Wednesday 3 November 2021

"Secret-West Norfolk Hoard" Goes to Inquest


Some of the gold coins discovered in a west Norfolk field (Photograph: British Museum/PA).

Readers may remember the Portable Antiquities Scheme's scandalous involvement in late 2012 and 2013 in a TV show "Britain's Secret Treasures"  and the discussion (that they, the PAS, dodged) about why they are somehow "a secret" when recovered and displayed in museums. Well, here's a new one, and the secrecy and mystery is not something immanent in the material, but the way British archaeology is treating it and paternalistically and condescendingly gatekeeping the information that belongs to all on the pretence that it's allegedly for our "|own good". 

The Guardian reports a news item that reveals just the edge of at least three big stories concerning Britain's "policies" on Collection-Driven Exploitation of the Archaeological Record, none of which is very edifying. One interlocks with another covered here a long while ago . An inquest has opened into the status of 131 early seventh century gold coins unearthed at a secret location in a West Norfolk field and over a period of thirty years and trying to determine (on what evidence?) whether they are part of "one collection" (ie a hoard) or scattered site finds of another nature (Nadia Khomami, 'Norfolk treasure newly declared as England’s biggest Anglo-Saxon coin hoard' Guardian 3 Nov 2021). If a hoard, this would be the largest found in the UK of this period. The coins are mostly Merovingian tremisses and solidi. There are also four other gold items in the group (including a bracteate and a small gold bar), that "were sporadically discovered between 1991 and 2020", but there is no information in the article about any other archaeological evidence associated. Tim Pestell (senior curator of archaeology at Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery) is cited, calling it: 
an “internationally significant find”. He said: “Study of the hoard and its find spot has the potential to unlock our understanding of early trade and exchange systems and the importance of west Norfolk to East Anglia’s ruling kings in the seventh century.”
Details of the large-scale project to study the findspot commensurate with the stated importance were not made public. And of course the public has a right to know, the gatekeeping archaeologists are keeping the public away from knowledge of their own heritage. 

This story however is not the usual one of the 'eureka' moment and a hurried "scrabble to get the objects out of the ground before dusk fell and the nighthawks raid" that we usually hear, though there is a criminal element. As Ms Khomami tells us: 
Most of the objects were found by a single anonymous detectorist who reported his finds to the relevant authorities. However, 10 of the coins were found by David Cockle, a serving police officer who was jailed for 16 months in 2017 for illegally trying to sell them. Two of the finds concealed by Cockle have since disappeared into the antiquities trade.
That in itself is a scandal, that the British antiquities trade functions in such a way that stolen items like this are immediately untraceable. Cockle sold them to a person whose identity is traceable (its a police matter - so why did the police draw a blank?). The Cockle case was discussed here a number of times.  I have also raised the issue of the veracity of the reported details of the same metal detectorist's other finds in the light of this case - how reliable (or not) is the information published as "data" on the PAS database? One also wonders whether there is any connection between this "secret-West-Norfolk" find and the discovery of a single tremissis at "Fincham" in the King's Lynn and West Norfolk District in April/May 2013. This is very near to where Dave Cockle was living at the time of his searching of the field(s) between April 2012 and November 2015. 

Cockle had permission to be there on the location of the "secret find" under discussion here.... and - tellingly - an agreement to split the sales of the finds 50:50 with the landowner. The problem was that he failed to reveal to the latter that he'd found and sold gold coins (how did the landowner find out?). This is despite the fact that the same (?) landowner had an agreement with Anonymous-Johnny who'd apparently been "sporadically discovering" items from this assemblage there since 1991 (and would continue to search there until 2020). So how does this work? How many other people did this anonymous landowner allow onto those anonymous fields in the same 30 years? At the time of the Cockle case, the Mirror had other details ('Metal detector cop cheats farmer after finding £15,000 gold coins in field', 26 Jan 2017):
The coins which he sold in three batches over 14 months are believed to have been part of a larger hoard [...] Another 34 similar gold coins were found in the same field in west Norfolk by another metal detecting fan (sic) who also had permission to be on the land. But unlike Cockle, the other man did the right thing and reported his find to the authorities, leading it to be declared as treasure trove.
so 34 in January 2017, plus Cockles' ten - and the authorities knew of it... which means that 90 coins were lying out in the field and recovered only by a single (?) anonymous-honest-johnny-tekkie in sporadic trips over the next four years. And why was a project not set up by the museum or archaeology section to employ local responsible detectorists to do a thorough gridded survey of the site in one fell swoop? How much information was LOST by this being done in the amateurish way is was? Instead of investing the money to do a proper archaeological survey of this known findspot, we will be paying a reward to an anonymous guy who did something by himself. What he did in all probability will never be known to the details necessary to interpret the dot-scatter pattern accurate to one metre of the individually numbered items that no doubt he made as he recovered the material. In what way, "Professor Tostig" is this amateurish ad-hockery "Responsible Metal detecting" and an archaeologically responsible use of the archaeological record of this site? And since those 34 coins were declared a hoard by January 2017, where is the record of that find in the PAS database when the PAS insists on putting Treasure finds in there? Why has it taken four years to put the record up in the public domain (coincidentally, look when the Fincham PAS record was in some way altered: 'four years ago' - why? What is the connection, why are the details being hidden so we cannot see if there is a connection or not using this flawed and incomplete "database"?)

At least this time the PAS to make a newsworthy photo did not tip all the recovered coins into one heap from a carrier bag loose on a table. These are in nine groups, suggesting that there are nine batches - what are the records for each of them? Why is the full information about this piece of (ahem) "citizen archaeology" (sic) not already in the public domain to be available to all members of the public interested in the archaeological heritage of England and Wales, and what is happening to it? "Thieves", you say? The public are all thieves? Or just some of the ones with metal detectors?  

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