This Roman Helmet "Just" a Portable Antiquity

The Crosby Garrett Helmet, a Roman bronze cavalry parade helmet
The Crosby Garrett Roman Helmet

This stunning bronze helmet was unearthed in Crosby Garrett in Cumbria in the North of England, not too far from the Lake District.  It was discovered in 33 fragments, face down in the mud on a Roman road.

The helmet belongs to the finder and the landowner, as this helmet does not qualify under the Treasure Act.  It has been pieced together apparently by Christie’s auction house which will sell the piece at an auction in October.  It might fetch as much as 300,000 GBP.  Though the piece does not qualify as treasure, it likely would be of “Waverley” quality and thus any export would be delayed to allow domestic organizations an opportunity to match any purchase price.  I’ve pointed out some of the benefits of the Portable Antiquities Scheme–the voluntary program which encourages the reporting of objects like this which fall below the treasure threshold. But this case presents a troubling result in many ways, as this object was cleaned for sale by Christie’s.  We do not know anything about the deposits left on the helmet, or how the helmet was abandoned in pieces along an old Roman road.  Roger Bland also points out the unpalatable consequences of this find:  “It is a pity that the object was restored before there was any opportunity to examine it scientifically, as that would have given us more information about how it came to be in the ground . . .  We hope it will be possible for there to be an archaeological examination of the find spot.”

  1. Maev Kennedy, “Roman cavalry helmet found with metal detector may go abroad at auction,” September 13, 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2010/sep/13/roman-helmet-metal-detector-cumbria.
  2. Roger Bland, “Exceptional Roman cavalry helmet discovered in Cumbria – News section,” n.d., http://www.finds.org.uk/news/stories/article/id/195.

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Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Massive Recovery of Anglo-Saxon Gold Announced

Cheek piece and sword fitting

Below is some video of the massive discovery of Anglo-Saxon gold discovered by a detectorist this summer.

Two things to note from the piece: First is that these objects were very near the surface, and may have been at risk from pesticides/agricultural damage. Second, the finder here notified the proper authorities, and an archaeological excavation was made possible. There is a terrific website devoted to the objects, with a number of images and links to news reports. It is hard I think for even the most ardent critics of the Portable Antiquities Scheme to find much fault with the result in this case. The objects have a history, archaeological excavation was undertaken, and the public can study and enjoy these terrific objects.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Viking Silver Discovered by Metal Detectorists on Display in York

Vale of York Hoard vessel. Picture by the British Museum

This hoard of viking silver — buried in the 10th century — was discovered by Metal detector David Whelan and his son Andrew in a field in 2007.  Included in the find were 617 coins and 67 other objects.  The treasure was valued at over £1m.  They went on public display in York last week.  Andrew Morrison, curator of archaeology at the York Museums Trust tells the BBC what we know about the silver and the role it played in the Anglo-Scandinavian economy:

“We can certainly say it’s an Anglo-Scandinavian hoard because of the contents,” Mr Morrison insists. Among the coins are dirhams from Muslim states as far away as central Asia and Afghanistan.  “What they’re showing you is trading links. That tends to be very much more the Viking side of life than the Anglo-Saxon side of life,” says Mr Morrison. The Scandinavian seagoing peoples travelled and traded far and wide   The presence of “hack silver” – items such as jewellery cut into pieces for their silver value – is also “what you expect from an Anglo-Scandinavian economy,” he adds. The Anglo-Saxons tended to use coins rather than bullion.  The hoard will be on show in York from 17 September until 1 November.  It will return to the British Museum while the Yorkshire Museum closes for refurbishment until August 2010. It will then return to York for “a period of time” – by which time the whole hoard, including all 617 coins, should be ready to go on display.  For Mr Morrison this co-operation between regional and national museums is “the way forward – you get the best of everything: the local input into ways of doing things, with the national expertise”.  The hoard, for him, has a personal feel – it gives clues about whoever it was who hid it. The single gold arm ring among the mass of silver items could well have been of great sentimental value to its owner, he believes. Possibly it was a reward for services given by a superior ruler.  In sum, he says: “This is the lifetime’s treasure of a reasonably wealthy individual.”  It also helps us to remember what a wealthy and prestigious place Northumbria, centred on York, was, he observes – sometimes in the richness of archaeological finds in the city and its surroundings “we forget how it is a place with the seeds of power and glory.”

