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Subject:

Odp:Re: Cultural property collections (long, several issues)

From:

Paul Barford <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

British archaeology discussion list <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 1 Oct 2001 11:43:16 +0200

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Concerning his idea to monitor all archaeological sites to stop the removal
of artefacts by treasure hunters, John Hooker further clarifies:
> By "archaeological site" I mean sites that have ongoing excavations,
> not every piece of land that has a past! A site that has already been
> excavated and then filled in, presumably would have little interest
> for the metal detectorist.
Hmm. We seem to be have been talking at cross purposes. From what you say,
your definition of "archaeological site" seems to correspond only to
"archaeological excavation in progress".  You seem to think that the only
looting which concerns us is from sites which are currently under
investigation and that conservation of the archaeological resource (which is
what I was writing about) only requires stopping people from looting
excavations. I was not discussing this particular problem, but the wider
issue of protecting the archaeological resource as a whole (which of course
includes undug sites too), an issue of fundamental concern for all who care
about the past. It is of course not true that a site which has been
excavated in the past has been completely emptied of all possible
archaeological excavation. Some sites, such as the baths basilica at
Wroxeter have been excavated several times, and yet still contain further
information in the parts not reached by the previous trenches (such as most
of the area under the basilica floor).

> Publishing the existence and location of an intended dig is not very
clever,<
Well, its called "letting the public know what is going on", in some (many)
cases with their money. Surely one of the ways to show the public the
difference between archaeological research and mere treasure hunting is to
show them how an archaeologist works, inviting them to the excavation,
placing information boards etc. This is common practice in many situations.
Also a developer who is paying for the prior excavation of a site wants the
public to see that the firm has a responsible approach to the management of
the archaeological resource and is meeting its responsibilities to the
heritage. Its the developer who has not met this ideal who would want to
keep the public from seeing what was going on behind the fence! And yes,
pipelayers and road construction workers too may well place a night watchman
to make sure nobody falls in the hole or steals the tools left in a locked
hut on site.  Archaeologists should do the same.

> Plough soil is disturbed already, and MD users are usually digging only in
> these disturbed layers.
This is of course a regularly used argument. Firstly how does one prove that
an artefact pulled out of a little metal detector hole at the side of a
field or farm track was from the ploughsoil? Depth alone? We are back to the
onus being on the treasure hunters to prove their assertation. Secondly a
lot of finds clearly come from below the topsoil, like the late Roman metal
vessel hoards or torcs which turn up from time to time loudly reported in
the press, many of them quite clearly have not been hit by the plough.
Again, the onus therefore is on the treasure hunter to  prove the statement
that all of the material collected "came from the topsoil". Thirdly is a
topsoil find always totally devoid of context? Ploughing is a
post-depositional effect, and even disturbed layers can impart information.
There is some research which suggests that artefact movement is not always
as great in ploughing as one assumes and planigraphy of artefact scatters in
ploughsoil can reveal patterns which are possible to interpret. If one is
exploiting just the topsoil of a site and wants to avoid accusations of
unmethodlogical exploitation of the resource then it should be done in a
manner which allows the recording of the relationships between the artefacts
one removes and the rest of the potential information those layers may
contain. In how many cases does the information provided to the
archaeologist by the treasure hunter allow the reconstruction of the precise
spatial distribution of those metal artefacts relative to other phenomena in
the ploughsoil? (Let us remember when interpreting distribution patterns we
need to know also the intensity of search in different areas of the search
area.) I apologise to all those metal detector users who go out with the
proper recording equipment to record these patterns (laser theodolite and
GPS accurate at least to the nearest half metre etc), this comment was not
addressed to them.

John also revives another argument used by the pro- metal-detector lobby:
> Leaving things lying around in fields to corrode away to nothing is not
useful<.
And of course it is true that potsherds and flints in the ploughsoil are
damaged by ploughing (and in the former case at least by frost). In many
cases, deep ploughing is continually bringing more material to the surface.
I think one has to be very carful though before saying (as some do) that the
"only" remedy for this is to allow treasure hunters and collectors to step
in and garner everything they can before it disappears and let the
archaeologists look over their finds. We should be giving the proper
protection of archaeological sites under the plough more serious thought and
not just look for the easiest way out. The 1995 CBA metal detecting and
archaeology in England (pages 51-3) discuss the problem of the chemical
effects of modern farming practices on metal artefacts. Maybe somebody here
knows whether the work reported there as then being in progress at
Nottingham Trent University been completed and where the results are
available. Is the wholesale metal detecting of every ploughed site in the
country the only answer to this problem?

