Friday 1 May 2020

Frodesley Ring, Where is the Documentation? Where is the Accountability?

British outlier
An inquest was held by coroner John Ellery who heard evidence via video conference (Rory Smith, 'Gold ring and silver brooch found in Shropshire declared as treasure' Shropshire Star Apr 30, 2020).  One of the items was a small and delicate Iron Age gold ring discovered by metal detector in the Frodesley area, near the Iron Age hillfort of Caer Caradoc, near Church Stretton. Peter Reavill, finds liaison officer for Shropshire, said:
“This tiny personal object throws a beam of light onto the individual who once wore it. We will never know their name or what they thought or looked like, but a little bit of who they were may be displayed in the museum for all to see.”
Oh, twee, "a little bit of who they were"... what? This is the Iron Age, not the poetry of Sappho. I'd say there were other aspects here that the FLO - supposedly doing archaeological outreach to the public and not creative writing - could have better been quoted saying about archaeological best practice and significance. Anyway:
The treasure report written by Angie Bolton, of PAS, and Dr Julia Farley, curator at the British Museum, describes the ring as being similar to other larger and heavier British finds and note that this form of ring is more commonly seen in continental Europe – especially Switzerland where they are known to date to the period 400-200 BC. This suggests that the British finds could either be imported from the continent as a gift or exchanged during trade, or be a local copy of this continental style. The British Museum science team examined the ring using non-destructive X-Ray florescence and found that the composition of the surface of the ring consisted of 85 to 87 per cent gold and eight to 10 percent silver, with the rest being made up of copper.
First of all, note that it says the other British finds are 'heavier', implying that this gracile one is more like those found on the Continent in the La Tene region (Switzerland). So could be... (checks notes) "an ancient import or a local copy of this continental style". Only?

The annals of the PAS contain more than a few cases of items that it was found out had not actually been found where people had said they found them. This blog has a few examples, rumour on detecting forums some more, hidden files of the PAS no doubt many more that they are not telling us about. Many examples of bad practice probably were never detected and the 'data' nestles in the PAS database.

Future generations would certainly appreciate documentation in the site file for this findspot in the PAS archives outlining why Ms Bolton trusted the account brought by the finder, for example has she secured a copy of a signed protocol releasing the find by the landowner? This is what the Nighthawking Review recommended. Are the PAS implementing this as standard procedure? Otherwise, as the reader who sent me this link asking for comment suggested "the British Treasure Process, -so the British Public - could be being abused to subsidise foreign Treasure hunters by laundering finds made elsewhere".

Now I am sure the finder of this item really did go metal detecting near an Iron Age fort and really did find this out-of-place artefact there. But future generations looking sceptically at the PAS "database" (probably by that time as a failed experiment) will note that this ring does not look like the other British ones, has a gold analysis different from other British ones that have been analysed (could just be surface enrichment, we don't know the burial environment - so really the result is meaningless), and actually is an outlier of current British distribution (five? eight? examples). So why are the PAS resisting collecting documentation confirming the basic reliability of the 'data' they are recording at public expense.

Accountability is more than "because I say so, trust me". Because that's what the antiquities dealers currently say, and if we are to change that, bodies like the PAS need to lead by example and set a standard others should aspire to, rather than lowering them to their level. 


Brian Mattick said...

Obviously, a database where there is a legislative or monetary incentive to falsify find spots is X% inaccurate.

Worse, PAS is reluctant to acknowledge the existence of X and incap0able of even guessing its size, as are we all.

Paul Barford said...

Well as I said Brian, I know for a fact that there is material in the backs of filing cabinets of PAS relating to the discussion of this question, but which they'll not share with the public, for a number of reasons. I suspect there's stuff in the PAS database that the FLO has misgivings about, but recorded anyway because "how ya gonna proof it Mate?" would be the response of every artefact hunter bringing in stuff. And it all goes to boost numbers.

Then there are items that have been reported but don't get into the database (I am thinking of one prominent find mentioned three times on this blog) and no explanation. I know about that one (and have been informed by detectorists why they think/know there is official silence), but there must be many more cases just hushed up.

Brian Mattick said...

I also recall, but can't find the reference, a specific instruction from PAS to staff saying don't express doubts in meetings about reported locations as finders can access our minutes and may sue...

Paul Barford said...

I think this was the c. 2003 "Manual for Finds Liaison Officers" that was unwittingly (I suspect) leaked into the internet for a brief time. I have a copy downloaded in my files somewhere. :>)

Brian Mattick said...


I guess searing shards of bitter truth stick in the memory despite a subsequent 17 years of fluff and misinformation.

If they were worried about findspot misreporting back then, think how much more grounds for concern there must be now, when hopping across a hedge or an international boundary can make one rich in a jiffy.

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