Wednesday 18 June 2014

Didcot Mirror Fiasco: Need for Legislative Change on Artefact Hunting

Didcot mirror
Julia Farley, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at University of Leicester ('Some advice for treasure hunters and culture ministers' The Conversation 17 June 2014) somewhat misses the point in a couple of places, but contrasts the find of two Iron Age mirrors , the Chesil mirror (found with "Skellie" - sic) and the Didcot mirror - an export ban of which has been extended to September, "after an undisclosed buyer from the UK indicated an interest". The Cheshil one was Treasure and the artefact hunter got a lot of dosh for digging it up.
But due to the nature of treasure law, the process for the Didcot Mirror was not so smooth. The metal detectorist who uncovered the mirror insisted that it had been found in isolation, and as such it fell outside the scope of Treasure legislation. Finders are encouraged to report their finds, for example to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, but they are not obliged to reveal where, except in Treasure cases. Details about the mirror’s discovery were never divulged, so no archaeological investigation could take place. The mirror was sold on the private market within the UK, but lack of information about the mirror’s findspot – what archaeologists call its context – made it difficult for a museum to acquire the find, and so it remained in private hands. Now the mirror has been sold to an overseas buyer, and the government is attempting to stave off export in the hope that a buyer at home will come forward.
Unless a British institution willing to match the £33,000 asking price can be found, the mirror will leave the UK and most likely remain in a private collection  (see, 'The Mirror and the Minister', Arts Council, 15 April 2014; 'Say No to this British Iron Age mirror being lost to the nation', Heritage Trust 20th May 2014). Everybody recognizes that both the current treasure legislation and export licence criteria are imperfect solutions to the problems raised with artefacts hoiked by artefact hunters with metal detectors.
They do not, and cannot, ask the questions that matter: what aspects of our heritage do we value most, and how should we safe-guard important objects? Does protection always need to mean being in a museum? And, crucially, who should decide?[...] these aspects of value are not protected by current legislation, andIf we really desire to protect our prehistoric past, we need to legislate (and educate) not just with the goal of protecting beautiful art objects, but also the sites where they are discovered.
can never be reflected when putting a price on prehistoric finds. So whether buyer at home is found or not, the most important aspect of this find, its archaeological context, has already been lost.
Hat tip Donna Yates.

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