> > John asserts: > If you reduce the demand for coins and antiquities, the
> > prices will go down and the volume of trading will go up [...] -- an
> ever-increasing trade [...] web sites and postal lists to move a large
amount of > material [...] to the U.S. and European markets. Vast amounts of
material
> is vanishing, and professional criminals are running the show. They
> have politicians and officials in their vest pockets.
Well, of course the same may be said of dealing in hard drugs and child
prostitution, which does not mean that liberalising trade in these things
will make the effects any less harmful than the liberalisation of
antiquities trading (removal of the  "severe UNESCO regulations") or would
mean that the sites from which artefacts have been removed are in any way
less damaged.

And yes, I think the way to fight this is by legal means, for example using
watchdogs to follow this kind of trade. It is obvious that artefacts from
certain countries where the local (not "UNESCO") laws designed to protect
the national heritage prohibit export of archaeological material (in many
cases cultural property of any kind) without a permit are being traded
illegally for no permits of this nature are issued for archaeological finds
from for example Poland). Any US dealer handling celtic coins from Poland
for example (unless the object has a provenance placing it outside Polish
jurisdiction before the 1928 antiquities legislation) is potentially dealing
in stolen property.

There have been cases where prosecutions have been brought in Poland against
people who tried to dispose of archaeological material from Poland in
Germany and reported by responsible German dealers (unwilling to get
involved in illegal activities) to the Polish authorities, so we are
beginning to see European co-operation in this field. Unfortunately as far
as I can see, the US market has not exhibited such concern about measures
taken to prevent the removal of archaeological material from these
countries.

A case in point is the hoard of Early Medieval silver coins (including
several unique specimens) from Poland which were  openly sold in a New York
coin auction in the last few months - the US authorities have done nothing
to investigate where these objects came from and in what manner they arrived
in New York. In order that these particular objects returned to Poland they
had to be bought by someone who went over with this specific aim at somewhat
inflated prices (in competition at the auction of course with a number of
collectors eager to possess for themselves such unique objects). They were
bought by a Polish bank in order to place them on permanent deposit in the
national museum. It is nice to know that some firms place heritage on a
higher priority than making profits from it. It is a matter from concern
though that the unidentified traveller who smuggled these objects out of
Poland received a large sum of money from the auction house for doing so and
not a prison sentence as a result of an FBI investigation of the sale of
stolen property. Of course I need not add that the findspot of this hoard is
unknown, not (apparently) because the seller did not say where it was found,
but because the person taking the information down for the auction catalogue
misspelt the Polish place-name (a town), and the version given could be one
of at least two separate locations (needless to say the person who brought
the finds in for sale can no longer be traced to give the correct spelling).
The other findspot details are so vague that there is little hope of
untangling this, since there is now a suspicion that more than one original
find is in question. In parenthesis, it should be pointed out that when the
material was back in Poland and studied by specialists (in the Academy of
Sciences and the National Museum, and not just American coin
dealers/collectors), it turned out that one of the coins was in fact from a
previously unknown Polish ruler (it means the lady in question was known
from the documents, but not that she had been in a position for a short time
to emit coins as ruler). The auction catalogue - on which John Hooker sets
so much store - merely said apparently that it was "of an unusual type". I
do not know if it was illustrated.

