Thursday 16 January 2014

What a State to be in: The "Petham Balsarium"

This odd thing, just 5cm tall, was one of the 'Look Wotta Lotta Stuff we got finds' that was conjured up for the journalists attending the BM tekkie-feelgood party on the launch of new Treasure figures ('Treasure hunters found nearly 1,000 items in 2012 BBC 16 January 2014). It is a balsarium PAS number  KENT-7D72A7.
A Roman copper alloy balsamarium in a vase-like form (Type III). Decorated with relief scenes depicting Bacchic imagery, including a satyr and three male human figures. The object has been damaged, probably by contact with agricultural machinery, but is otherwise in very good condition. Martin Henig suggests the object could be of Gallo-Roman origin and probably dating from the 3rd century AD.
Dr Richardson has hardly exerted himself to give a proper description of this object. He says it is "cast", but the photos show toolmarks of chasing too. There is too little detail in this description of the relief figures on the vessel walls. The photos do not show all the details properly. What is the actual form of the krater and amphora? Neither of them are mentioned in the description and both are seen obliquely in the PAS photos. The photos are displayed out of sequence. There is no mention of the extent of breakages and damage (the scale of the damage to the base for example is not shown in the photos)   We are not told whose "type III" it is, Uncle Tom Cobbly's probably. Date of discovery (on 'cultivated land' by anonymous metal detector users): Thursday 12th July 2012 near Canterbury ("to be known as: Petham"). This is near Swarling of archaeological note on the north edge of the Downs. It is also just the other side of Stane Street from Street End House Heppington where antiquary Bryan Faussett (1720–1776) lived from 1750 - precisely the period when he began amassing his enormous antiquarian collection. Whether or not it is something from his collection, nearby Canterbury was surrounded by other residences of the 17th-19th century elites among whom collecting classical objects was the fashion, and upon the death of the owner the household contents could have been scattered (or stolen). One cannot accept that every loose classical item found in an English field was in Britain in Roman times (see for example the scatter of Alexanderian tetras that I discussed earlier)

No mention is made in the description of the fact that this object has extremely unusual corrosion products. Perhaps the PAS can show us another item in their database with these features. They say it has been "damaged by contact with agricultural machinery". Maybe that is so, but what is revealed in the break? There seems from the photo to be a thick porous (?) layer with a smooth preserved surface, a relatively even emerald green in colour, overlying a more friable layer of darker coloured material with markedly granular (crystalline?) structure. 

Taken from the PAS photo (the unreadable scale is theirs)

There are 14 objects in the PAS database from "Petham" three are gold, and most are unillustrated, but one is, a coin. Its rather cruddy corrosion products are quite unlike those of the balsarium. From the adjacent hamlet Swarling there is nothing recorded, but from adjacent Waltham is a coin (and a gold brooch), again, the coin has corrosion products unlike those of the balsarium. There are also six items recorded by "Ms Mags Erwin" (with unprofessional spelling and punctuation) in January and February 2013  from Upper Hardres just down the road. The latter (though some were inexpertly cleaned before reporting) have the sort of corrosion one would expect from chalky soil, with visible remains of a thin compact layer of unevenly light-coloured powdery corrosion products overlying a thin compact oxide layer over the pitted metal surface. None of them look anything like the layered patination of the "Petham Balsarium", why? Is this in fact a genuine archaeological find deposited here in Roman times, or did this object get into the field as a modern loss, perhaps a Grand Tour object? What else was found in that field? (KENT-7D72A7 seems to be the only record in the database from that spate of artefact hunting).

2013 Bronze finds from Upper Hardre Kent (taken from PAS database, more or less the same scale)
 I think it is worth noting that the parishes around Petham figure in the PAS database not because of responsible metal detectorists reporting their non-Treasure finds, but there is a spate of old finds 2004/2005 and then nothing very much apart from Treasure finds reported (as the law requires) and very little else. Obviously metal detectorists are busily hoiking away here (for who finds the Treasure?) but there is very little disinterested reporting going on. Patterns like this are not highlighted by the PAS. Why not?

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