The Best We Can Do?

By Carver, Martin | Antiquity, March 2011 | Go to article overview

The Best We Can Do?


Carver, Martin, Antiquity


This is certainly a strange business: on the one hand, the thrill of discovery, the glory of gold, the flattery of the media and the purring of officialdom; on the other, the agonised frustrations of academics whose job it is to make sense of everything brought to light on this island. An editor is supposed to remain neutral, bur in this case there is no contest. Antiquity champions research I so while we are happy to welcome the arrival of a mass of shiny things, we are bound to lament the loss of an opportunity to understand what they mean. Then there is the paradox of the English system: the treasure hunters are applauded and rewarded, but the archaeologists are seemingly obliged to lurk in the shadows, anxious not to spoil the party. Does it have to be like this?

Older Antiquity readers will be saddened to reflect that the recovery of the Staffordshire (Ogley Hay) hoard was even more rapid and perfunctory than the excavation of the Sutton Hoo 1 ship burial on the eve of a world war, 70 years ago. While Antiquity's mood then (Volume 14, 1940) was relief at having recovered a complex burial of huge historical importance as the country was preparing for invasion, the mood of many scholars now is more nearly one of outrage that the science of archaeology in England has sunk so low in professional and public esteem. However, the purpose of this comment is not to take any individual to task, or even to criticise the Portable Antiquities Scheme, but to point out that, in this case, a combination of starry-eyed publicity and the low expectations of those that took part in the hoard's recovery, impaired a perfectly reasonable research opportunity. And that there is another way.

In many ways the obvious things were done. Following the declaration of the find, the NW angle of the field (bur only that), was metal-detected, in a survey undertaken by Mr Terry Herbert and cross-checked by a team from the Home Office Scientific Investigation Branch. Each of the potential signals was plotted on the ground, and its cause sought by digging the spot: all were found to be modern rubbish (Alex Jones pers. comm.). In the first season (summer 2009), the whole of the field was subjected to a magnetometer survey, following which 'a selection of pit-type magnetometer anomalies were tested by hand-excavation' (Dean et al. 2010: 142). In the second season (spring 2010), a resistivity survey was undertaken and its anomalies tested by trial trenching (Dean et al. 2010: 142). Then there was digging. In the first session, the archaeological team opened a block of contiguous 1 x lm test areas, proceeding outwards flora a test pit dug through the approximate centre point of the hoard. In the second, the team laid out a line of 11 test pits at regular intervals in a NE-SW direction. Recovery was by spits in metre squares in default of observed strata. All finds were plotted, bur only in two dimensions and not including those found by Mr Herbert. A metal detector was on site; all soil was sieved, although wet sieving was abandoned in the interests of speed. It was stated at the 2010 symposium at the British Museum that no Roman, medieval or post-medieval pottery was found, which must make the site almost unique in England.

As is readily admitted, these measures were principally intended to recover all the pieces of a presumed hoard, as opposed to its context. As a result, we lack information about the way the material was buried, its container and the nature of the chosen spot, as well as the way it was subsequently disturbed. However, some contextual information was sought and recovered, even if the details are not yet fully available. For example, local informants and an air photograph imply the previous existence of an oval mound with a cropmark ditch round or near it (Jones, above, p. 00; not shown on Figure 3 or 4); resistivity is said to have picked up (another?) circular feature around the hoard location (cf. Dean et al.

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