Friday 7 August 2015

"Rita of Rollright"

Artefact hunter and 'London-based IT professional' Charles Wood, 44, of the Muddy Boots Metal Detector Club decided he'd have a go at the end of March finding artefacts to add to his private collection close to the King Stone near the stone circle of Rollright Stones near the village of Long Compton on the borders of Oxfordshire and Warwickshire in the English Midlands.
The field he chose had been the site of the Rollright Fair (Kingstone Farm, Little Rollright, Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire), so if nothing else there'd be some dropped change there to find. He picked up a faint (so potentially deep) signal and dug, and dug and dug until he hoiked out a metal ladle-shaped thing (David Gazet, '  Metal detector enthusiast unearths 1400 year-old Saxon skeleton' Banbury Guardian, Thursday 06 August 2015).
We thought it was a tractor piston at first but we soon realised we had found something more.” The group contacted finds liaison officer Anni Byard at Oxfordshire County Council and the next day experts from Oxfordshire, Surrey and Buckinghamshire made a site visit. Then began a painstaking three-day excavation. 
The excavation located a early to mid seventh century female inhumation aligned north/south accompanied by
silver, copper alloy pins, a metal chain, an amber bead and a rock crystal amulet attached to an iron chain. A decorated antler disk was found under the woman’s back, which could have been a hair or dress accessory, as well as metal hinges and a lock plate which could have formed part of a wooden box. This may have contained the bronze ladle that sparked the find. 
 Unfortunately the latter had been hoiked out earlier by the artefact hunter so we'll never know. In the plate was in the grave and the ladle in the box, then the ladle was in the grave fill. The photo shows clearly that Mr Wood had dug down below plough level ("35 cm down" in the daily Mail) into the top of the grave fill (like happened at Cumwhitton when readers will remember the Bland PAS stubbornly denied that to have been the case to save the artefact hunting 'partner' embarrassment). There seems to be no record of any of the finds made by this metal detectorist or any of his fellow club members in this field in the PAS database. Why not?

The ladle lying in the hole (Banbury Guardian)
Only the lack of carrier bags seems to me to differentiate this from Lenborough. Disgustingly and a blatant breach of ethics when handling human remains, the discoverers "affectionately named" the deceased "Rita of Rollright", they surmise that the young lady "may have been a healer or wise-woman" - partly because she was buried "in close association with the King’s Stone". The Daily Mail links her to the legend of the "Rollright witch" (Sarah Griffiths, 'Is this the witch of Rollright? 1,400-year-old skeleton unearthed with a rare religious spoon at Bronze Age monument' Daily Mail ) but obviously the archaeologists failed to inform the journalists that this legend is recent in origin.

How much did this excavation cost, what resources are going to have to be made available for the study and publication of the material? What resources are there for fieldwork to establish the site and regional context of the single grave found when a metal detectorist targeted a known ancient site? 

This map and this satellite photo shows the area where Mr Wood was digging. The numbers '7' mark where an Anglo-Saxon cemetery is known. Presumably Mr Wood was outside the protected areas, but this whole area with its concentration of multi-period archaeology should obviously be scheduled and not the target of random artefact seeking for personal entertainment and profit.


Anonymous said...

As a very long term lover of the Rollrights, including the King stone (one of millions probably - perhaps including the FLO who attended ) I'm very upset about this. The outlook from the King Stone downhill towards Long Compton is so obviously integral to the original site so irrespective of whether it was scheduled most people would know it was no place to be digging. If a detectorist couldn't work it out then the name of the farm, Kingstone, ought to have been a massive clue.

But then, how many detectorists know or care about setting etc so long as it's "legal"? I really hope he doesn't get rewarded or praised or that anyone tries to excuse him on the grounds that "it wouldn't have been found otherwise". That's the logic of an exploiter not a history lover and if true could be a valid excuse to dig up everywhere including all scheduled sites and World Heritage Sites - which presumably most of them would, given the legal chance. History lovers my eye.

Unknown said...

I am a fan of archaeology (amateur enthusiast?) but I have also been exploring the idea of metal detecting as a hobby. I didn't realize it was such a controversial hobby, especially in relation to the archaeology community. I do understand some of the issues pertaining to this discovery and the handling of the site, but I don't understand all of the issues. I was hoping you could clarify some points for me.

Yanking out the ladle - Seems ungraceful and foolishly undocumented, (Why wouldn't you carry a field journal to at least keep accurate personal records?) but how would one know if a site is historically significant without removing and examining the object? I understand there are some provenance issues here, and artifacts and findings in situ are more valuable to archaeologists than ones that are not.

Digging close to a historic or protected site - Ethically dubious decision. I understand the desire to dig close to the site due to increased chances of finding something of significance, but anything found should be handled professionally and documented, as it is likely related to the site.

