Concerning my comments on John Hooker's idea that "we" should be monitoring
all archaeological sites to keep treasure-hunters from damaging them, he
> Don't you lock your car?
I think you are missing the point of what I said. I was using the locked but
unguarded car as an analogy to an unguarded archaeological site.
> I have no problems with punishing thieves and vandals, but it is
> cheaper to protect property than it is to catch, prosecute, and
> support them in prisons.
for whom? Who in your model would be responsible for the state of an
archaeological site? The state or the individual landowners? If you say the
state should invest in the alarms and cameras, I want to know who is going
to be looking after my car and my daughter's safety as she comes home from a
party if most of the police are glued day and night to monitors looking at
thousands of muddy or grassy fields which have sites under them on the
offchance they might see some torchlight looting take place.
> There are also devices that can set off an alarm if anyone tries to dig,
> walks in a restricted area etc. These were used in the Vietnam war and
> are probably still available on the surplus market at little cost.
Well, "cheap" is a relative notion when we are talking about the number of
sites in Britain alone - but its not just the hardware which is necessary,
but the people to man the facilities, to maintain and repair the alarms, and
so on. I think that you are also forgetting that almost all of these sites
are used for other - legitimate - purposes, many of them are in ploughed
fields, or under sheep-grazed pasture, many of them are on public ground
where people walk their dogs, kids play, lovers meet. There are Roman
temples under two school playing fields in Colchester, a Roman cemetery
under another in Dorchester, Roman town houses in public parks and so on.
Some archaeological sites are open to the public, most are on private land.
You cannot be serious that we should set some kind of booby-trap alarms up
to call out the squad cars each time somebody or a wandering alsatian goes
into the area or drives a tractor across it.
John asserts: > If you reduce the demand for coins and antiquities, the
> will go down and the volume of trading will go up.<
OR the antiquities dealers would go out of business and take up selling used
cars or computers instead, or as John says, leave the country which makes it
difficult to make a living out of the commerce in this kind of cultural
> an antiquarian according to my dictionary
> is someone who "is interested or concerned with the study of ancient
> time or ancient objects". Do you feel this is a bad thing?
and according to my dictionary an archaeologist is somebody who
"scientifically studies the past on the basis of excavated remains and other
physical traces". The word scientific is missing from my definition of
"antiquarian", for an archaeologist the past is studied on the basis of the
traces and the traces themselves are not the object of study in their own
right. The emphasis in antiquarianism (as your definition points out) is on
the object, whereas in archaeology it is (among other things) the various
relationships between the different types of data we collect and study,
among which are the objects, but archaeology is not just the study of finds.
In itself antiquarianism - when it does not lead to or encourage the
destruction or damage of archaeological evidence - is not a bad thing, but
it is not the same as archaeology.
> As I have said, the vast majority of coins are without archaeological
Well of course if they are hoiked out of the ground in a small hole six
inches in diameter after a metal detector has bleeped in the middle of a
grassy field, then yes, they are (now) without any context whatsoever. This
does not mean to say that under the grass there was not an
archaeologically-interpretable context in which that coin lay, does it? As
Phil Barker wrote, if you claim it has no context, the onus is on you to
demonstrate that, which is very difficult on the basis of sweeping the area
it came from with a metal detector and digging a few little holes when the
Also we both know that not many metal detector users will want to go out
with the rain dripping down the back of their necks walking across vast
expanses of clayland for hours on end on the offchance that at the end of
the day they might find an odd coin which is a loose find well away from any
contemporary settlement. It is much more satisfying to search a site where
the machine bleeps every seven minutes or so and every fifth signal comes
from something really interesting. In other words - all other things being
equal - most of them, given the chance are far more likely to search the
Roman farmstead or villa or the area of its cemetery than its outfield, to
search for sceattas and metalwork in the Anglo-Saxon trading wic than its
vast empty forest hinterland, the central area of an oppidum than the area
beyond its outer defences and so on. This means therefore that - once they
have found a productive site or two - most of the finds that come from
these searches do indeed come from areas of the site where there are
potentially very significant archaeological contexts.
Every single find in an antiquarian dealer's (or coin dealer's) display case
when it has been taken out of the ground potentially represents a damaged
> In fact, coins can provide dating for sites as we know the
> exact chronology of them to a much higher degree than any other class
> of object. The site details are a rather small part of the knowledge
> they impart,
Well, they also date individual layers in the stratigraphical sequence on
the site, which is more important to its interpretation than merely getting
a broad date range of the site itself from metal detector finds from a site.
