Thursday, 4 March 2021

The Hanson's "Known as All-Buckinghamshire Too Bad Harness-Brooch" (IV): Archaeologists Notice and Conflicts of Interest


PAS's Bazaar archaeology
This follows on from The Hanson's "Known as All-Buckinghamshire Too Bad Harness-Brooch" (III): In the Saleroom

The object was cleaned, written up, photographed and the auction catalogue distributed (or at least put online) and the auctioneer claims 'great interest'.

And this is where things become murky. Some gossip has reached me from two, apparently, independent sources that, if true, would raise some questions and in particular what lay behind Andy Brockman rather oddly, but thought-provokingly, raising the question of hoards of prehistoric metal objects. Sadly, my attempts to determine whether there was foundation to these rumours got nowhere due to the obstructivism of archaeological colleagues in the PAS. Leaving aside gossip, here's "the official view" that Mike Lewis sent me on Sun 28th Feb 2021 (quoted with his express permission): 

Hi Paul, I have told you the story, but you seem not to like it. Julia Farley (who is an expert in these things) contacted the auction house to see if we could recorded [sic] this object and they agreed. The record was made by a volunteer based on the information the auction house provided. Obviously we would have rather have seen the object etc etc, but this is the best that could be done in the circumstances. I am not sure what you are expecting from us, given the finder nor auction house have no legal obligation to do either [sic]. The best we can hope is that this case further illustrates why the Treasure Act needs revising in lines with what the Minister has proposed - a significance based definition.
I hope that is helpful. Mike

Prof Michael Lewis FSA MCIfA Head of Portable Antiquities and Treasure, British Museum Visiting Professor, Archaeology, University of Reading Research Associate, University of York
The last sentence relates to a previous letter where he'd tried to deflect discussion of the case I'd asked him about to a (rather patronising in the circumstances) rediscovering-the-wheel exposition about what needs to be changed in the Treasure Act. And should it be a "minister" proposing it, and not the PAS arguing forcefully, loudly and publicly that this change is 25 years overdue? 

The reason why I "do not like" this story is that it leaves too many things unaddressed about the commercialisation of this harness-brooch. In fact the very things I was asking about, but are ignored here. I had previously written to the DENO FLO who referred me to the Head of the PAS to explain to me what was happening in her office. She refused to respond to a second request for information on that. I wrote to the Buckinghamshire FLO asking why they had not been asked to liaise with the finder over this Haddenham find and make their own record, I wrote to Dr Farley last week. No reply from there either.

Let's look at the official story.

1) "Julia Farley (who is an expert in these things) contacted the auction house to see if we could recorded this object and they agreed". There were several other items of Celtic metalwork in the same sale, yet it was requested of the dealer that only this one object was recorded? How come? Usually when an object on the market without any paperwork is singled out as being "important" is because a researcher wants to publish it themself. Perhaps we should keep an eye open for Dr Farley's future writeup of this harness-brooch...

Now actually, somebody else claims that they were the one that spotted this item and led to it being recorded, Dr Simon Maslin, who does not mention Dr Farley. So there is something more complex going on here that leaves with Prof Lewis's fob-off answer rather lacking. 

2) Dr Farley "contacted the auction house to see if we could recorded [sic] this object and they agreed": The mistake "recorded" suggests this phrase was carefully edited from something else. But what? Apart from that, there is a huge problem here. The auction house was not the owner of this object. Dr Farley had no business asking the auctioneer for permission for a record to be made, that is down to the landowner where this (as yet to be sold) object was found and the finder. Mike Lewis should know that, it's in the PAS guidelines on their website (!)

Secondly, according to the official account, Dr Farley is represented as going over the head of the PAS.  She is not a PAS employee, nor even listed as one of the finds advisors (that's Sally Worrell). In the corporate world, crossing into another department's competences would result in a disciplinary case. I have asked Dr Farley for her version, but at the time of writing, it was not forthcoming. Seems like a pretty simple thing to tell the same story as the Scheme head... or set the record straight if he has missed out something. 

3) "[the auctioneers] agreed. The record was made by a volunteer based on the information the auction house provided". Whoah! The record of this harness-brooch was made DENO volunteer by Michelle Ray, who had previously recorded just nine objects for DENO  on the PAS database - presumably under FLO supervision.  I could not find any online archaeological publications by this lady, so it is unclear to me why specifically she was assigned this task. But the record was posted up on 21st February 2021, which is a Sunday. By whom? Ms Ray, or did the FLO vet it and post it on a Sunday just four days before the sale? If the (remember: unsubstantiated) gossip about this case is to be believed, having the object vetted and legitimised by the PAS would to some extent be getting the dealer off the hook. In any case, since objects with verified provenance are at a premium on the market (or so dealers say), then having a PAS record was an instant price-booster. Presumably placing this piece beyond the abilities of a public institution to acquire. So the timing of the posting of this record is really disturbing. At the least it is thoughtlessness on the part of the person responsible (who is....?).

