Monday 11 November 2013

The "Howevers" of the Leicestershire Roman Lead Coffin

I do not think anyone who knows him can accuse archaeologist David ("Badger") Connolly of being "against metal detectorists", he has stuck his neck out more than once to be on their side and I have to say that Mr Connolly and I do not exactly "see eye to eye" on these issues. Not to put too fine a point on it, we have had a number of long discussions (read: disagreements) on these issues in the past. It is therefore interesting to see his account of the fracas around the lead coffin dug up in a field in Witherley near Tamworth ("The Leicestershire Roman lead coffin", BAJRFed 11/11/13) in which he sets out to "highlight the expense and responsibility that comes with finds.  A lesson to be learned – for everyone". s he says, some of the press coverage showed a complete lack of understanding of the issues (hello, 15-million-quid-PAS, are you there?) and "some of the articles paint a rosy picture of heroic detectorists and obstructive archaeologists, willing only to bury the past". Connolly attempts to set the issue straight. Good for him.  Let's ignore the rather too avuncular tone to concentrate on what he says. The first point is the status of the land (called diplomatically by David: "A complex issue"). That's not quite how I'd put what he then recounts (and I know we can trust him to have checked these facts):
The detecting club believe they had permission from the farmer to be on this field but the farmer doesn’t own the land he uses and permissions should be sought from the landowner. To add to the mix, the land is on the SHINE (the Selected Heritage Inventory for Natural England) dataset so should be under Natural England, environmental stewardship however, for some reason it seems the designation was omitted from the agreement. The reason for inclusion on the SHINE is due to [previous] fieldwalking by Hinckley Archaeological Society that indicated the presence of a Roman villa within the field, nearby lies the Mancetter Roman fort as well.
So they were targeting a known site here too. I suspect that this is the site (here too). Then there is the matter of the threat, at which point he and I are still in agreement:
Getting a ‘good’ signal, should not lead to digging a big hole – indeed once you are below a metre, you should really consider what exactly you are trying to save from the plough. This would also explain why – in some reports ( see comprehensive list of news reports at the end)  the two detectorists who ‘found’ the coffin, are less than impressed with the council archaeology departments suggestion to fill in the hole and leave it there.  
By the time the archaeologists were called in, there was a huge hole in the field with the coffin fully exposed and by now little stratigraphic information to record, most of the layers above the coffin and the cut were by that time dug away by the impatient artefact hunters.

Dave Connolly (ever the optimist) concludes that in the end some good came out of a disastrous situation caused by the metal detectorists, but:
What would be good is if this is not so much seen as a simple black and white right/wrong scenario, and that some awareness of the costs, responsibilities and legal requirements that affect us all is made more apparent.   I do believe that most people acted in the best interest of the coffin and the remains within, while others were overcome with greed and an inbuilt distrust of archaeologists.
I note with a certain bitter amusement (because of the way he used to be only too pleased to chat away amiably with detectorists) that he has closed the comments before the tekkies could start their nonsense. Perhaps "Badger" has at last learnt his lesson about the worth of trying to talk to many of these people whose only delight in life seems to be as obtuse, uncooperative, disruptive and rude as possible. Sad, but true.

Anyway, even though the law requires the movement of human remains to be behind screens, the archaeologists thought it would be nice for all concerned for the TV cameras and lights to be there as they pried the lid open. I'm sure it was a real party atmosphere as everybody was hoping to get a glimpse of naked skeleton. Like a nineteenth century mummy-unwrapping. The video (which I am not going to post a link to - you can find it without my help) shows that in the few days this thing has been exposed, the soil block inside has been allowed to dry out. The cracking we see has the potential of damaging any fragile remains lower down in the coffin. Its also going to be a real problem to excavate it delicately in that state.... Bad conservation practice.

Vignette: Disturbing burials is always an emotive topic.


Charles Peters said...

I am not a metal detectorist nor do I support metal detecting as an activity, however I was surprised to see that the funding for the archaeology and further research on the coffin came from the Metal Detectorists mother (Archaeological excavation) and then the Detecting club (Study of the coffin).

This comment absolutely surprised me

"A spokesman for the authority's archaeology service said: "The county council does not finance excavations – that is the responsibility of the landowner or a developer"

Is that really the case across the country??

Paul Barford said...

Yes, it is not only the case in the UK, but across Europe and most of the developed world. There is very little state or local authority funded archaeology going on these days anywhere. Most of it is done (on the "polluter pays" principle) as rescue work when the landuse changes in a way that will affect the site, and then the developer pays. Of course if the state is the developer then the state does pay then.

I hope this answers your query. it is a shame that "Badger" closed the comments to his article for questions like this (though knowing metal detectorists, I can quite understand why).

Charles Peters said...

It goes some way to explaining how Archaeology 'works' for want of a better expression. It is certainly not what I was expecting. Given the example of this coffin and putting aside the fact it was found by a metal detectorist and instead let us say the farmer found it when he was digging a trench with his backhoe to lay a pipe to a cattle trough, and supposing the farmer contacted the local museum, what would happen to the object if there is no money to properly remove and conserve it? Would he be told to backfill it?

I'm just puzzled as I thought there was a duty to do 'archaeology' whenever something archaeological is found. Has it always been this way or is it the economic squeeze that has created this situation?

Paul Barford said...

Well, there is a difference between finding something and hoiking it out. There is (was anyway) the possibility of getting a grant to do the recording work. There should be a duty shouldn't there, but that's the market economy for you.

P2Pinvested said...

Hi Paul, I was just wondering about your archeologist credentials, I can't find anywhere any written text that tells me your credentials, archeological projects you have actually worked on, your actual job now or anything. Or is your job and credentials basically like a news reader on this blog and slagging off English archis and metal detectorists ?

Paul Barford said...

Mr Baines, that must be so frustrating for you. Are you sure you are using my professional name?

Anyway, can you tell me what "that" has to do with the topic of this post? (Perhaps you need reminding that this is a heritage blog, not a chatroom or dating site for detectorists).

P2Pinvested said...

You see you spout all this stuff off . You refer to British archaeologist colleagues but I have not even heard any of your credentials. I mean any tom, dick or harry can write a blog and claim to be an archeologist. Surely even I can pretend to be an archeologist just like you do and spout off a misjudged opinion of metal detectorists and tar them all with the same feather.

Paul Barford said...

That you cannot "find" something at once in the internet (and only looking in the Internet) does not mean it does not exist.

"I mean any tom, dick or harry can write a blog and claim to be an archeologist"

Well, yes they can. Off you go then. Try and spell it right though, it helps.

Paul Barford said...

A reminder, this thread is about Dave Connolly's account of the lead coffin dug up by detectorists. Please can any further comments stay on that topic.

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