Tuesday, 31 May 2022

What Have you Done?


TimeLine Auction 24th May 2022, Lots 343-4

For a long time, a certain British dealer has been selling online a copious series of what are (mostly) said to be Early Medieval and Medieval iron blade weapons with a very specific character. Images of these items are all over the internet for all to see. Instead of looking like the majority of excavated ironwork before or after professional conservation, the items in this series have a very specific appearance. The photos suggest that multiple items sold by this auctioneer, irrespective of their date and cultural affinities, have a smooth black shiny (oxide) passivated surface as you would get from certain relatively rare but specific burial environments. Yet how did such a wider range of object types get into those environments? In the majority of the cases, the sales offers of items that look like this have no concrete details of their collection history that could elucidate where they had come from, allowing us to determine why they look like they do. 

What is especially characteristic of these items is, although they are "artistically" photographed in poor and diffuse light, one can see in the sales offer online that this passivated surface is pitted. That in itself is not abnormal, many burial environments are not homogeneous and can have numerous reasons why localised electrochemical conditions can arise that will cause breaks in the passivated surface and lead to localised pitting. The problem is that in the group of items discussed here, these pits are randomly but fairly evenly spread across the surface, and they do not look like electrochemical erosion, but impacts made with a tool. For this reason, looking through this seller's offers, I (and it seems a number of sceptical collectors on weapons forums) have dismissed these objects as modern creations distressed to look like ancient products to attract collectors. If they are being offered as ancient artefacts by the consigner and seller, it would be a misdescription. I've been collecting examples of these for quite a while now.

Two items that I spotted in the auction that has just finished have, however, raised fresh questions about just what it is the auctioneer is selling. These ones are among the few that have information on the context of discovery. The first is described as
"LOT 0343: 'The Kettlewell with Starbotton 1' Anglo-Saxon T-shaped axehead< An iron axehead [...] 8th-11th century A.D. [....] mounted on a custom-made stand [...] 1.55 kg total [...] Very fine condition, professionally cleaned, conserved and restored. [No Reserve] PROVENANCE: Found whilst searching with a metal detector in Kettlewell with Starbotton, North Yorkshire, UK. Recorded with the Portable Antiquities Report (PAS) no. SWYOR-9334E2; accompanied by a copy of the PAS report. Acquired TimeLine Auctions, 30 November to 3 December 2021, lot 1287. Property of a London businessman. PUBLISHED: See Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), reference SWYOR-9334E2 (this axe). [...] Estimate GBP (£) 400 - 600"
The second one is similar:
LOT 0344 [...] The Kettlewell with Starbotton 2' Anglo-Saxon T-shaped axehead' An iron T-shaped axehead [...] 8th-11th century A.D.[... ] mounted on a custom-made stand [...] 785 grams total [...] Very fine condition, professionally cleaned, conserved and restored. [No Reserve] PROVENANCE: Found whilst searching with a metal detector in Kettlewell with Starbotton, North Yorkshire, UK. Recorded with the Portable Antiquities Report (PAS) no.SWYOR-93AC56; accompanied by a copy of the PAS report. Acquired TimeLine Auctions, 30 November to 3 December 2021, lot 1289. Property of a London businessman. PUBLISHED: See Portable Antiquities Scheme, reference SWYOR-93AC56 (this axe). [...] Estimate GBP (£) 400 - 600
There is also a load of trite narrativisation, mentioning King Cnut and as an additional marketing feature that "the associated PAS report judges this to be 'a find of note' and has been designated: 'County / local importance'". Yet was still put up for sale. Moreover it turns out that it was being resold after having been sold by TimeLine earlier (you can look up the original auction), for a lower price in other words in teh may 2022 sale was being flipped five months later for twice the original estimate. Hmmm. "Metal detectorists not in it for the money" you say?

My problem is when you look up the original PAS reports (that is SWYOR-9334E2 and SWYOR-93AC56) you get two crappy small-scale unzoomable photos of these items when dug up. But they look very different from what has just been sold in a very important respect. By the PAS they are described [SWYOR-9334E2] "The weight is 1012g. The object is heavily corroded and the surface pitted and flaking. The patina is patchy orange and dark brown". SWYOR-93AC56 "It is 556g in weight. The objects is pitted and flaky due to corrosion. The patina is dark brown and orange". Oh. 


Top: Objects in condition as recorded by PAS (PAS Database)
Bottom: Objects as sold by TimeLine five months previously (auction catalogue)
  
This is odd. Very odd. The objects that have just now been on sale are not "heavily corroded with the surface pitted and flaking", or "dark brown and orange". In basic terms, what the PAS is describing are ferrous oxides, the black passivated surface we see in the auction room should be ferric oxides. What, in the name of Zosimos of Panopolis has happened to the object to turn one into the other? "Pitted and flaking"? Well, not in the auction room it is not. Also some missing areas on the blade of both axes have mysteriously grown back. A miracle.

Here we note the wording of what passes for a "condition report" in both sales spiels (just before it says that there is "no reserve" ... ahem):
"Very fine condition, professionally cleaned, conserved and restored."   
What does that mean? Professionally means "done for money". It has been cleaned of all that "flaking" ferrous gunk.... how, how deeply? With what? Some professionals would use an airbrasive or similar means to expose the original surface within the corrosion layer. It was certainly there, although some areas show that it was lost in the many blisters that can be seen in the uncleaned object. But oh-oh... not visible at all on the "professionally conserved" objects we see before us. In this case our attention is drawn to the word "RESTORED" here. Restored, means what? Filling in the pits and making up the lost areas of the blade edge? With what material, what material with which properties was used here? How was the object stabilised before that? (that latter is the all-important question when it comes to archaeological iron)

The findspot of these objects is slap-bang in the middle of a large zone where the soil conditions are very unfavourable for the preservation of iron (Kibblethwaite et al. 2015 Fig 4). So before a professional restorer starts gap-filling, they need to get all agents of deterioration (soil chlorides in particular) out of the porous core of the corroded iron. How was this done? How was the absence of chlorides determined/verified? There should be a conservation report of this professional work, shouldn't there? And the buyer should get a copy. Yet there is no mention in TimeLine's spiel that there is any such document. The buyer will need to know what conditions the object must be curated in, and any future conservator to know what had been done and how it can be reversed if problems start appearing a few years from the date of purchase. Where is this conservation report accessible? Neither is there a proper condition report here, saying just what it is we are looking at (and somebody is asked to consider buying).

