Friday 7 August 2020

'Woke' Narrativisation from PAS Lockdown [Updated]

More PAS gatekeeping, trying to 'make archaeology (artefactology) look relevant':
Peter Reavill @PeterReavill · 3 g.
For #FindsFriday this week I wanted to share my research on a silver seal matrix from #Shropshire and its links with the Atlantic Slave Trade. You can read more about it here on the Shropshire county pages @findsorguk

and here it is in all its glory:

How a single artefact can shed light on the transatlantic slave trade, allegedly. What does the author have in mind "shed light"? What he's doing here is using an object to illustrate what we KNOW about the slave trade, from documents and ... umm, historians actually writing quite a lot about it. What "light" has the FLO "shed" by posting on a blog some reflections on an object recorded in 2013 that shows a negroid bust? First of all the FLO's description in the database. He says elements of the design are "beautifully cut" and "incised" and "engraved". I don't see that in the PAS photo (supposedly a preservation by record, no?) it looks cast to me. But no, the FLO insists: "the design was hand cut rather than cast as the tooling was clearly cut with a wedge shaped tool" (sic - it's called a burin). Despite that, I think the photo does not document that at all, it looks cast to me. The scrollwork of the matrix looks to be more or less in as-cast form, with little tooling, so it's odd that one part of the object would be finished by hand-tooling and not the other.

The FLO's dating is weird, "dates from the late 17th or very early 18th century (pre-1713)", but in fact that is a misreport of what it says in the database record, that it was probably older than 300 years - so it can be treated as Treasure) in 2013 when found... I'm no expert on these things, but can't help feeling this has a later feel to it [update: the comment by David Knell gives a clue as to why it looked later - though I was not able to put my finger on why.... He suggests it is much later]

But then we come on to the narrativisation:
By owning and displaying such a seal the user made very clear statements about who they were and what they wished to be associated with. [...]  What makes this Shropshire piece stand out from the other recorded examples is its deliberately chosen engraved design depicting a Black man – most probably an enslaved person.[...] I / we need to do so much more than we currently do to ensure that our history as a nation is understood in all its facets by all [...] even though I am a privileged white middle-class male museum archaeologist / heritage professional I can make a difference and use my voice to support and make change happen.
So, first of all, we have a story that is based on a "this looks like" and then a "most probably". And who is to say it is not so? But then to build such pathos onto a single decontextualised artefact (and the PAS have already played at the "remember grisly slave trade" gig before), we really do need to be sure that what we are looking at is what the FLO says it is. 
Some other seals of the type

In his blog post, the FLO illustrates several contemporary seal matrices, two caught my eye, they look like a poor man's version of the intaglios that were produced for Grand Tour travellers, with classical style busts in helmets and cuirass. The FLO assumes the negroid head on the Sheriffhales seal matrix  is a depiction of an 18th century personage, but actually does not justify that except saying it is "very probable". I think taking this class of objects as a whole, it is surely no less probable that this is a classical allusion. I recall seeing a coin type like this, an apparently Etruscan issue of the third century BC (Sear Greek Coins and their values Seaby 1978, vol I, p. 56, nr 518 - wildwinds…).

Coin (Wikipedia)

What is interesting about this is that it's got an elephant on the reverse and modern 'black history' websites take this to mean that the coin depicts the famed elephant-using warrior Hannibal Barca and then propagate the idea that Hannibal was black.
It'd be worth doing research into when that started... (I do not have access here to enough antiquarian literature), but did this start in Grand Tour times with a decontextualised coin with an elephant bought in Italy with an elephant on it being identified on 'common sense grounds' as Hannibal? If so, the Sheriffhales Seal-matrix ,may not be intended to represent a servile slave, but the victorious general from North Africa.

Update 8th August 2020
The comment by David Knell below gives another explanation that is also worth considering. So that's three different people and three interpretations. I think that raises a question how the PAS can preserve by record information about finds that more often than not disappear after being documented if that record is limited by the fact that the FLO is often working alone, and may have limited knowledge - here about eighteenth century art styles, and create a false description.