Silver-gilt vessel from the Vale of York Hoard. Inset: before cleaning. Photo: British Museum.

  In an ideal world of course all these objects would be professionally excavated.  Yet these objects tell us a great deal about the culture which produced them, they can be enjoyed by scholars and the public in York and at the British Museum.  Contrast this with the Sevso Treasure, which is locked away at Bonham’s auction house.  Three nations of origin, each with national ownership declarations and no similar rewards for finders, fought over those works, and the result was the trust created by the Marquess of Northampton was able to retain possession.  Whatever criticisms can be lodged with the Treasure Act and the Portable Antiquities Scheme, they reward compliance.  They work.  We still know very little about the Sevso Treasure, who discovered, and where.  The current state of law and policy produces a perfect black market.  The PAS offers a good alternative.  What is the utility of a legal regime which cannot be enforced? 

I’ve argued that the PAS has a lot of merit, and should be considered as a potential policy model for other nations. Rick Witschonke, reported on a conference earlier this month at the British Museum on the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and his thoughts are here

Trevor Timpson, The ‘wonderful, wonderful’ hoard & Getting the most out of treasure [BBC Sep. 17, 2009]. 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Crowdsourcing Archaeology

In one of a series of interviews with experts sponsored by Dow Chemical, paleontologist Louise Leakey talks about the challenges involved in finding fossils, and outlines her plan to crowdsource the search, which means introducing the public and using some of that interest to help discover fossils. Sounds exactly like some of the advantages of the U.K.’s Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Metal Detecting Filling the Gap Left by Reduced Funding for Archaeology?

That’s the gist of Maev Kennedy’s extended piece on the U.K.’s Portable Antiquities Scheme in today’s Guardian

A man out with his metal detector

As the money that funded an unprecedented explosion of professional archaeology during the economic boom years runs out, public hunger to peel back the past beneath our feet is helping to fill the gap. So the grots are identifying lost villages and settlements, Roman forts and temples, previously unknown trade routes; even mapping the slow ebb of the Roman empire from Britain.

By law, you must have a licence to excavate or remove even a pebble from a scheduled ancient monument or listed building, and all treasure finds anywhere must be reported. But anyone can pick up a metal detector – there are an estimated 180,000 in Britain – and take it into a ploughed field with the permission of the landowner. Fired by an unprecedented public interest in archaeology, thousands of people are doing just that, and the finds they report, often almost worthless in terms of cash, are proving true treasure.

“This is revolutionary stuff,” says Sam Moorhead, a coins expert at the British Museum, who is in charge of the coins reported under the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS). “Gold doesn’t map settlements – high-status coins could be hidden or lost anywhere. But where you’ve got 100 grots, you’ve got a settlement.”

The grots have only been reported since 1996, when the PAS began establishing a national network of finds officers, to record and crucially map all the archaeological objects found by amateurs. The scheme has gradually forged a truce between most career archaeologists and the metal detectorists many previously regarded as little better than looters.

Reports of finds from bronze-age arrows to second world war cap badges are now running at 50,000 a year. Gradually, the detectorists realised that the archaeologists were interested in the rubbish in their grot pots. This week the scheme recorded its 400,000th object, a classic grot from Lincolnshire that has turned out to be a fabulously rare coin.

 For my thoughts on the PAS, see here.  For a published examination of how we might apply the PAS and some of its policies elsewhere, see here

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Ratcheting Down the Antiquities (and Drug) Wars

The NYT has an article suggesting President Obama’s choice for “drug czar” (the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy) could substantially alter federal drug policy in positive ways (my emphasis):

The anticipated selection of Chief Kerlikowske has given hope to those who want national drug policy to shift from an emphasis on arrest and prosecution to methods more like those employed in Seattle: intervention, treatment and a reduction of problems drug use can cause, a tactic known as harm reduction. Chief Kerlikowske is not necessarily regarded as having forcefully led those efforts, but he has not gotten in the way of them.