I have a sinking feeling that we can make an educated guess what it is we are not being told about what we are looking at. What we are looking at here, the surface, is most likely not iron at all. It is most likely some kind of composite, a synthetic (polymer) resin, or maybe epoxy putty, coloured black. Underneath it I would guess is probably the metal core of the axe, perhaps reduced by electrolysis (?) or in some other way stripped down to the bare metal. Over this, the "restorer" would have applied a coating to make up for the uneven surface left by the stripping process and the "pitting" noted by the PAS FLO, and this would be what has been used to give the whole thing a smooth outline by filling in the missing gaps. It has been impressed while the coating was still plastic with some kind of a tool (might be a rough stone) to give the appearance of "natural pitting". That it is not very natural looking (and in fact a dead giveaway) is due to the aesthetic abilities of the restorer. The composite coating then set solid and my guess is that then some kind of a (belt?) sander would have been used to reduce the upraised rims of the impressed "pits", to give the whole thing a fluid outline and remove any toolmarks. It may have been finished off with wax to give a satiny surface and obscure any scratches left by the sanding. If that is the case what we are looking at is a plastic replica of a Viking axe with a damaged metal core of the original object encased inside. If that is the case, a proper professional and trustworthy sales description should surely say so. 

I have two serious issues with this. First of all, this is not an archaeological artefact, but a distorted representation of one. Professional conservation would reveal as much as possible of the original features of the item, not cover all of them with opaque plastic.  Secondly, what is the longterm stability of this composite artefact, and how can the buyer know?  Archaeological ironwork is (as most professional conservators and archaeologists will know) a highly unstable material. Collectors know this too. If there is active corrosion going on in the pores of the metal core inside this object, then at some stage it will burst out, cracking the external coating off (and in the process causing more damage to the remains of the artefact inside). This may happen in three or thirty years, maybe longer, who knows? The longer this process goes on unmonitored (because that core is invisible inside the "restoration"), the worse the damage will be and the worse the problem of dealing with it becomes. This is especially the case if the future conservator does not have the documentation saying what was done to the artefact in the five months between the two TimeLine sales. 

The UK's metal detectorists all say they are "preserving the past" by "rescuing" it from being buried in the burial environment where it has lain for centuries or even millennia. But the metal detectorist that hoiked these two axes did nothing of the kind, they put these objects on a market where some unnamed "restorer" took money for doing something like this to these artefacts, very possibly much to the detriment of the objects themselves and any information that may be carrying in and under the corrosion products. In my opinion, what we see in the Internet here is nothing other than unethical commercial vandalism of archaeological material. Shame on the metal detectorist for allowing this to happen. Shame on the "restorer", back to conservation school. Shame on the auction house and its experts who knew what had been done (they were well aware of the state in which the object had left them five months earlier)  and remained silent and not offering the documentation of the operation carried out on the item (name of conservator?). Shame on the buyer for not asking the right questions. 
 
Reference:
Mark Kibblewhite, Gergely Tóth, Tamás Hermann 2015, 'Predicting the preservation of cultural artefacts and buried materials in soil', Science of The Total Environment Volume 529, 1 October 2015, Pages 249-263 [https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2015.04.036].

How did a Horribly Over-restored Teutonic Order Medieval Axe End up Being Sold in UK?

 

           Restored axe recently sold on consignment in London       
  
The online advertising of this battle axe sold in a Mayfair auction last month caught my eye, first its appallingly obtrusive and ugly "restoration" (see the post on this "London Businessman Restoration" above). The second is its provenance, mentioning a site I have been professionally involved with: 

LOT 0350
Estimate GBP (£) 200 - 300 [...] Sold for (Inc. bp): £546
35

TEUTONIC ORDER BEARDED AXEHEAD WITH MAKER'S MARK 13TH-14TH CENTURY A.D.
A Mazovian or Teutonic Order war axe, hand-forged with rectangular-section socket and expanding bearded blade; a maker's mark to one side of the blade and an openwork three-lobed flower tapering towards the blade; four notches on the upper part of the socket. 7 in. (805 grams, 17.8 cm). Very fine condition, professionally cleaned, conserved and restored. [No Reserve]

PROVENANCE:
Property of a London businessman, from his grandfather's collection formed after World War II; thence by descent 1972.

LITERATURE:
See Glosek, M., Późnośredniowieczna broń obuchowa w zbiorach polskich, Warszawa-Łódź, 1996, pls.VII-VIII, especially VIII lett.C.

FOOTNOTES:
This typology of axes (type Ig of the Glosek classification) was in use throughout Europe in the 13th-14th centuries. This axe is similar to one excavated during an archaeological survey of the castle at Czersk, dated to the 13th-14th century A.D. Close parallels have also been found in Elbląg, a famous commandery of the Teutonic Order from 1237 to 1454 A.D. The stronghold served as a seat of the Masters of the Teutonic Order.

Note the narrow size of the socket for the haft in the restoration. There is no mention of any accompanying documentation outlining the details of the conservation treatment before restoration, or documenting what actually is underneath all that textured gap-fill. The removal of archaeological artefacts connected with the Teutonic Knights from the Polish People's  Republic even "after the War" required a permit, so how did this grandfather get his hands on this? If it was in the grandfather's collection by some time after 1945, but before 1972, when, and why, was it restored using the same methods as were applied in the past few months or so to the Kettlewell with Starbotton ​axes discussed here? Or was this done earlier, which is why the texturing is done so appallingly badly? The exhibiting of this item online raises a number of questions that the anonymous consigner should be encouraged to answer. Like, what actually is under that heavy restoration? 

Also at a time when the eastern part of Europe is being ripped apart by a destructive war of domination, one questions the motives of anyone bidding to collect items connected with the Teutonic Order, given its history of brutality in the area in precisely the 13th-14th centuries. What fantasies are projected by collecting precisely weapons of this group?  

The cited archaeologist's name is Głosek not Glosek (pronounced differently).


Who Writes this stuff and Why?