Update 13th August 2020
These people are astounding. It turns out that the mouthy Durham FLO sees it as his duty as some kind of knight on a white charger to come to the aid of his colleagues (I think it's an identity issue). So he's had a go defending Peter Reavill's blog post. To explain why I'm not really going to waste time on this (check it out on his Twitter feed) I'll just say how he started it:
Durham FLO Ben Westwood @FLODurhamFLO 10 sie
Thread: I’ve thought long and hard over whether to reply to this, but seeing comments describing Peter’s article ( as ‘vacuously jumping on the BLM bandwagon, and coupled with the offensive language used by @PortantIssues, I think it’s important to respond
Just check through the text above and see whether your view of "offensive language" is the same as the Durham FLO. True to character, he responds not by actually addressing the points made but by straw man argument and attacking individual words I used and telling his readers that this makes me into some kind of an illiterate fascist (I think these words - curiously all adjectives - are the "offensive" ones). Well, Mr Westwood's word-power leaves a lot to be desired, he can't even tell the difference between an adjective and a noun. He'd never get a job as a translator. Anyway, while most of his waffle is unedifying, this (following a screen shot of my original post) is worth putting on record: 
Durham FLO Ben Westwood @FLODurhamFLO 10 sie
W odpowiedzi do @FLODurhamFLO and @PortantIssues
no , this isn’t ‘3 people, 3 interpretations'. This record is published/green flagged, meaning that it has been written by the FLO, examined by the Treasure Registrar, and at least 1 (poss more) specialist British Museum curators.   
Bully for them, and none of them spotted the logical gaps in the text as published? The ones David Knell has now pointed out too? The British Museum is apparently not what it once was. Yet FLO-fella boasts (as I say, most likely, an identity issue): 
Durham FLO Ben Westwood @FLODurhamFLO 10 sie
Like it or not, we are experts in portable antiquities and artefacts, and see more Treasure than anybody, thus well placed [to] identify archaeological objects. and that’s not to say we don’t/won’t make mistakes, but we have experts on hand to give advice when we need it. 
But NOT the only experts, though. And yes, you do make mistakes, but our experience is that PAS staff are especially graceless when they are picked up on some of them. They should remember that their outreach represents us all, they are (supposed to be) a public face of archaeology, and it is from what they do or say that (if the millions of pounds it's costing us) the public will gain a large part of their knowledge of what archaeology is, how archaeologists do what they do. Therefore I feel that they should consider themselves answerable to the rest of us and not behave like some autonomous, hermetic and inscrutable religious order. 


David Knell said...

Some notes for Peter Reavill:

a) Motif:
The motif of the seal die is simply an heraldic device ('charge') known as a 'Maure' ('Moor's head') which, since the die is incised, would as usual face dexter in the impression.

It is a common device (appearing on the arms of Corsica, Sardinia and Coburg among many others) and, despite Mr Reavill's strenuous effort to make it relevant, the device is most unlikely to have even the remotest connection with the "transatlantic slave trade". Those examples proudly displayed by Corsica and Sardinia, for instance, date back to the 14th and 13th centuries respectively and probably allude to the defeat of Moorish rule during the Middle Ages; that displayed by Coburg honours the town's patron Saint Maurice and was granted in 1493.

b) Date:
The octagonal shape with beaded border is a Neoclassical theme which, together with the artistic style of the head, suggests a date around 1760-1800.

Instead of vacuously jumping on the BLM bandwagon in an attempt to be topical, it might be more instructive to find out which family the heraldic seal may have belonged to (there are several British candidates) and how it ended up in a Shropshire field.

Paul Barford said...

Thanks David, so now a third interpretation of this single decontextualised object, which just shows how easy it is to overlay loose artefacts with interpretations that might have little in common with reality. If you are right about the octagonal frame making it later - which I feel is probably the case - then the item did not fall into the category of Treasure and the "pre-1713" label was incorrectly imposed. Thanks.

Hougenai said...

Provides another speculative connection (Sheriffhales is about 2miles from Aston Hall,Shifnal and the occupiers from 1762 have a more direct connection with the Trade).

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