Monday 29 December 2014

James Vessey and the Culture Thieves

For some time now metal detectorists have been reacting to all and any criticism of the way artefact hunting is done in the UK by posting a link to a single story, though usually without comment explaining why they think it of such exceptional interest (most recently here).

The story comes from a court case in June 2013 and refers to a middle-aged bloke, James Vessey, who lived on a houseboat in Oxfordshire when he somehow came into possession of three post-medieval pottery bottles that had been dug up in the upper layers of an archaeological dig in Bath during the redevelopment of the city’s SouthGate shopping centre five years previously. It seems Vessey worked in some capacity for the archaeological service was carrying out the excavation.

The sale of one of the vessels was spotted by an archaeologist who realised where they had come from and informed the police. Vessey admitted the charge of theft by employee at Bath Magistrates’ Court on May 22 and was given a four-month suspended prison sentence, 270 hours of unpaid community work and told to compensate a man who bought one of the vases on eBay for £190.60 in July 2012. I wrote about this story before, but metal detectorists seem unwilling to let it pass into history. 

 The reason is of course that since this theft in 2008, at least four UK metal detectorists have been convicted for theft in the same period, and a similar or larger number arrested for such an offence but not (yet?) charged. Those sentenced, by the way, got similar sentences to Mr Vessey. So while the Vessey case has several things in common with a number of metal detectorists one could name from the news in the same period in connection with sentencing for artefact theft, there are two differences.

The first is the objects he stole were documented when they came out of the ground, so the owner of those offered anonymously for sale could be identified. The actual origin of many metal detected objects cannot be established, as finders do not normally obtain protocols of assignment from the landowner, and even if the object is recorded by the PAS, the latter does not normally carry out any kind of verification of the truth of the reported findspot.

The second way in which the Vessey case differs from the artefact hunters who steal objects is that Mr Vessey was turned in by a fellow archaeologist who spotted the pots he was selling and informed the police. None of the metal detectorists sentenced since 2008 was turned in by a “responsible metal detectorist”. That, and the fact that this single case turns up with monotonous regularity posted by metal detectorists in comments on blogs, tells you something.

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