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. 
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].

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