 

Over on an internet auction site near you you will find offered for your delight and delectation, and even to buy if you like, a flat cast brass object that'd fit nicely in the palm of your hand. According to the sales spiel
        TimeLine Auctions 

LOT 1829 TUDOR PERIOD BELT PLAQUE WITH SAI
NTS
 16TH-17TH CENTURY A.D.
A belt or casket plaque part representing a procession of three saints, from left to right: Saint Michael and two holy brothers Florus and Laurus; the Archangel holding a cross in the right hand and the hilt of a sword in the left one; the brothers are following him with their hands raised for prayer; a Greek inscription above with an invocation of protection to Saint Michael (ΑΓІΕ Μ[ІХΑІΛ] BOHΘΙ TOY ΔOYΛOYC COY = Saint Michael protect your servant). 2 1/4 in. (27.5 grams, 58 mm). Fine condition. [No Reserve]

PROVENANCE:
Acquired on the UK art market, 2000s. Property of an Essex gentleman.

LITERATURE: Cf. Papastavrou, E., ‘The Byzantine tradition on the Decoration of a 17th century Sakkos in the Byzantine and Christian Museum’ in Grünbart M. et al (eds.), Material culture and well-being in Byzantium (400-1453) : proceedings of the international conference (Cambridge, 8-10 September 2001), Cambridge, 2001, pp.177-180, fig.3, for similar works in repousse.

FOOTNOTES:
The plaque possibly depicts the miracle of Saint Michael the Archangel, when he was teaching the two brothers Saints Florus and Laurus how to control horses and how to understand them. Florus and Laurus are worshipped in the Orthodox church as patron saints of the horses.
Curiouser and curiouser. Why is it "Tudor period", when it is said to be inscribed in Greek and shows Orthodox saints? (what happened to the diacritical marks?). This is spreading misinformation about historical artefacts in a public venue, and the record needs to be set straight. It is moreover a puzzle to me what the cataloguer thought they were doing, as there are three other comparable objects in the same sale described completely differently (Lots 1763, 1823, 1808). 

What this actually is is the right wing of an 18th century cast brass triptych of Russian 'Old Believers' , showing a guardian angel and Sts Zosimus and Savvatiy of Solovki. If you are going to sell RUSSIAN artefacts in this day and age, at least get the names right. The guys' names are on the inscription, which is not Greek, but Old Church Slavonic. It reads (helped out on the right hand side by better preserved examples).. 
С[ВЯТЫЙ]  АГГЕЛЪ  ХРА/НИТЕ/ЛЬ  ПРЕ[д superscript] [= ПРЕПОДОБНЫЙ]  Зосімъ  ПРЕ[ПО]Д[ОБНЫЙ]  Саватіі
"The holy Guardian Angel, The Venerable Zosimus, The Venerable Savatiy"
There is no Agios Michail here.

Why is this happening? Perhaps an intern was doing the cataloguing who did not know artefact type and simply made a mistake or two. Maybe something else is at stake? It has been suggested to me that auctioneers sometimes make a totally erroneous description for an item to catch the know-it-all collector who spots that the seller has made a mistake and "only they know" what this item really is, so they bid on it impulsively hoping to catch the auctioneer out. The idea is that once they've started bidding on something, it's less easy for them to give up and lose the object to somebody else. I do not know what the actual situation is here, the auctioneer has "experts" who vet these descriptions, so it is unclear how this mistaken attribution arose. 

  

Documenting destruction: The race to map Ukraine's historic buildings


Video 'Documenting destruction: The race to map Ukraine's historic buildings' France 24 30 May 2022.

A team of experts is racing against the clock to carry out detailed 3D maps of Ukraine’s historic buildings, hundreds of which have been left severely damaged by three months of brutal warfare. It is hoped the models will conserve the memory of these monuments, help with any future restoration and document the destruction to Ukraine's cultural heritage as a result of Russia's invasion.  

Metal Detectorist's Flaccid or not Flaccid, Roman or Not-Roman Penis Pendant Discussed by UK Court

 

    Roman or Asian folk art? (Photo: PAS who say it's Roman)    
There is some tittering on a Kent newspaper over a recent metal detectorist's find (Sean McPolin, 'Rare Roman penis pendant found by metal detectorist Wendy Thompson' Kent Online, 29 May 2022).

Metal detectorist Wendy Thompson discovered the phallic amulet while searching a farm in Higham, near Gravesend and Strood. Mrs Thompson, who lives on the High Street in Lydd, found the cast silver item on December 31, 2020 [...] Coroner Roger Hatch described the item, detailing its "foreskin, shaft and pubes", before reading a short report from the British Museum. The report said it was hard to narrow down an exact date for the pendant but believes the phallic nature of it "points to the Roman era". It added: "This is the first silver item of its class and is a significant national find".
The news item did not report that the object was not identified of reported by an FLO, but the record (PUBLIC-E168F3) was created by a volunteer member of the public with an unknown amount of input from anyone else (PAS records are now published anonymously). There are problems with the phrasing and the account concentrates largely on the metal it is cast from. The purported parallels taken almost entirely from the PAS' own database totally miss the mark (in passing it may be be noted that the use of the term term "flaccid phallus" is found mainly among archaeologists and ornithologists - since a phallus φαλλός is by etymology and definition an erect penis). The anonymous author notes
"This example is different in form to most example recorded on the database however, with the omission of testicles, and the inclusion of pubic hair. [...] It is not possible to narrowly date this pendant, as not direct parallel with secure dating evidence can be found. The large corpus of phallic imagery across the Roman Empire however, strongly points to a exclusively 'Roman' tradition, and thus, in the case of phallic objects found in Roman Britain, a date of 43-410 AD can be confidently (sic) assigned".
There is another difference the confident, but anonymous author did not note. The vast majority of the phallic amulets from the Roman Empire, so not just Britain, have the suspension loop on the dorsal surface of the phallus, apparently intending to suggest (or where the balance produced by the position of the testes is correct, effect) that the penis is suspended projecting horizontally. This one has the suspension loop underneath, where the missing testes should be. Also the Higham pendant has a very thickened distal end, whereas most Roman phallic talismans (both the real ones and the fake ones on eBay) go for length rather than girth, and tend to be more evenly cylindrical.

I really find it incomprehensible that in assessing a loose metal object from the top 25 cm of cultivated land (it says in their own record) a recorder did not ask him or herself the obvious question, where else could this have come from? An anomalous object like this found loose with no context needs always  to be considered as a potential modern intrusion, perhaps lost by a collector, a traveller, a local from a minority culture, or even planted deliberately (as a joke or to give paying members something interesting to find on a long-past club dig or rally). 