> Again, I can only answer from the point of view of the Celtic
> numismatist, but  coins were most often lost away from structures, so
> they do not have archaeological context even if looked for.
Again, I can only answer as an archaeologist who found back in the 1970s
that the area of Hilly Fields at Sheepen, Colchester in which the 1930s
excavations had revealed and partially excavated the mint of Camulodunum was
already riddled with metal detector holes. When the original excavation
report was published (1947) nobody had thought of the threat from treasure
hunters. Since the excavations the field boundaries had changed considerably
and finding where the excavations had been was very difficult on the ground,
but our 'metal detector friends' had managed it. I counted on just one visit
well over 500 little holes left in the site, probably there were many more
where the looters (its a scheduled site and a public open space covered by
local byelaws) had filled in their handiwork. There was obviously still
something there to be found thirty years ago (but after the excavations four
decades earlier). I doubt whether there are many coins there to be found now
on which to do a more detailed analysis than was carried out on the material
recovered by C.F.C. Hawkes and M.R. Hull in the 1930s. Even if only 10% of
these finds were coins and not metal droplets, that means that there are 50
coins out there which entered the market in the 1970s with originally a very
specific archaeological context. Maybe John would like to tell us whether
all fifty are now fully recorded in the literature on Iron Age coins with
precise findspots, and all those that were subsequently removed from the
same Scheduled site after that? I also very much doubt whether however
detailed a study one does on these coins in dealer's catalogues or
collectors' coin cabinets (and however many have a findspot even as detailed
as "Coin 78: Hilly Fields, Sheepen, 13 cm down, thirty paces west of the big
gorse bush in field 2284 "), one will be able to gain the same information
about the mint on this site as would have come by doing the same analyses on
coins which had been recovered from their original position in the mint
site, together with the other remains (crucibles, slag, dross etc) and in
relationship to the stratigraphy of the site.

> Voluntary recording of find spots should be encouraged, and this will
improve
> if archaeologists can form better alliances with MD clubs, collectors and
> the trade.
From the point of view of conservation of the site, I would rather that the
stuff was not taken from the ground in the first place. What interests me is
maintaining the integrity of the site and not what "goodies" somebody has in
a drawer at home from it.

> An oppidum is not the best place to find coins. It would be unusual.<
See above. Also tell that to the people who are still obviously wasting
their time using their metal detectors all over the area around the Iron Age
defences around Colchester. Maybe they do not know yet - or maybe they know
something you do not.....

>  Gold coins especially are almost never found in hillforts ...< Well,
since most coin finds are now being reported by metal detector usrs and not
farm workers,
I wonder if this does not mean only that people with metal detectors are not
too happy to report the discovery of gold coins from earthwork sites which
may turn out to be scheduled ancient monuments? Maybe this apparent pattern
is caused by the human element, that it is safer to keep quiet or say it
came from a field nearby. After all what "responsible" metal detector user
would admit to having gone onto an obvious archaeological site such as the
middle of a hillfort? Who apart from the finder is to know?

> large hoards without any related finds whatsoever. <
And of course one never finds a savings hoard or a votive one buried near or
under a building does one? I myself excavated one at Wroxeter, buried in the
south aisle of the basilica in the middle of a busy Roman town. And those
coins provided a terminus post quem for a whole structural sequence on this
part of the site. Fortunately the archaeologist found it before a looter (it
was in a deposit quite shallowly below the ground surface). Again, the onus
is on you to prove that a particular hoard is in reality without a context.
One cannot just assume that all "hoards" were buried at all periods with the
same motive and in the same circumstances.

> The coins themselves yield more
> information than the environment from which they are plucked:
> combinations of die links, stylistic evolution, the evolution and
> choice of types, methods of manufacture and their composition are the
> data that tells most. Provenance can be important but has to be used
> with caution as the last resting place of a coin does not always tell
> us much, and only a very small percentage of what was made survives.
But all the time in this discussion you are looking at this particular class
of archaeological find purely as a coin on which you can do your die link
studies etc. I am trying to point out the wider picture which is that those
coins come from deposits of one kind or another. An archaeologist who had
given a coin expert a series of coins from an excavation wants to take the
information provided and extract from it data allowing the dating of
individual deposits (and thus for example the assemblage of imported
mica-dusted beakers or sherd of Arretine in it) the economic history the
coins may - or may not - reveal, changing patterns of contacts and so on.
For the archaeologist, the coins are just one of the many aspects of a site,
and the dielink studies etc just a means to an end and not (as for the
numismatist) and end in itself. For the archaeologist the context of the
coin is the single most important aspect, allowing the placing of the other
information in context with the other aspects of the site under
consideration.