Digging further than 35 cm. - I don't understand the significance of this, perhaps it is a best practice?

Finally, isn't it a positive that the remains were found and documented? It appears that as soon as human remains were found the site was reported (definitely the law, and probably should have happened when the ladle was found), and the site was turned over to professionals at that point. Is it too great of a burden on preservation societies and university archaeologists to have to respond to and document unplanned excavations and sites? If that IS the case, wouldn't they have left the site unexplored if just the ladle was reported and left in situ for professional archaeologists or preservationists to handle?

I hope this doesn't come off as rude, I'm just genuinely interested in the issues, and if I pursue detecting as a hobby I'd like to practice it in a way that doesn't offend the archaeology community.

Paul Barford said...

As far as I am concered, a fan of archaeOLOGY and collectors of loose antiquities are not equivalents - like biologists and Big Game Hunters.

I think it pretty obvious to all that Rollright IS a "historically significant site", so one where we really do not need random blokes hoiking, yanking and digging without anything in the nature of detailed field documentation.

The ladle was not in "ploughsoiL" but an archaeological feature. Best practice this is not.

IS it a "positive" that a single grave was disturbed and HAD to be excavated when the site is known to have Anglo-Saxon burials around it? The excavation costs money, money that has to be spent on picking up the pieces after a bit of gung-ho hoiking by yet another metal detectorist who just can't keep away - can't resist digging right in the middle of a complex site. This is money that could be more usefully spent elsewhere - but had to be spent here. This is the wrong way to go about "managing" the heritage.

I would say the best way to not cause problems for archaeology and cause damage to the historical record in times when there are not enough funds to record everything or react properly to 'discoveries' is NOT TO TAKE UP ARTEFACT HUNTING and collecting. Join a good archaeology society and get involved in some decent fieldwork and research projects.

Anonymous said...

"Join a good archaeology society and get involved in some decent fieldwork and research projects."

To be honest Stephen, if you're "a fan of archaeology (amateur enthusiast?)" you really should take Paul's advice. Detectorists claim they are a type of archaeologist but random and selective and acquisitive are three things that aren't part of archaeology. And "not for public benefit" is a fourth.

Unknown said...

Interesting. I am not, and never have, acquired loose antiquities in any fashion. Obviously, I do not own a detector, and I've never been detecting. I'm glad I decided to seek out thoughts before pursuing it. I appreciate your responses, and they helped clear up a lot of my questions. They did lead me into some other questions too.

Artifacts is definitely the right term, because there is very little metal antiquities where I live (cold hammered copper is about it). Pulling a brass voyageur's button out of a muddy riverbed is probably just as bad as pulling a 1,500 year old ladle from a burial site, right? Is the offense less egregious if the artifact is of a recent vintage, within the last 200 years, for example?

I believe I understand now why digging beyond 35 cm is bad. It penetrates beyond plow soil, which can shift and change on its own, into the more stable geologic record. By penetrating that level without proper professional conduct, they're essentially ruining any provenance of the artifact.

What about the classic image of someone combing the beach for coins? Would artifacts found in loose, coastal sand be less inappropriate to look for since it exists above the solid soil?

I guess I assumed that once the remains in the article were handled they site would automatically expand to surround where the remains were. I understand that being forced to allocate resources to a project that was never anticipated could be absolutely crippling to universities or non-profit organizations, and was just wondering if there was a "silver lining" to the situation.

I work closely with a number of American Indian tribes in the upper Midwest, and when Native American remains are found it is usually viewed as a positive because it allows legal maneuvering (usually in the tribe's favor) to try and protect that land from falling into private ownership or certain state managed land programs. Admittedly, this influenced my view on the article heavily, and I understand I have dealt with a unique situation.

I am a member of the Wisconsin Archaeological Society, but I guess I've kept my lack of training and credentials from ever volunteering for anything. There is also a ridiculous amount of bad archaeology happening in my state that can make it difficult to initially determine who is conducting real work. The fringe/alternative history periodical Ancient American is published here, and Scott Wolter lives closer to me than I do to Aztalan.

I appreciate the time and effort you put into your blog and thank you for responding to my questions.

Paul Barford said...

Whether 200 year old artefacts are treated as archaeological evidence I suppose depends on the region and how heritage professionals treat them, - are US civil War battlefields archaeological sites? Also when a detector gives a signal, the only way to know whether a buried object is a modern button or ancient artefact is often to dig it out - by which it is too late.

I do not think anyone has any issues with beach detecting when it is loose sand brought by the tides and wave action (except the owners of the jewellery and other personal items that the detectorist often just pockets, frequently without paying attention to lost property and bona vacantia legislation). This is where that label "metal detecting" is misleading as it covers many different activities in fact.

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