Phallic amulets and talismans are not restricted to Europe or the Romans, and certainly not just the first four centuries AD, and it is bonkers to think that they even could be. There are a whole range of them in other countries, ancient and modern. In particular they are found as the Buddhist Palad Khik amulets in SE Asia (Thailand) in particular. These have a variety of shapes and come in a variety of materials and price ranges, but generally stress girth (boosting the wearer's feeling of male strength). Some of the traditional ones also differ from the Roman ones by many of them having the suspension loop at the proximal end, or sometimes underneath so they hang pointing downwards. There is also a series of necklaces from at least two areas of Africa that have long metal beads, looped at one end projecting laterally from a necklace string and separated from each other by spacer beads. 

While I have not searched for a specific parallel, I consider that to ignore the existence of this body of material (by those who ARE paid to do that research) to be a serious lack of due diligence. 

After all, the law is that to be Treasure there has to be more than 10% precious metal there and the object has to be more than 300 years old. It is not stated in the report how the metal was established  (was an analysis done? This object was recorded in a state already cleaned down to bare metal, so we cannot see the corrosion. Is it really silver and not some other white metal used for making charms? How can it be said on the evidence presented by the PAS that this dates to before 1721 (when we can still buy such amulets on eBay prior to our date with some local farm lass for a romp in the haystack)? There is no evidence from that PUBLIC PAS report that either have actually been demonstrated. 

Without a context, and without a properly-grounded precise parallel, it could equally be an entirely modern loss of an object knocked up in a Bangkok garage workshop and made of a completely non-precious metal from melted down scrap. It may not be, but until the PAS can provide evidence of better research, and a properly-grounded parallel, that possibility cannot be ruled out, and the law cannot be applied based on mere guesswork - whoever did it.


Museum Head in a Fix

 According to the Guardian ( Angelique Chrisafis, 'Former head of Louvre charged in Egyptian artefacts trafficking case' Guardian Thu 26 May 2022), a former president of the Louvre museum in Paris has been charged with conspiring to hide the origin of archaeological treasures that may have been taken out of Egypt during the Arab spring uprisings:

Jean-Luc Martinez was charged this week after he was taken in by police for questioning, a French judicial source told Agence France-Presse. Martinez ran the Paris Louvre, the most visited museum in the world, from 2013-21. Martinez, who stepped down as the Louvre’s president last year, serves as an ambassador for international cooperation in the field of heritage. The case threatens to embarrass the French culture ministry and ministry for foreign affairs. Two French specialists in Egyptian art were also questioned this week but released without charge.
This relates to a situation to the purchase in 2016 by the Louvre Abu Dhabi of a pink granite stele depicting the pharaoh Tutankhamun and four other ancient works for €8m (£6.8m). The German-Lebanese gallery owner who brokered the sale was arrested in Hamburg in March and extradited to Paris for questioning in the case. This seems to be part of the investigations prompted by the Kunicki case (still ongoing, it seems).

Reportedly, Martinez has been charged with complicity in fraud and “concealing the origin of criminally obtained works by false endorsement”, possibly involving "turning a blind eye to fake certificates of origin for the pieces, a fraud thought to involve several other art experts" says the article. Martinez previously told The Art Newspaper that he denies any wrongdoing. AI think a lot of eyes in the antiquities trade will be turned to this one, because this is precisely about the difference between "optical due diligence" and actually determining that an object is precisely as it is represented to be, all artefacts need to be verifiably of legal origins, and this part of this case hinges on the thoroughness of doing that verification before making a pronouncement. This accusation will be a blow for Martinez, who in the past has been involved in activities intended to reduce trafficking (here too).



Sunday, 29 May 2022

UK Local Newspaper Thinks it's Great that the County's Archaeological Record is being Dismembered by Treasure Hunters


The top ten places to discover buried treasure
 in England [Credit: National World]

In journalist school they don't teach you to understand about archaeology before writing a story about it (Caroline Howley, 'North Yorkshire revealed among best ten places to find buried treasure in England', Yorkshire Post 28th May 2022)
 North Yorkshire - including York - has been revealed as one of the best spots in the England for finding buried treasure. The county saw the seventh highest number of buried treasure finds between 2012 and 2020, according to data from The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). During this period 474 finds were made in North Yorkshire, which was the only location in the North of England to make the top ten. Norfolk topped the list for the eight time in nine years, with 1021 finds. It was followed by Suffolk with 638, and Essex, with 619. Lincolnshire (566), Hampshire (523), and Kent (479) were also ahead of North Yorkshire, while Wiltshire, Dorset, and Oxfordshire rounded out the top ten. In 2020 alone, 1,077 finds were recorded across the country, with 1,055 of these being discovered in England. The overall figure marked a 27% drop on 2019’s figure of 1,303 treasure finds, which encompassed a massive 22,620 individual artefacts.

I'm not going to cite my "Wibbly-Wobbly-Blip" posts because it could be argued that any effect observed could be due to the Covid-pandemic and lockdown with restrictions on going out for all citizens (except for those who work in No. 10 Downing Street).  So we'll have to wait one more year to see how that turns out and where the policies put and kept in place by Britain's shambolic excuse for a government have got us. 

Hat tip Chris Cumberpatch

 

Friday, 27 May 2022

Talismans and Spirits of the Past Auction

 

        The Catawikkian antiquities spirit-talismaster   
 

On Catawiki today you can not only buy common-or-garden "antiquities" but also ... uhhh, "Talismans and Spirits of the Past Auction" (27 May - 2 June 2022), the auction is curated by their in-house expert in Archaeology and Natural History Peter Reynaers. He says that “When buying [dugup antiquities from trashed archaeological sites], you actually buy a piece of history and emotion”. Others might say that this sale involves somebody in Europe disgracefully making money from selling ripped up pieces of the archaeological record of other countries taken from trashed archaeological sites. Others still might question just how many of these antiquities are what they say they are.

In any case the fact that people are bidding on these ripped up pieces of history as "spirits" and "talismans" shows that collectors of antiquities are not the eager-for-knowledge "citizen archaeologists" some try to make them out to be. Many are just fantasists and sensation-seekers. 


Tuesday, 24 May 2022

Archaeology, Wassat?


