Thursday 13 August 2020

David Knell on PAS Story-telling [UPDATED]

The discussion of the politicised story-telling of the PAS on a ring from Shropshire goes on. FLO Peter Reavill published a moral tale about a seal matrix with a man's head on it and said it related to slave-owning, PACHI criticised it, David Knell added his comments to my post. That prompted another FLO to come rushing over to attack my adjectives, those of David Knell and generally claim in effect that the FLOs are experts and have British Museum expert advice, and how dare anyone question their interpretation. Wow. I updated my original post, but David Knell has continued the discussion in a way that raises the question of the reliability of the PAS recording (David Knell, 'PAS: Truth be damned, let's just be topical!' Thursday, 13 August 2020)

Apparently in a misguided attempt to be topical, the author gave his article the subtitle "How a single artefact can shed light on the transatlantic slave trade" and tagged it as 'Atlantic Slave Trade, Black Lives Matter, Enslaved Person'. Excited by that theme, the author then went on to make wild assumptions in the text - "... design depicting a Black man – most probably an enslaved person", "the depiction of an enslaved person on this seal" - while desperately trying to link the seal to "the enslavement of African people". [...] I now see Ben Westwood, another FLO, is apparently outraged that anyone dared to challenge the nonsense in the PAS article.
There are some (justifiable) sharp comments in this response ("Perhaps my standard for drawing a line between fact and wild flights of uninformed imagination is somewhat stricter than that of the PAS". "a PAS article that favours sensationalist speculation over sound scholarly objectivity"). Basically it boils down to Knell asserting (and I think correctly) "that any chance of an intelligent "debate" requires the immediate ditching of that "Slave Trade" narrative; it's a false accretion founded on an ignorance of armorial art [...] forcefully foisting topicality onto the artefact". In my original post I suggested that the bust on this seal might have been a classical reference, and while it's still possible, having read Knell's comment to that post and now his enlargement on his blog, I am persuaded that his is the more likely interpretation. 

In a previous generation of archaeologists, there was a much wider knowledge of heraldry than seems to be the case today. So in his blog post, Knell gives a brief account of armorial art - pointing slyly to some examples on the PAS database, including one seal matrix (NLM-0D2C6D) remarkably like the Shropshire one, though better finished. That one is dated by another FLO to  1750-1825 (not "1713") - the significance of that is that slavery was abolished in the UK in 1807. Knell goes on to explain to the FLO ("expert") the significance of the "Moor's Head" emblem, elements the FLO evidently had not considered, and all those experts he consulted (names, please) did not remind him of: 
Although the device is by no means as common as a lion rampant, it is not exactly rare either [...] and it's rather surprising that it threw the PAS team into a shocked wobbly [...] despite Mr Reavill's strenuous effort to make it topical, the device is most unlikely to have even the remotest connection with the "transatlantic slave trade". [...] Despite the misleading subtitle of the Reavill article, the artefact has not shed an iota of light on the transatlantic slave trade (hardly surprising since the artefact has nothing to do with it); the article merely illustrates the validity of Paul Barford's warning about narrativisation. It is a reckless reversal of archaeological practice: instead of dispassionately allowing an artefact to speak for itself and learning from it, a largely irrelevant sermon based on misinformed guesswork and irrational assumption has been clumsily piggybacked onto it. There is already more than enough pseudo-archaeology in the world, please don't add to it.

Update 17th August 2020

The sorry saga goes on and on and the PAS FLOs (particularly the Durham one) are digging themselves deeper and deeper into a hole (David Knell, 'Reply to Twitter feedback' Ancient Heritage blog, Monday, 17 August 2020).    

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