mr West's connections with the PAS or ITV are is at the moment unclear, but the list looks authentic.

Now this handaxe  was also in "A History of the World in 100 Objects", the BBC website giving it the importance that "it has revealed human existence on Earth around 700,000 years ago" (!). The object which was "discovered by a man walking his dog" on Happisburgh (it's Norfolk, so pronounced "Hays-boro") beach in 2000 would instead push back the known arrival of mankind in (north-west) Europe by around 250,000 years (beyond Boxgrove). The site was the focus of a British Museum research project a few years ago (probably why it was chosen as number one?).

Anyhow, this one find reveals the whole fallacy of the premises of this damaging series. First of all, a single piece of bashed flint on a beach may be surmised on typological grounds to be of a certain age and therefore significance, it was only the results of a proper excavation that allowed the creation of knowledge (as opposed to some romantic story) about the past.

Secondly while there was still secrecy about "Top Secret British Treasure number one" we read the following in the Telegraph:
The object, the identity of which is currently being kept under wraps, actually “re-writes the story of what it means to be British”, [Bettany Hughes] says. Roger Bland, Keeper of the BM’s Portable Antiquities, emphasises that the chosen treasure is “of huge historical interest but not worth anything in cash terms”. “What we like about this show,” says Bland, “is that many of the best treasures have no monetary value at all.”
Well, I am sure we all wait with bated breath to learn in what way a bashed flint from three quarters of a million years ago “re-writes the story of what it means to be British”. I'm more interested in why the Head of Treasure seems to think good examples of handaxes do not have any monetary value on the antiquities market (especially one with a provenance to a site like Happisburg).

The third, and most important point is that the "official account" suggests the handaxe was an accidental find. It was not made by one of those blokes with metal detectors which go out and hoover archaeological sites of the more diagnostic metal finds to scatter in their own ephemeral personal collections for entertainment and profit (though the PAS record DOES say it was found by metal detector - was the guy metal detecting with his dog on the beach?). This is important because when the PAS started to feel more and more pinched for cash a few years back it started  to concentrate its efforts on metal detectorists. They were getting more "finds for the database" per "petrol mile" by going to detecting club meetings and commercial artefact hunting rallies than by outreach to accidental finders among the general public, they have therefore cut down their efforts to outreach to these finders in contrast to the finds-producing collectors. That this policy may lead to loss of information some of which may be more important that the essentially repetitive nature of metal detector finds is made clear by the Happisburgh handaxe.

UPDATE 18th June 2012:
Oh dear, that was quick, the Wikipedia page has been edited:
 09:27, 18 July 2012BabelStone (talk | contribs)(6,015 bytes) (-7,990)‎  (removed objects for episodes that have not been broadcast yet -- please don't add back until episodes have been aired)
Apparently the public who pays for the Scheme cannot know what the top 50 best archaeological discoveries are until the PAS have played their little game to the end. Anyone curious - or just had quite enough of following the low-brow show-and-tell can get an idea of what lies ahead by looking at the version of the Wikipedia page before the edit.

Oh, and lookie-here: the PAS has already altered their record, now the method of discovery is said to be "Method of discovery: Other chance find". Winston Smith eat your heart out. So, nice to know they read the blog from time to time. By the way, note this find was made twelve years ago, and at the top of the page it still says "Workflow status: Awaiting validation". What else will be changed when it is? 

Britain's Secret treasures, ITV 1 16th-22nd July 2012

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