      "Exciting and accessible,        
and including a chapter
from the British Museum
on how to go about
treasure hunting yourself"


Another of those pointless discussions with the devotees of the  PAS-cult in British archaeology... It started off when it was pointing out that through one of the main directions of "public outreach" by archaeology, the man in the street (so not the people actively coming to archaeology for something) is through the PAS. This (public funded) body tells the public that (a) artefact hunting and collecting are not at all about damagingly exploiting the archaeological record for private pleasure and gain, but about "discovery", and (b) giving the impression that archaeology is little more than "digging up old things [that we can tell stories about]".*

The work of PAS focuses public attention on loose "objects" rather than issue of context and the specific range of methodology that uses it, the methodology that differentiates this discipline, as such, from merely "digging up old things". It may be argued that the short-sighted and blinkered object-centric way it goes about almost all of its "public outreach" are a really serious problem that in the long term (they've been doing it 25 years) has and does extensively impact public perceptions of the discipline. 

It seems clear from what we see in the public domain, that British archaeology has completely dropped the ball in getting over to public that archaeology is anything other than "digging up [interesting] old things", and that's because the main "public outreach" being done is by PAS (and museums full of "things"). The devotees are aghast about even discussing that:
Dr Simon Maslin@spmaslin 3 g.
W odpowiedzi do @howardmrw @PortantIssues i 2 innych użytkowników
I seriously hope you are not proposing that as a serious argument! That's like suggesting that the creation of the fire brigade led to the beginning of arson. The growing popularity of detecting is unrelated to the existence of the PAS. It's far more complicated than that.
Ummm, we were talking about wider public perceptions of the aims and purpose of the discipline of archaeology, not just "metal detecting". The problem here seems to be that many (no doubt busily) employed in the PAS have a severe case of tunnel vision. * The "we" being, "us the experts - archaeologists" (and is usually phrased as it beiung the objects themselves telling the story, just the arkies translating it to the hoi polloi). the problem is that with the current erosion of the notion of expertise, "we" tends to be read by the wider public, "you".


Monday, 23 May 2022

Verifying Ex Cathedra Statements on UK Metal Detecting in Public Media

       Archaeologists fine with the damage      


This has been going on quite a while now (Nigel Swift tells me he wrote the same kind of letter on the same matter to the same gentleman eight years ago) but the latest BBC metal-detector fluff piece prompted me to scribble this (not sure of the title, he's an FSA and based at Canterbury University and his extramural job description "Head of Heritage Crime Strategy at Historic England" [formerly "and Policing Advice"]) so his ex cathedra prononcements quoted by the public media in Britain carry some weight. I decided to attempt to check something:
Dear Professor Harrison,
you are frequently quoted in the British media giving the public a picture of the artefact hunting and collecting community that invariably follows the same scheme as is exemplified by the recent BBC article (21st May 2022) “Nighthawking: Metal detectorist explains why he broke the law” (https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-dorset-61467988):
“But Mr Harrison said the majority of detectorists were law-abiding and reported their finds. "I'm impressed by their determination and patience. I haven't met anyone that says 'I'm out to make a lot of money.' "They're proud of what they've found, however, there's a small minority who are intent on stealing our past," he added.”

Leaving aside their “pride” and alleged lack of interest in money, I would like to ask you to point me towards the recent research on which one could base the firm statement that “the majority of detectorists”... do something and “a small minority” (we note the “small”) have a different intention. Also noteworthy is that this is talking about motivation, not effects. Let us leave out the 2009 “Nighthawking Report” with its rather superficial data-gathering, and referring to a situation 12 years ago before some major changes that have taken place in UK metal detecting since then. Surely there must be fresher data.

Secondly, I do not see on what evidence one would make the claim that “the majority of detectorists [...] reported their finds”. The proposal here is that the pre-pandemic averages of c. 80,000 English and Welsh public finds reported to PAS per annum represents a “majority” activity. Whether or not that is so rather depends on what HE considers to be (a) the number of active metal detecting artefact hunters removing historical artefacts from sites and assemblages and (b) how many finds they each have been making on average a (pre-pandemic) year. After 25+ years of official public-funded outreach through the PAS, do HE have figures on these parameters? In what way do they lead to this conclusion?

Thank you. Paul Barford
Let us see what data are quoted to support this statement. Let the apologists for collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record have their opportunity to present their case. I'll let you know, dear reader, what ensues.

   
UPDATE 24.05.2022
Actually, the enquiry produced a reply, the next working day, quite a long one. I did not seek permission to quote it here, but here is my response to it.
Dear Mr Harrison,
Thank you for that, I can appreciate the amount of work that went into producing that reply. To be honest, however, I do not understand this response in relation to the two questions raised. I was enquiring into the evidence on which you based two reassuring statements you are quoted making by the BBC (but I have seen the same phrases attributed to you over the past few years in other media). In fact you answered neither question.

I do not think one can ascertain how many detectorists are law-abiding by the number that are caught and charged with illegal activity. The data-gathering for the original 2009 Nighthawking Report was flawed, and the situation in metal detecting in the UK has changed dramatically over the intervening decade (many of those now detecting have come to the hobby after 2009 – it is not the same population). Observing discussions on the UK detecting forums over many years indicates that the issue is much more complex and needs looking into again.

The same for the extent of reporting metal-detector-found artefacts to the PAS. It has been determined from the existing evidence that there are most likely some 27000 active detectorists in England and Wales (not everybody agrees, but no evidence-based alternative figures have been produced). In that light, I think one does not need to ask the PAS if their (pre-pandemic) figures of around 80k items reported a year by all members of the public is indicative that the majority of detectorists are reporting their finds. It is disturbing that (in the name of accountability) PAS do not actually publish the figures in a way that will allow it to be determined how far their 25+ years of expensive public-funded outreach has achieved the success that your statement in the national media ascribes to them. Which is why I asked on what you based it.

