Saturday 21 May 2022

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. 


David Knell said...

PAS: "Within the circle is a quatrefoil and then a number of annulets in the quarters. The voids between the circles are triangular in form and are filled with further annulets."

'Annulet' is a nice scholarly-sounding word but it would help the credibility of that description if the author actually knew what the word meant (ring-shaped form) rather than merely dropping it in for effect. There is nothing remotely annular in the positions listed; the only things approaching annulets are the 'circles' themselves.

That, together with the confusion of "edge" for "end" you noted, suggests the description was somewhat carelessly written and it's a pity that Dr Naylor didn't take the opportunity to admit its shortcomings rather than haughtily declaring it was "excellent".

Paul Barford said...

Yes, annulets possibly occur in other ones, and this is a cut-and-paste mistake. Basically I suspect that Dr Naylor National Finds Adviser for the PAS read neither what was actually ON the database, or gave much attention to what I was actually writing. Such is the scholarly rigor that lies behind this database.

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