Monday 18 February 2013

Staffordshire Hoard Archaeological Scandal Act Three

The Staffordshire hoard field has an area, I reckon, of about 48200 square metres. Its about 350 metres long along the ridge, and 230 m across at its widest part. So if one wanted to do a proper metal detecting survey after the "first ploughing after the hoard discovery", how many people would you employ with sensitive "depth advantage" detectors, and how long would you need to do the job properly? So, just eight people in two weeks? Is that OK?

Those of us who read metal detecting forums with any attention will duck sniggering behind our monitors at the naivity of someone who claims they can do a 100% survey of such an area with just eight blokes in two weeks. But that is exactly what some hapless archaeologist has just claimed in the PAS' favourite artefact collecting magazine "The Searcher". This would be utterly laughable were it not another tragic example of the ongoing shameful botchup which  is the story of the Staffordshire Hoard. "Surely this story cannot get worse" one thinks, and then you read "The Searcher" and weep.

In just two pages with three photos project leader Bryn Gethrin tries to convince us all (well, metal detectorist readers of the Searcher) that everything is OK. He obviously is trying to make the best of a bad job, and failing utterly.

His eight man team is pictured in the article. I am not a great detector nerd, but it seems to me that only one of the blokes is pictured carrying anything like the distinctive shape of a Minelab GPX 5000 with its chunky underslung box, but whether or not it is I could not say. In any case, any nighthawk going onto that field tonight with such a machine has an advantage over the majority of the people working with the archaeologists. You would think that with all the "partners" PAS has, one might find better equipped tekkies for such an operation. I'll come back to that photo later.

Mr Gethrin is very careful not to reveal how long they were out in the field. Hilary Cool however does not know it was supposed to be a secret and reveals that it lasted at the most two weeks ("took place within the final two weeks in November"). This matches with the report in a metal detecting forum of "15 detectorists" (interesting!) on that field in the morning of 21st November 2012. In order to do the entire field (Gethrin 2013, 16), that would be 480 sq metres daily for each searcher. But, "the weather was appalling" and the day short in November. Nighthawks all over England will be reaching for their warm woolly outdoor gear and torches reading that. As any tekkie would confirm, it takes years and years to hammer a field, not 14 days with eight blokes in the rain and mist. The article's author seems to think sophisticated transects etc are enough to  ensure they get everything. This really does signal a lack of time spent on the "partners'" forums, where he'd learn beyond all question that not everything is found in one or ten trip even after a single ploughing. The article ends forlornly "in our opinion [we] found as much as could be found". He forgot to add, "working under such conditions". But then should a professional archaeologist be working under such conditions?

 Mr Gethin goes to great pains to say that they found the field to be "full of modern metal detritus, in fact just like your [sic] average day in any field. We did get a little tired of cow ear tags, bull nose rings and beer cans". Obviously he hopes that by saying this, the nighthawks will decide not to bother. What he does not say is whether when they found stuff like this, whether it was reburied (to be found again in any future archaeological surveys) or taken away to remove the contamination from the soil.

The article stresses something one would have thought not needing mentioning in an account of a piece of archaeology, but this text is written for tekkies: "naturally, nobody kept anything, everyone signing a waiver saying as much before the project began".  Artefact hunting is of course normally about taking away what is "detected".

The posed group photo on page 16 is looking north and is situated very close to where the holes photographed by Nigel Swift three weeks ago have since appeared. If you look closely at the ground between the figures you can see where the edge of the trampled area ends, beyond which are untrampled clods casting shadows. It appears the whole area in the foreground has been heavily trampled (so heavily searched)  while the area behind had not (yet) been done. This suggests that the searching was started somewhere to the south of the actual hoard findspot, rather than starting there and working out. Why? And why is this same spot now being visited by nighthawks? What is still here (or was before the nighthawks got it)?

There is another puzzle. The photo on the bottom of page 17 is labelled "finding the cheekpiece". This bloke (finder John Palmer?) is shown apparently squatting by the actual hole where he found whatever it is he has in his hand. The caption says its the 'cheekpiece' which matches that from the hoard proper. But is it? Is it from the hoard proper? It seems to me that if you match up the trees and hedgerows visible through the mist, it is possible that this finder was not actually on the Hoard findspot but a point 35-40m distant, and if so, this would raise the question of whether it had originally been part of the original deposit or another one.

It seems to me that the Staffordshire Hoard is demonstrating the huge gaping flaw in the British antiquities 'preservation' legislation. British archaeology has been caught unawares by the find, it was not prepared to do a proper investigation in 2009, the 2010 followup was on an inadequate scale. The site is not protected and for three years has most likely been looted many times, in 2013 archaeologists return there to attempt working on a shoestring to do something with eight blokes bringing their own equipment, a few volunteer fieldwalkers wandering about in adverse conditions. There is no money to do a project on the scale this find requires - not only should the entire field be surveyed very carefully, so should the field to the west, the fields to the north down towards the stream (at least). There are no resources for a team of any size to go out and conduct top-quality large-scale archaeological work on such sites and process and publish the results. meanwhile the looters go back again and again to the site so nicely put on the map for them by the search by Terry Herbert aided by the evil "spirits of Yesteryear". Instead of a piece of world class archaeology, we see here a bit of typical British muddle-through and make-do, incapable of meeting the challenges caused by current archaeological policies on artefact hunting and collecting. But hey, we got the gold did'n we? 

*  The magazine of course, though very widely read in the metal detecting milieu, is obviously never read by a single "nighthawk".

Vignette: Terry Herbert celebrating his "windfall" which has cost British archaeology more than mere cash which it does not have. 

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