Monday 13 May 2019

UK Antiquities Trade Watch: Durham Digger

Dug out diagnostic
 evidence on open sale
 in Durham (eBay)
The eBay seller durhamdigger22 (a name suggesting that he 'digs' and sells his own finds) has today 74 lots and single archaeological artefacts on sale and since he joined eBay in April 2017, has already accrued 614  feedback points (and if you go back right to the beginning, 29 pages back, you will see that this is almost entirely for selling archaeological artefacts. Hundreds (because some of the past sales were job lots as are some of those he's offering now) of objects have been disappearing into unknown numbers of scattered ephemeral personal collections of portableised archaeological evidence - potentially everywhere the Royal Mail will reach.

Looking through the finds he's offering, we find the following: this guy has 19 Bronze Age and 'Celtic' objects, 70 Roman items (several job lots of fibulae), 14 Anglo-Saxon, 16 'Viking', 10 medieval and three Post medieval items hoiked out of the archaeological record (total, 132 objects online today). Most of them  (though not exclusively) are small items of decorative metalwork, strapends, brooches etc. It seems at least one prolific Roman site and an Anglo-saxon (cemetery?) site have simply had the diagnostic artefacts hoiked from the ground and onto eBay.

One is struck how few of them have even a proper description, let alone a findspot more specific than a county (and in the case of one of those, a now-non-existent county) - so in other words, next to no provenance. Also none of the descriptions I read stated that the object has been reported by the PAS before being placed on sale (and checking for a few of the more characteristic items on the database failed to find them).

Neither is there any upfront mention of the buyer obtaining a copy of any documentation in existence showing the landowner has been made aware of what specific items the artefact hunter is removing from their property and assigning title to them. Obviously such documentary proof of title is what would distinguish a responsible dealer from a cowboy dealer, and differentiate responsible artefact hunters from nighthawks. In effect, this seller, by failing to offer such documentation for each object, is offering no proof of the fact that the artefacts he is selling do not include the product of so-called nighthawking. They are offered to the indiscriminate buyer on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. That is not how this precious resource should be being treated in the first half of the 21st century, is it?

What is notable is that there are no coins offered. Have we a situation here where a metal detectorist is selling off what he does not need for his personal collection, and that, like many detectorists, he is mainly interested in collecting coins?

The seller assesses a lot of the objects he is offering as 'scarce, 'rare', 'very rare', 'extremely rare' yet starts bidding at prices between GBP 6.50, the starting price for 25 of his items while the starting price for some can be as high as GBP 950.00 (while the Buy it Now prices -49 results - start at 20 quid but most are in the hundreds - I wonder whether the landowners know). There is obviously a lot of money to be made from metal detected artefacts in the UK. It seems there is a huge temptation for some of those engaged in collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record not to be the official stereotype's 'citizen archaeologists', amateur researchers and curators "in it fer th' 'istry".

But Durham Digger seems not just to be engaged in 'digging', but also acquiring stuff 'from [unspecified] old collections' That is the stated origin of all the silver and gold items, he's openly offering from the fair city of Durham. Like the VIKING HACK SILVER INGOT  [ G 13]  FROM AN OLD COLLECTION - GBP 65.00, the ROMAN SILVER PHALLIC STRAP END FROM AN OLD COLLECTION - GBP 115.00, the listing of the 'ROMAN SOLID SILVER RING INSCRIBED  "LEG  X"   [LOT 9]'- GBP 155.00 does not actually state where it is from, no doubt if the FLO were to ask it would also turn out that the absent-minded seller forgot to say it was from an old collection too, so no need to report it (but it would be good if the FLO did check this and ask to see the documentation for its legal acquisition), there is also a 'MEDIEVAL GOLD GILDED SILVER BROOCH WITH FOUR BEASTS HEADS FROM AN OLD COLLECTION' - GBP 165.00,  a 'MEDIEVAL GOLD GILT SILVER BROOCH WITH CLASPED HANDS AS IN PRAYER  FROM AN OLD COLLECTION' - GBP 165.00, an odd-looking something described as an 'ANGLO SAXON GOLD AND GARNET CHRISTIAN CROSS  17mm x 12mm  FROM AN OLD COLLECTION' - GBP 950.00, and something else that is described as a 'ROMAN GOLD AND GARNET AMPHORA PENDANT 17mm HIGH  FROM AN OLD COLLECTION' - GBP 950. Both the latter two items deserve a fuller description than offered here - describing how they are made (is the cross hollow? Why is the stone garnet and not amethyst or glass?) and how it is known that they are both ancient (as described) and not some modern pastiche originating in south Asia? Is there any documentation that they left the ground after the Treasure Act came in force (they are listed under 'British antiquities'), or were legally obtained in and exported from an area where it is not? A buyer forking out nearly a thousand quid deserves nothing less from any responsible dealer. Otherwise they'll end up with something that, should the regulations on resale of antiquities be tightened up (and there is every argument in favour of that happening), they'll not be able to shift it and get their money back.

I'd like to draw attention to two other artefacts, the CIVIL WAR BLACK POWDER MEASURE   [G 29] FOUND ON A YORKSHIRE BATTLE SITE and the POST MEDIEVAL CIVIL WAR MUSKET BALLS FROM A YORKSHIRE BATTLE SITE. There is no indication which Yorkshire battlefield site was plundered here for metal detectable artefacts that can be flogged off by 'Durham Digger', it is immaterial whether or not it was a protected one. Responsible detectorists should realise (and liaising FLOs should hammer home) that, unless it is part of a planned and controlled systematic survey with full recording and proper archive submission, these are certain sites that they should keep away from. battlefields are a prime case, where the bulk of the information is held precisely in the topsoil. 

Finally, as a Medievalist, I'll just put up this collage of the Anglo-Saxon objects this guy is emptying out of an unknown Yorkshire site and onto eBay that makes me especially sad. This is English history being ripped up and sold off to the highest bidder for personal profit, this is not 'citizen archaeology' it is totally unsustainable and unacceptable historical vandalism:

If the seller flogs them all off this week at the price they are today, he'll personally gain GBP1069 from that little selection of somebody's grave furniture - meanwhile we all will have lost immeasurably more, what price our common heritage? Durhamdigger, Stop Taking OUR Past for your own profit (and it makes no difference how much you pay on taxes for these earnings from cultural exploitation).

Also, if 'DurhanDigger22' is a detectorist, the fact that this guy has 132 objects online today and has shifted at least 612 similar lots since April 2017 (even if he's also flogging off some objects on behalf of a detecting buddy or two), gives us some kind of inkling of the scale of the destruction of the archaeological record going on under our noses. if there are 27000 active detectorists in the UK now, just how "wrong" is the Heritage Action Artefact Erosion Counter? The sad truth is that after twenty years of 'liaison' and 'partnership', nobody knows (or if they know, they are not telling). 

So why is nobody in Durham (where there is a university, a museum, an archaeology unit and lots of people involved in preserving the past), or anywhere else, seeing this as a huge problem that needs to be dealt with, and actively and loudly agitating to close down the legal loopholes that allow this sort of thing to be going on? 

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