Was it the British Museum's Dr Farley who contacted Ms Ray directly? Is that why the only information I got from Meghan King  was the following cryptic note (25th Feb 2021)?
Dear Mr Barford, Many thanks for your email and the queries regarding this record. I would recommend directing your questions to Michael Lewis, who is copied into this email, as he has more information regarding the recording of this object.
Kind regards, Meghan King Finds Liaison Officer (Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire)
[just a trace of annoyance in that?]. Mike Lewis himself on 27th Feb 2021 insists: "Meghan was not involved with recording this find, so doubt she can help answer your questions". This means that there is a volunteer that had been previously making database records for the DENO FLO, but in this one (?) case, the FLO was excluded from the process? How come? Is she making this record in her own name? Yet it still bears a DENO number and not a 'Public' one. Why? Why does Prof Mike Lewis "have more information regarding the recording of this object" than the FLO presumably supervising a voluntrer making database entries under her DENO number? Why does Prof Lewis assure us that this same DENO FLO "was not involved" in making a DENO record?  Again, in the corporate world, a junior staff member making unauthorised alterations to a database like this would probably get them fired on the spot. Except she's a volunteer. So what safeguards are in place affording volunteers of various kinds access to the database?

Why was the Buckinghamshire FLO not asked, but a volunteer to make such an "important" record? Mike Lewis is silent on that. The photos and link to the catalogue could be sent by email to  Buckinghamshire just as easily as to wherever-Ms-Ray was when she made that record. And the Bucks FLO had better access to the local finder. 

4) Is there a connection between a DENO record being made four days before the sale and helping the dealer out, and Mr Hanson's earlier organisation of a fundraising auction in aid of the very museum hosting that new record? Was there a conflict of interest here? Is this why it is now being claimed that the Derby-based FLO had "no involvement" with a volunteer that had previously worked on DENO records? There is an odd pattern of recording in DENO, recording had been going on in fits and starts until 15th September last year, one more item on 22nd September, and then nothing... until this object was recorded on 21st February the following year. At the time of writing, this is the last DENO record. 

5) "The record was made by a volunteer based on the information the auction house provided. Obviously we would have rather have seen the object etc etc, but this is the best that could be done in the circumstances".  No need to comment really. Better than nothing is NOT what British archaeology should be aspiring to. So why is a substandard record made from looking at the pictures and cut and pasting from a tertiary source like the auction catalogue in the PAS records rather than in Dr Farley's own notes? How reliable is the PAS database if it incorporates "data" like these without a word that this is what has been done in the record? If they can do it from a Hanson's catalogue, why not eBay? That'd be a way of boosting database record numbers. 

6) The records claim that the recorder had access to the finder: "Date(s) of discovery: Saturday 17th October 2020" [not in the auction catalogue or Searcher article], "Grid reference source: From finder Unmasked grid reference accurate to a 1 metre square" and "Subsequent action after recording: Returned to finder" (sic). Yet the finder is based in Haddenham, Bucks. Did Ms Ray discuss the find with him? Did she look him in the eyes as he explained how and when he found it and what was or was not in the immediate vicinity? Is she familiar with the other objects the finder had taken to the FLO and something about his working methods? This makes a difference to the quality of the record, so why is this not part of her report so that we can assess data quality? Or are we expected to take every single piece of PAS information with a pinch of salt and shrug it off as "better than nothing"?

As can be seen, the PAS database "record" is compiled pretty exclusively from material supplied by the seller. I therefore find it difficult to unconditionally accept that in the middle of a national lockdown she met the finder and handed the object from the seller's stockroom back to him. If, therefore, this part of the public record is not a statement of a fact, what else is untrue? The findspot for example? How reliable is her record of that and how can we tell? The nature of their contact is fundamental to interpreting that record, yet that information is excluded from that record. In fact, how did a volunteer from DENO make contact with a Buckinghamshire seller anyway? Who had and handed her his personal data? The PAS always present themselves as real sticklers for protecting personal data - presumably Hanson's also adheres to the same principles? So how were these individuals put in contact with each other? Was Ms Ray's home address and private phone number given to a metal detectorist? Did they meet on neutral ground such as a motorway service station? 

6) "I am not sure what you are expecting from us". Professionalism, transparency. Not getting involved in any way with legitimising antiquities sales. I'd expect any responsible heritage organisation to wait five days until after the sale to publish that record to avoid boosting the sales price. I also expect from the PAS that in the contacts with Mr Hanson, he was informed using the strongest language possible that if ever again, he tries irresponsibly to sell metal detected antiquities straight from the ground and without any PAS record, that PAS will make sure (in the public interest) it is plastered all over the national newspapers why such sales are irresponsible, bad practice, and damaging to the national heritage. PAS can influence dealers to stop this kind of behaviour right now by taking action. But they do not (I stand to be corrected, would love to see some links to national newspapers where PAS head office or FLOs are decrying any aspect of the UK antiquities trade in such terms). 

That's what I would expect if I did not have the experience that the PAS is currently running circles round itself to avoid honestly revealing the full facts about what they actually did here and why. FLOs and British Museum staff simply refusing to answer a (totally legitimate) public enquiry about their handling of this matter will face no consequences. The public, whose heritage it is and who pay for the PAS will be kept in the dark and are the losers.

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