Thank you
Paul Barford
Surely, until some newer and more nuanced research is done into the scope, nature and reasons for the number of misdemeanours related to this activity, the only honest statement is that “we currently do not know what proportion of metal detectorists are law abiding [but we hope it's a lot]". As for the level of "responsible detecting" going on... Mr Harrison suggests that its the majority of detectorsts. On the other hand, for some years, I have been putting in the public domain a lot of information that challenges the pro-detecting propaganda being put about by those of my colleagues who should be concerned with the protection of the archaeological heritage of the British Isles. According to my research, I believe we can show that as many as eight in nine artefacts removed from the archaeological record by artefact hunters are not reported. I have yet to see a single challenge to that information that actually produces an alternative evidence-based figure, it seems most colleagues prefer to believe that if you ignore a problem long enough it will go away. If, however my figures are close to reality, that reality is that something like just a little bit over 11% of detectorists in England and Wales are responsibly reporting artefacts to the PAS so that they can become part of their records and contributed to our, and everybody else's knowledge and understanding of history (whatever that means). The other 89% are selfish bastards that just rip up and pocket history for their own selfish gain, and destroying the archaeological record without even attempting to replace the information about the past that they have stolen from the rest of us. Why the Head of Heritage Crime Strategy at Historic England issues public statements that suggest the contrary must for the moment remain a mystery. 

And just before the metal detectorists start their endemic taunting... This is not me complaining that "I am being ignored and dismissed" (although of course this is what is happening). What I find astonishing is that everything I write here (and set out how I arrived at those conclusions) is based on information available to anyone, any one of you. I'm sitting here with my cats in an upstairs workroom looking out over a forest on the outskirts of a city far away in a foreign country. It is true that the antiquities market, the PAS, metal detectorists etc. etc. try to keep as much information as possible close to their chest. But it is there, a mouse-click or two away. It's not there just for me, but anyone who cares to look. And that's the crux, "who cares to look". So why is it that there are only a handful of people (myself, Nigel, Sam, David - who else?) who are actually trying to access and use these data to check out the mainstream view that "everything is fine"? Although it may be unfashionable to say so these days, it seems to me that to check data on which to form opinions is a natural thing to do. So why is it that there are all those people that are not doing it when it comes to collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record? Why do platitudes always in this area replace a more nuanced view? 


UK Detectorist: "Only The Pandemic Stopped Me Trespassing"

 

                          .                
The BBC reckons it needed to run a story about an artefact hunter explaining why he did it illegally ('Nighthawking: Metal detectorist explains why he broke the law' 21.05.2022)
A metal detectorist has explained why he broke the law to go "nighthawking" on private land in search of buried treasure. Peter, from Southampton, used to go out at night two or three nights a week [...] Peter has been metal detecting for 18 years, and said he only gave up going out at night after a famer gave him permission to search on his land. [...] Peter, 64, said [...] that his finds over the years had not made him rich. "I found a gold ring once, a roman brooch, buckles, but never any gold coins," he said. "I used to keep it but I met a collector and cashed it all in and paid off my rent arrears. Everyone thinks it makes you rich, but it doesn't.
In fact this article does NOT explain why "Pete" "broke the law", or even thought he was entitled to. It lightly passes over the promised meat of the story just to say that he "stopped" when one landowner gave him search-and-take permission. This should have been explained in more detail, a "nighthawk" is just a bloke who'd not got aound to asking?

Then there is the usual. After an object-centred "what if?", Mark Harrison Head of Heritage Crime Strategy at Historic England said illegal artefact hunting was "stealing our past" but "the majority of detectorists were law-abiding and reported their finds". Well, the latter part of that sentence is complete bollocks. The two do not go together at all, and the majority of finds quite clearly are not being reported, no matter how you measure it.

Meanwhile Barely-repentant "Pete" is not reported to be feeling that he should be giving back those artefacts to the landowners he took them from. Neither are teh circumstances that led to him asking for and getting that first "permission" and what any of that had to do with the pandemic.

Sunday, 22 May 2022

Inside the multimillion-dollar illegal trade in artefacts from the Middle East

 Inside the multimillion-dollar illegal trade in artefacts from the Middle East UAE-based The National investigates "what is being done to prevent the illegal trade of artefacts in the Middle East" (here: Yemen, Iraq, Egypt) "and return them to their nation of origin" (article by Nada El Sawy, Sinan Mahmoud, Mina Aldroubi).

Hmm. The image at the top is from a Welayat Nineveh video of April 2015, showing ISIL activists destroying reliefs in the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in northern Iraq rather than anything directly concerning the antiquities trade. The whole article is confused and confusing and has a markedly dated look, as if it was cobbled together from a sheath of mixed papers found overlooked in a drawer in the editorial office. It was composed just recently (reference to Alaa Hassanein sentencing as "last month"), so it serves to show how little headway we have actually been making with this problem in the public sphere over the last decade or so. And all the time, the emphasis is on "repatriation" of loose decontextualised objects, rather than on fighting the destruction of evidence getting them onto the market causes.



Saturday, 21 May 2022

Ialysos Ring Returned to Greece

Ialysos Ring

A Mycenaean-era gold ring has been returned to Greece decades after it was stolen from a museum during the Second World War ('This ancient, stolen ring is back home after a wild ride CBC News May 20, 2022) The ring, decorated with two facing sphinxes, had been discovered in fieldwork in 1927 in a Mycenaean grave near the ancient city of Ialysos on Rhodes (which at that time belonged to Italy). It was placed in the museum there, but was stolen during the second World War along with other pieces of jewellery and coins that remain missing. Not long after that,
it was brought to the U.S. during the 1950s or 1960s by Georg von Bekesy, a biophysicist and art collector whose collection was donated to the Nobel Foundation after his 1972 death and from there distributed to several museums [...] The Stockholm museum had initially identified the ring from Ialysos in 1975 and contacted Greek authorities, the ministry said. "But it remained in Stockholm for reasons that are not clear from existing archives," Friday's statement said. The artwork will now be displayed in a museum on Rhodes.

UK Cosplay Detectorist: Indy Made Me Do It.


