Sunday 10 May 2020

Museums get behind metal detectorists in their quest for treasure

With the byline 'Ancient antagonists build bridges as treasure finds mount up [...] detectorists are now belatedly recognised for adding significant jewels to the crown of our past', the Financial Times has a piece of anti-conservation churnalism (Liz Foreman, 'Museums get behind metal detectorists in their quest for treasure', May 9 2020). And because archaeology is so much like rocket science and sub-particulate physics, she's gone for the dumbdown and the whole emphasis is on 'ow much it is werf. Discussing the Shropshire Marches Bulla:
 “It was valued at £250,000. Most finds come in at under £500. In 18 years I’ve seen two or three cases worth more than £10,000. From the point of view of value, the majority of metal detectorists are going to find the best part of nothing.”
Awwwww. And of course the landowner sees very little of the overall value of the many thousands of artefacts that yearly enter private collections and the antiquities market. But some artefact hunters find some valuable stuff and the landowners will ("always"?) get their cut:
It is not only archaeology that has benefited from this development but also the jewellery world. “Between 60 and 70 per cent of treasure finds are jewellery,” says Michael Lewis, head of the PAS. Some of the sparkliest pieces go on show in museums while other items are preserved and kept in the nation’s homes. [...] Not everything can be acquired by museums. “If something is in wearable condition, it is massively more expensive to buy. Often museums can’t afford it.”
But then, the museums don't really want to have to look after it:
Eleanore Cox, the finds officer for Northamptonshire, says: “Not all jewellery pieces are acquired by museums because they can be hard to explain. Think of a ring with an inscription on the inside: it’s very hard for a museum to display.”
Oh, that's OK then. It's not about preserving the past at all, just ease of dumbdown (?). And the money of course. The FT reader learns:
The antiquities scheme divides jewellery into various categories. Mr Richardson of the British Museum says: “We have a category for an object type called jewellery on the PAS website but it is for things that can’t be described more specifically. “There are 160 finds on there called jewellery but we also have more than 10,000 finger-rings, 1,600 pendants and 46,000 brooches recorded on the database. [...]  Mr Lewis adds: “Jewellery is a category used when you don’t know what something is. We use the subsections more often on the antiquities scheme.”
It is unclear what it is, so you say what it is... logical. What's the difference between  'jewellery' and 'personal ornament'? Then they enthuse about the early medieval gold and garnet pendant, known as the Winfarthing Pendant, found by a metal detectorist in Norfolk.
Helen Geake, the county’s finds liaison officer who featured in Channel 4’s Time Team archaeology programme, was called in when a detectorist got a positive hit at the foot of a grave. “He called us and we excavated,” she says. “The pendant was bigger than anything that’s ever been found.” It was acquired two years ago by Norwich Castle Museum, and has been valued at £140,000. The quality and quantity of jewellery varies according to when it was made, says Ms Geake. “In the early Anglo-Saxon period, women were buried with their jewellery. The eighth century is full of quite dull alloy brooches but occasionally you find the most remarkable things. It is the same in the fifth century. There isn’t a lot that stands out but there are always a few to mess up the pattern. The 12th century is pretty slim pickings.”
so basically if you are an artefact hunter and collector or just out for the Treasure reward  your are looking for a cemetery of the sixth or seventh century if you want to hoik some corpse's jewellery to pocket of flog off? Yes, is that the message PAS? So the twelfth century is "slim pickings" from an acquisitive point of view, but a real archaeological outreach organisation would be making sure that the journalist wrote that this was not due to impoverishment of society at this time (because it was not) but changes in costume and (when we are talking of grave robbing) burial practices.

I bet it was Mike Lewis who made sure she instead wrote of his Helsinki mates:
Schemes similar to the PAS exist elsewhere in Europe and include Portable Antiquities Netherlands and Dime in Denmark, with FindSamp being set up in Finland. The situation in Belgium is unusual, with the MEDEA database and licensing covering only Flanders; metal detecting is more strictly controlled in the French-speaking part of the country. 
And in France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Poland, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and a whole lot of other places that the Vikings with their plunder ethos never got to.


Brian Mattick said...

Mike Lewis wrote:
"Some of the sparkliest pieces go on show in museums while other items are preserved and kept in the nation’s homes" ...

... has he SEEN all the stuff being flogged off on EBay or some of the toothless, non-reporting scuts who attend mass detecting rallies? Is that what he means by "preserved and kept in the nation's homes"? Preserved? Kept? It's blatant whitewashing of an intolerable situation IMO.

Paul Barford said...

I have several times reported to Mike Lewis and the Treasure Registrars items of Anglo-Saxon goldwork and similar items being sold on eBay that have no record of having been through the Treasure process (or documentation confirming that they need not have been), but in each case I was told that it was not their responsibility to deal with it. So yes, deliberately and culpably ignoring what is going on.

Hougenai said...

Professional detachment is one thing when used to preserve sanity, but I for one would wish these professionals, from public funded bodies, would recognise the wider issues, legitimate concerns and legality. Under the banner of 'Public engagement', as a minimum PAS could provide advice on reporting illegal or dubious activities and supply appropriate regional contacts.
This is a similar argument to Natural England's response to wildlife crime, but at least they'll suggest contacting the Police or Planning authority depending on the situation.

Paul Barford said...

We both know that if you were a metal detectorist: "found sum Trezur Mate, and don't no wot to do wiv it", the PAS would be falling over themselves to contact the Coroner for you within the 14 days.

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