A coin of Arcadius is only a curiosity if found in a metal detector hole on
a villa site (it may not even relate to the use of the site as a villa at
all but be a casual loss decades after the structure had gone or even fallen
from the pocket of an eighteenth century gentleman farmer who picked it up
on the London Road weeks earlier), but if left in the ground until found in
a careful excavation which revealed four phases of aceramic occupation with
timber buildings in the thin layers above it, the coin has an entirely
different significance. I would say that the precise stratigraphical
associations of an identifiable coin are the most important data it
John says of my letter: > You seem to place
> little importance on the metallurgy and metrological matters. We do
> much work in identifying metal types, sources of ores, states of metal
> working techniques in different regions and times. I am very involved
> in iconography and coins provide vast amounts of information in this,
> they also are historical documents as they can reveal, by their
> propaganda, concerns of issuing authorities. They also provide much
> information about socio-political climates of their day. Many coins
> were not used in the way we understand money today. In other words
> they are not always indicative of trade.
I am well aware - as are probably a lot of people on this list - of what can
be done with coins. One can of course do similar things with other types of
archaeological find too, samian pottery, Greek vases, Byzantine mosaics,
inscribed stelae and Roman metal statuary too for example. The fact that one
can persue all sorts of interesting themes with these objects even if they
come unprovenanced from a dealer's showroom, or an eighteenth century
gentleman's collection does not mean that their original archaeological
context is a matter of minor importance. Let us remember that every single
one of these objects represents not just one destroyed assemblage (the one
it came from) but for every complete or restorable Corinthian vase or oil
lamp which made it to the dealer or collectors cabinet is an unknown number
of assemblages which were rifled in order to find something saleable.
In one of his earlier letters John also wrote (and repeated the same idea in
his reply a few hours ago in his reply to Clare Slaney):
> The young will not find much interest in the past, because
> their ability to own a small part of it is being eroded. They will
> grow up to find no value in archaeology, and their votes will not go
> to politicians who try to increase funding to it.
An oft-repeated - but I think in this case a false argument on two counts.
Nobody was advocating (I think) a total embargo on the private possession of
archaeological finds in Britain as exists in some other countries (as for
example in certain central European states). What we were discussing is the
social acceptability of amassing collections of finds removed from
archaeological sites (any archaeological site, not just those which are
excavated or scheduled) in the same way as others collect stamps, beercans
and telephone cards. What was under discussion was the buying and selling of
artefacts taken from archaeological contexts as though they were just
another commodity. 'Contact with the past' (or 'owning a bit of the past')
can come (among other things) from the serendipity of an objet trouvee
found while taking the dog for a walk or digging the garden. It need not
imply the antiquity/coin dealer's shop or catalogue - or heading for the
Roman villa marked on an old one-inch OS map with a metal detector in the
back of one's car. It need not take the form of collecting a coin of each
Roman emperor or every British monarch from Alfred the Great, or coins of
the Dolipartonovi tribe, or all the types of coins of Cunobelin or from all
the moneyers or mints of Aethelbert the whatever. It need not imply the
amassing of as many different types of Roman fibula or medieval buckle or
Roman oil lamp as possible.
The second point is that archaeological sites of all periods except our own
are a finite resource. A few decades ago young people used to collect birds'
eggs as a "healthy, educational outdoor interest". Some boys (and its
usually boys affected by the mania to collect isn't it?) apparently amassed
huge collections (you can read about them I seem to recall in very old
numbers of the "Boy's Own" mentioned on this list). I have no doubt that
they also accumulated knowledge about the nesting and feeding habits and
alarm calls of the birds they took the eggs from and about the eggs
themselves. There came a time though when the eggs of certain British bird
species were rapidly becoming a finite resource and were therefore at first
all the more eagerly collected. As a result of concern, this practice became
not only illegal but also (more importantly) socially unacceptable in the
light of the general realisation of the damage that was being done. This
type of collecting has been virtually eliminated in Great Britain. I do not
see that 'losing this contact' with nature has in any way diminished public
interest in the natural environment or ornithology. And "protecting the
environment" is today a good vote-grabber.
John asks: > So how do you fight this?<
Increasing public awareness of the fragility and finiteness of the
archaeological record and the potential harm that is done by the removal of
part of the information content of an archaeological site for consumption by
individual private collectors and thereby making sure that self-centred
private collection of material removed from the archaeological record
becomes as socially unacceptable as collecting Osprey eggs, picking rare
orchids in the wild, collecting rare butterflies and shooting tigers to put
the skins on the floor. The difference being that once the threat of
collecting is removed, the remaining ospreys, orchids butterflies and tigers
can (in theory at least) reproduce, archaeological deposits and sites
cannot. Once they are damaged, they cannot be regenerated.