            Cosplay shots supplied by
             Mr Ridgeway to BBC

After some two decades of artefact hunting, a butcher from Ashbocking in Suffolk has found a 1st century AD hoard with the latest coin being an aureus (?) of Claudius* near his home (Anon,'Indiana Jones fan's Suffolk treasure find 'largest' Claudius reign hoard' BBC East 21 May 2022): 
Lifelong fan of fictional film archaeologist and adventurer Indiana Jones, George Ridgway, 31, found 748 Roman and Iron Age gold and silver coins near Ipswich in 2019. He said he was "stunned" by the find [...] "awesome and amazing", but stressed he did this for "the love of history-hunting" rather than for monetary gain.
The article describes his fascination with Harrison Ford's film character, Indiana Jones as an "obsession",
"as a child he dressed as "Indy", and on many occasions, still does, sporting the fedora hat and the occasional whip [...] He said his childhood dream of being a real-life Indiana Jones seemed to be coming true. "I wanted to be like him - something resonated with me from a very early age - locating mystic relics - he's such an iconic figure ".
The article explains that the hoard was found by targeting a site with "an unusual crop marking in a Suffolk field [that he found] while tracing Roman roads on Google Earth". So, not a random find.
"After about two hours, I had found 180 coins - I was stunned, really." He went on to find parts of a broken pot and further coins, which he believes had been buried together as one stash. "My dad slept at the site for the first two nights to protect it," Mr Ridgway said. It took about three months, working with archaeologists, to uncover the rest - a total of 748 coins - although Mr Ridgway said he had found others, since.
So, that recovery was not done very thoroughly then. What else did the hapless archaeologists not record? 
"Further finds at the Suffolk site have led Mr Ridgway to believe there is evidence of a previously unknown Roman settlement, which he hopes to explore further with county archaeologists",
 what does this hide? That archaeologists will be out there documenting what he disturbs as he scoops the collectables into his finds pouch and carrying out an intensive gridded fieldwalking survey of this field and adjacent ones in conditions of good visibility with full pickup? Or does this phrase merely mean that he'll trot along to the Museum/County Archaeologist on a rainy day from time to time with a carrier bag full of selected little metal objects? There is a world of difference between the information yield from the two.

As for the location, its not actually any great achievement to "follow the Roman roads" in this region, it is Ivan Margery's (1957, "Roman Roads in Britain') Route 340: Combretovium (a site I once wrote about the cropmarks of) to Clopton Corner [there's a website here]. One wonders how much of a correlation there is between Roman road lines and metal detected sites from which lots of Roman finds came from (a potential thesis there for somebody).  Fieldwork in Ashbocking has previously revealed Roman sites (e.g., in 1950 here p. 206, here on metal-detectorists'-helpmate Suffolk Heritage Explorer)  

* Archaeological caveat, BM experts are hailing this as "the largest precious metal hoard found in Britain dating from the reign of Claudius I" but of course the coin gives only a TPQ.

Archaeological Methodology, Preservation by Documentation and a Strapend

 

                STRAP END WMID-CD8439         

Dr John Naylor at the Ashmolean Museum, National Finds Adviser for the PAS decided to do some social media public outreach by doing some object-centred 'show and tell' and truiumphant gatekeeping posting a "#finds Friday". he used a picture and link to the PAS description of a metal detected object from Leicestershire, an Early Medieval strapend "which would have adorned a belt or strap. A typical shape, with animal head at one end, the ornate geometric decoration shows careful design on a small but visible dress fitting" sounds like he's offering it for sale. As does the PAS database description to which he links.

There is however a bit of a problem with this record, it does not fully describe the object (the heads of those rivets?) confuses "edge" with "end" (hence terminal), makes reference to some "annulets" that do not exist in the decoration, and in the illustration the section is reversed with respect to the frontal and back views. I commented on the latter:
Paul Barford@PortantIssues 20 maj
Unusual, this one, in having the split to hold the strap at the narrower end. While this is clear from illustration, I'm surprised this isn't mentioned in the rather cut-and-pastey (auction house style) description, was it anonymously recorded by a pro- @findsorguk FLO, or a volunteer?/ Why are the names for the member of @findsorguk staff responsible for the report no longer visible in the public record? Is it to dodge taking responsibility for accuracy and reliability of records created & curated using public funds? "WMID" = 'Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery'

Let's just add to that. There is no comment on the decoration at the other end of the object, nor why the rivets are visible only on the front side (one clearly) and not the rear which raises the question of the actual technology used here. Instead of saying the thing has "a [smooth -PMB] dark green to black coloured surface [sic] patina", the author could have drawn attention to the rather severe pitting filled with light-coloured material. This is not agricultural chemical damage, it is something else. It is also notable that this is more severe towards one end of the object, is this due to varying metal composition? Who knows, because nobody analysed it, this is an eyes only description of the superficial features. Also I would have expected some kind of discussion of the technique of manufacture of this object, was it cast with a split end? Or was it assembled by brazing together two flat plates? If so, are the rivets cast as part of the back plate? 

One might conclude from his response to my original tweet that Dr Naylor is another PAS employee who has no distance to his work and entirely lacking in a sense of humour (experience shows this is many of them):

Dr John Naylor@DrJohnNaylor 15 g.
W odpowiedzi do @PortantIssues @findsorguk i @FloMidlands
The split end is a typical feature on strap ends of this type (belonging to Thomas’s Class A) with the material placed between and riveted through. It’s seen on lots of examples we record as well as in excavated assemblages such as those at Flixborough or Brandon. [...] And it’s an excellent record and image, all clearly describing the object and its identification while also providing some background context.

Duh, he seems to think that archaeologists other than himself and PAS employees have no idea what a strapend is and how it functions. Oddly enough he seems not to consider the possibility that some of us will have written up precisely similar items themselves... so the PAS record gets the Naylor stamp of approval ("excellent"), despite the illustration being wrong. Hmm, so much for PAS 'standards'  (note he dodged the question about anonymity, lack of accountability):

Paul Barford @PortantIssues 11 g. The excellence or otherwise of the anonymous description and image is a subjective opinion. As 'preservation by record' there is a whole lot missing. (where are these "annulets", which is the edge and which the end? Typos 'pf') Text sounds like an auction catalogue description./ "Providing some background context" largely consists of citing the same 20-year old simple typology for all of the items of this type among the 2700 EM strapends in Database. Dealer-style narrativisation to hide lack of anything more archaeological to say than "what type it is". / What do archaeologists mean when we use the word "context"? This "background context" of which you speak is confusingly not the same as a proper archaeological context for a ripped-out piece of collector-pocketed archaeological evidence, is it? Perhaps need different word for it. / Surely this is the kind of methodological discussion and debate that 40 archaeological @findsorguk specialists based in "119 national and local partners", should be leading, not muddling? Where is object-centred archaeology going?

But of course PAS will not be taking part in any such discussion as long as they consider themselves to be the only ones in this world that "know about finds" and the rest of us need to be condescendingly lectured from their 119 ivory towers, when in fact it is to themselves, their employees and the artefact collectors they work with they need to look. 