John gives some examples of what he means when he says:
> Again, most finds are without useful context -- some are even just
> parts of landfill that has been brought from elsewhere -- gravel and
> rocks dug out to provide a foundation for a temple, good topsoil
> brought upland from a fertile flood plain, coins or stone tools that
> have been moved through erosion or  glaciation etc. (most early
> British axes show signs of "rolling"). Some are site finds, but not
> the majority.
These examples are very telling, and again raise the question of what is
understood by the term "site finds". The coin and other material in the
layers under the temple provide a terminus post quem for its construction.
If I could show from a study of the finds that at a certain period somebody
had been laboriously carting more fertile soil uphill instead of settling
nearer to it I would want to know why, and regard that as a very significant
fact. A phase of erosion on a site needs to be assessed to determine if its
cause was climatic deterioration or human effects. I know of no cases of
coins moved by glaciation in Britain, but if any such were found I would
regard this too as a significant fact and context :). Even the precise
position of a rolled handaxe in the layers of a gravel terrace is for those
studying the Palaeolithic also potential dating evidence for the deposition
of that gravel. These examples suggest that your idea of a "useful context"
is somewhat relative. Despite what you think, some of the examples you cite
are indeed significant to archaeologists studying the history of a site or
the wider landscape. They can only be used as evidence however if that
contextual information reaches the archaeologist and is not dismissed as
"unimportant" (and thus unnoticed or unrecorded) by a finder who is not
trained to see the significance of such detail.

> To dissuade scholars for the sake of providing mere entertainment, or a
> simplistic education for the masses, is an insult to civilization and
> the potential of the human intellect.
Well, I can see that we have a fundamental problem here agreeing precisely
what it is that archaeology does...  I am sure you did not mean to imply
that the 'real' scholars are the collectors and the museums and other
professionals are mainly in the entertainment business, but that is how it
came out. The implication a bit later in your posting that collectors are in
some way "better" than the ignorant general public is also perhaps liable to
reconsideration.

> The best collectors contribute
> greatly to knowledge, and if they contribute nothing more than an
> illustrated auction catalogue at their death, they have provided the
> world with something valuable,
Only if one accepts that the only information an artefact imparts is its
typology and stylistic features. For me an auction catalogue is useless, no
matter how pretty the pictures are and how much detail the visual aspects of
the find are dealt with (and no matter that metal analyses and radiocarbon
dates have been done to show that the fibres between the belt plates are
ancient). Indeed as in the case of the alleged finds from the Vrap (Albania)
hoard I have in mind, the auction catalogue is an extremely misleading
source (the objects sold in a renowned London auction house were probably
not from this hoard at all, and some suggest were clever fakes). The point
however is important, we should consider what happens to the artefacts in a
collection after somebody dies or gets bored with it ? Artefacts which have
lain in the ground hundreds or thousands of years in relationships with
other forms of potential archaeological information are removed for the
gratification of individuals whose life is measured in decades. How many
hands do the "average" finds  pass through while retaining any contextual
information that they may have posessed in the original "resopnsible"
collector's cabinet?  Not all artefact collections end up in London auction
houses, and even if they do there is no guarantee that the details of even
provence given in catalogues are reliably reported, let alone associations.

Maybe now, two days on from my original question, we can have some more
examples of publications produced by British non-numismatic artefact
collectors based on their activities which in some way enhance
archaeological knowledge in support of the assertion that by amassing these
collections and knowledge about the objects they collect they are in some
way providing a service which the archaeological world and museum profession
is unable to.  So far, the evidence to support this claim is not
overwhelming.

> Collectors are often of higher than average intelligence<,
that's nice to know, maybe then they will start to think harder about where
the stuff they collect comes from and whether their actions are in any way a
contributory factor to the depletion of a finite resource.

> custody of the past should be in the hands of those that are
> capable of taking proper care of it, and providing the best
> scholarship.
In the case of archaeological sites, I entirely agree. And I think that
measures both legislative and financial should be taken to enable the
conservation services to take greater care of all archaeological sites which
have managed to survive into the twenty first century, including the
possibility of preventing any wanton or accidental damage of any kind.

Paul Barford

PS
John wrote: >Btw, I got two copies of another email from you, was one to be
sent to Britarch?< No, not if its the one which began "I am a great admirer
of your website...." in reply to "check my website". This was just for you
to clarify what I had in mind in a previous comment.

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