Under John P. Walters, the drug czar during most of the administration of President George W. Bush, the drug office focused on tough enforcement of drug laws, including emphases on marijuana and drug use among youths. The agency pointed to reductions in the use of certain kinds of drugs, but it was criticized by some local law enforcement officials who said its priorities did not reflect local concerns, from the rise of methamphetamine to the fight against drug smuggling at the Mexican border.

 There has never been a “war” on antiquities looting which could approach the America’s often wrong-headed illegal drug policy.  But it’s hard not to notice the parallels between the potential shift in American policy on drugs and the efforts of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which has achieved some notable policy successes by taking a pragmatic approach, aimed at similar kinds of “harm reduction”.  
One of the weaknesses with prohibitionism is it restricts supply, without taking account of the potential demand.  This makes the targeted trade — whether it’s drugs or guns or antiquities — this makes the illegal trade  more profitable, allowing better more sophisticated tactics to evade law enforcement.  There’s a good argument I think that some prohibition helps create and incentivize large-scale criminal operations and organized crime networks. 
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Nighthawking Report Published: Illegal Metal Detecting Has Decreased

The long-awaited report upon the impact of illegal metal detecting (“nighthawking”) conducted by Oxford Archaeology on behalf of English Heritage, is now available from  the Historic Environment Local Management website.  It appears that illegal metal detecting in England has declined since 1995, the point at which soon after, in 1997, the Portable Antiquities Scheme first began its efforts.

Ownership declaration is an important legal strategy undergirding the protection of heritage; but this declaration in isolation does not necessarily create the best cultural heritage policy. Effectively guarding every archaeological site is impossible given limited resources. The looting of corresponding sites elsewhere in the World, particularly in North and South America is a travesty and presents a foudational problem with heritage policy. One potential solution is a policy framework and network of PAS-style liason officers. That’s not to say that these states should encourage metal-detecting, but the efforts of the PAS have appeared to substantially decreased looting and illegal activity.  Education and outreach, even if it means compromise, are essential. Outreach and education is badly needed.

The PAS works in conjunction with the law, which was of course a compromise postion between heritage advocates and landowners. A very strong legal regime may in a perfect world be the best policy. But what good are they if they aren’t meaningfully enforced? In the heritage context, the PAS and metal detectorists are producing contextual information. It’s a different kind of information, which we can characterize as shallow but extremely broad; rather than a thorough documentation of sites which might be narrow but very deep.

The most interesting revelation of the report is the suggestion that metal detecting has substantially decreased since the PAS began.  In 1995, 188 scheduled monuments were reported damaged; in 2008, that number was 70.  In 1995, 74% of archaeological units reported their sites had been molested; in 2008 that number is 28%.  I take that as pretty strong support for the proposition I argued for in my recent piece on the Portable Antiquities Scheme, A Coordinated Legal and Policy Approach to Undiscovered Antiquities: Adapting the Cultural Heritage Policy of England and Wales to Other Nations of Origin, IJCP (2008).

Despite the overall decrease, the report still argues the criminal penalties remain insufficient, and the local enforcement officers and the Crown Prosecution Service need to do more to ensure individuals caught violating the law receive suitable punishment.  At present the maximum penalty is three months in prison and a £1,000 fine. 

The report provides a number of other key points:

  1. Provide clear guidance to the police, Crown Prosecution Service and Magistrates on the impact of Nighthawking, how to combat it, levels of evidence and possible penalties.
  2. Provide more information for landowners on identifying Nighthawking and what to do when they encounter it.
  3. Develop better ways to find out what is going on and establish and promote a central database of reported incidents of Nighthawking.
  4. Publicise the positive effects of responsible metal detecting and the negative effects of Nighthawking.
  5. Ensure the PAS is fully funded, so links between archaeologists and metal detectorists are further strengthened.
  6. Integrate metal detecting into the archaeological process, including development control briefs.
  7. Implement changes recently introduced in Europe which increase the obligation on sellers of antiquities to provide provenances and establish legal title, and urge eBay to introduce more stringent monitoring of antiquities with a UK origin offered for sale on their website.

Media Coverage:
Bloomberg, Telegraph, AFP, BBC, Guardian, Times


Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com