Friday, 20 May 2022

Caveat, Oh caveat Oh Empies


          Invaluable? Really?         
Who decides? 


One born every minute in Collectaland:
Ihnasiyah Gallery @amery_1 19 maj
Beware, Berners auctions in Ohio USA selling fake ushabtis. A good clue is a) they can't even spell 'ushabti' and b) all figures are photographed laying down at an angle so you can't really see the detail properly. Buyer beware
invaluable.com
Egyptian Ushibati 2.5" Long
I think however we can see enough that suggests that this is one of those ridiculous ones that depicts the figure going to work with a socking big winged beetle clasping onto their abdomen. So having decided that this is no older than a modern tourist souk, we might wonder what some enterprising Egyptian seller did to get it look so gunky. My recommendation is to wash your hands after handling and don't let it get it anywhere near food or young children. 


Tuesday, 17 May 2022

Buying the Past in Pieces: World History Seen from Idaho

The Idaho firm Engineered Labs (Tim and Cory Marriott) designs and manufactures "unique science-related gifts", amoung them is
"the Heritage Personal Museum, a collection of fragments from 33 historical artifacts and rare specimens enclosed in an acrylic case, which it sells on its website for $189.99. The collection features fragments of items such as Egyptian mummy beads, a woolly mammoth tusk, and Mayan jade"

 One of the Marriots explained that "the company would only sell fragments “that are already broken in small pieces” for the product", which really begs the question of where on the market one can actually acquire (legally or without regard to antiquities laws) buy such small embeddable pieces? As far as this observer of the trade is concerned this looks to be an extraordinarily difficult task. Unless they are misleading us about not breaking stuff up to sell off piecemeal. Here's the blurb and full list of the current offering (note, the "Mayan (sic) jade" is missing):

 The Heritage Museum is a collection of artifacts from the history of the world. The specimens have been specifically selected and curated for the museum. From meteorites and dinosaur fossils to barbed wire from D-Day, the personal museum includes artifacts from some of the most important events in history. Each artifact is carefully prepared for inclusion. The samples are then professionally cast in acrylic. The museums are polished to a glass-like surface and will last for generations with proper care. [...] Each artifact in the museum is authentic and has inherent historical importance. The artifacts span not only the history of the world but also the history of the universe. The museum dimensions are approximately 4.5" x 6.0" x 1.0" and contain 33 artifact specimens. A microfiber bag and a certificate of authenticity come with every museum. The following list shows the specimens that are included in each museum. We hope that you will find the following artifacts as interesting and intriguing as we do. 

1.     Revolutionary War Lead

2.     USS Constitution Wood

3.    Civil War Bullet

4.   Wright Brothers Flyer Fabric

5.   [Lockheed] SR-71 Titanium

6.   Space Shuttle Insulation

7.   Apollo 11 Command Module Metal

8.   Sand from Pearl Harbor

9.   D-Day Barbed Wire (Utah/Omaha Beaches)

10.           Sand from Iwo Jima

11.           Trinitite (The Manhattan Project)

12.           Berlin Wall

13.           Titanic Coal

14.           Great Wall of China Fragment

15.           Ancient Greek Pottery

16.           Coin from the Roman Empire (c. 300 AD)

17.           Pompeii Ash

18.           Egyptian Mummy Linen (c. 100 BCE)

19.           Woolly Mammoth Hair

20.           Mini Shark Tooth Fossil

21.           Megaolodon Tooth

22.           Petrified Wood from Antarctica

23.           Insect Embedded in Amber

24.           Ankylosaurus Armor

25.           Tyrannosaurus Rex Tooth 

26.           Dinosaur Egg Shell

27.           Dinosaur Coprolite 

28.           Triceratops Brow Horn

29.           Plesiosaurus Bone

30.           Moldavite

31.           Stromatolite

32.           Martian Meteorite

33.           Carbonaceous Chondrite"

It is interesting to note that of these 15 items (Nos 19-33) are geological specimens that can be picked up at most rock and mineral markets. We note that virtually none of them are provenanced (for example what is the registration number of the meteorite specimens used?).

Then we note that in this encapsulated view of "
not only the history of the world but also the history of the universe" the USA figures very prominently... (nos 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11). One wonders how some of this material was accessed, for example the metal from space vehicles (as I understand it remains like this are property of the US government). For this reason, there is no piece here of space shuttle wreckage, and material from (American) Civil War battlefields. I guess that "Berlin Wall" and "Titanic coal" are also here because of a perceived US connection.  Note that nothing pre- 17776 is there for the entire American continent. This is White American history. 

This basically leaves five items to represent the rest of world history, black and white: 14. Great Wall of China Fragment (protected monument, "obtained by governmental permission from the Badaling Section". This theme will appeal to Trump voters though), 15. Ancient Greek Pottery (unprovenanced, "4th century BC"). 16. Coin from the Roman Empire c. 300 AD ("the ancient coin included in the Heritage Museum comes from this profoundly influential empire", so metal detecting somewhere... The ones pictured seem to have Trier mintmarks), 17. Pompeii Ash, 18. Egyptian Mummy Linen c. 100 BCE (so, actually Coptic: unprovenanced, how and when did it leave Egypt?). So the staple eBay collectables periods, Egypt, Greece, Rome (no "Viking"?) and China.  

This product came to notice because of a silly Tiktok video that featured the deliberate shattering of an Indus Valley pot, apparently in the company's stores. There are other pots of this class type visible, one has a drainage hole and was presumably manufactured as a plant pot. Another has non-canonical decoration. When a fuss blew up about the video, it was explained that the pot was a replica ( Ade Onibada, 'Turns Out That 3,000-Year-Old Artifact That Was Destroyed In A Viral TikTok Was Fake And The Company Has Nobody To Blame But Themselves' BuzzFeed News May 13, 2022):

The short clip that has gone viral and prompted criticism was captioned “this pottery made it 3,000 years without breaking” and ended with the creator tossing the small pot to the ground, where it smashed on impact. In reference to the now-deleted TikTok, Marriott explained that the employee made the decision to incorrectly describe the replica as a 3,000-year-old artifact “to grab attention.” “Obviously, we wouldn't break a pristine cultural artifact just for a TikTok video,” Marriott said in his email.
So, just a stupid marketing stunt to draw attention to themselves.  And yes, most Indus Valley/Harrapa/ Mehrgarh pots and artefacts on the market are fakes.

 
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