Friday, 9 January 2015

Britain in Need of Archaeological Balls

Such balls are difficult to
find in UK archaeology
Nigel Swift has a post up today on Heritage Journal about hoard hoiking ('Why DO British finders have the legal right to be wreckers?', 10th Jan 2015).
It makes no sense when you think about it. In Britain unqualified people who seek out and find hoards (which have the legal status of national treasure) are then perfectly free (along with any amateur bystanders) to dig it up as fast and as badly as they wish, destroying the knowledge surrounding it. .
That is a fact. He illustrates it with the two cases at the beginning and end of last year. There is the Hollingbourne case involving Greg Sweetman digging deep alongside the Medway History Finders (“couldn’t contact an archie, might have been stolen if left overnite, so …. - the FLO said we done right") and the Weekend Wanderers hoard hoiking jaunt at Lenborough ("just one archaeologist there. A number of entirely unqualified people piled in to “help”. Out before nightfall …".) There were other cases in between, such as the Holt Hoard Hoik in Dorset where no archaeologist was involved.

In none of those cases, in the pursuit of that elusive best practice from those many of whom - in Nigel's words - probably "wouldn’t know a moral dilemma from a mozzarella", has the PAS issued any kind of comment criticising what was done (and, in the case of Ms Jackson at Hollingbourne, apparently quite the opposite). That it was the FLO herself with her 'head down the hole' overseeing the Lenborough hoard hoik beggars belief (Ms Tyrrell has declined to answer at least two requests for further information about the reasons behind this decision). Nigel Swift however is sympathetic to her dilemma.
I think the FLO was a victim of circumstances and deserves sympathy. Of course it should have been postponed and of course overnight security could have been arranged but there was no legal requirement she could cite. The fault lies with the legal system. We get the archaeological losses the law allows. Sorry to be “elitist” about detectorists but this sort of thing wouldn’t have happened at a gathering of amateur archaeologists – fact! The “voluntary” nature of Britain’s portable antiquities policy was based on the assumption that the two groups were broadly interchangeable. That has turned out to be a damaging mistake. All that remains is an admission. Who’ll bite the bullet?
It is now twenty years since Dobinson and Denison's report which put forward this notion (building on what Tony Gregory had been saying). Pehaps twenty years on, this basic premise needs reassessment in the light of nearly two decades of close-up experience which casts doubt on whether matters really are that simple when seen across the whole board. The twenty years social experiment which is the PAS has been consistently showing (as documented by myself, David Gill, Nigel Swift and others) what the differences are between collecting and archaeology, both in terms of aims and results, perhaps it is time to draw some more refined conclusions from the lessons we have been learning than "we both want to dig up and look at old things"?


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