People's Finds: Context and Control

By James, N. | Antiquity, September 2011 | Go to article overview

People's Finds: Context and Control


James, N., Antiquity


What should professional archaeologists do about objects discovered by amateurs? The best known cases involve metal-detectorists who, under the English 'Treasure Act' (1996), are permitted to make agreements with land-owners to search for antiquities and keep them, although the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS; set up to complement the Act's provisions) encourages them to have their finds registered by an archaeologist. There is no doubt that this has greatly increased knowledge of artefacts discovered in England where, in the past decade, the annual number of 'portable antiquities' formally reported has risen steeply (Bland 2008: 71). The British Museum is now promoting a code of practice (Bland 2008: 81-2); and, at pains to avoid counterposing professional archaeologists and amateurs, it is encouraging the opportunities for outreach and 'community archaeology' (British Museum n.d.: 16-18). Thus Bland (2008: 80) welcomes 'collective knowledge...founded on public... participation, rather than ... research ... conceived and executed by professionals'. Yet there are now fresh anxieties about preservation at detectorists' sites (Pestell & Ulmschneider 2003: 9-10; Wilson 2009; Plouviez 2010).

Exhibitions

Other than the local displays mounted by the PAS's Finds Liaison Officers (British Museum n.d.: 9, 14-15), perhaps the best place for explaining to the public how professional archaeology can guide, or make sense of, amateurs' discoveries is an exhibition that displays the finds. Four exhibitions in England are trying to do that at present, three of them in the West Midlands displaying parts of the Staffordshire Hoard, two semi-permanent and one travelling, and the fourth at Cambridge featuring artefacts unearthed in eastern England, including at Royston (Hertfordshire) and the community archaeology site at Sedgeford (Norfolk). (For details of opening, see below.) Cambridge's and the two static Midland exhibitions provide the basis for the present review, which intends to highlight the ethical and political issues.

The exhibition at Cambridge University's Fitzwilliam Museum offers a thoughtful comparison with those dealing with the Staffordshire Hoard. Its title, 'Treasure under your feet', aptly addresses the sociological issues. Assembled from the Norwich Castle, King's Lynn, Colchester and Ipswich museums as well as the Fitzwilliam itself, two of the Cambridge colleges, and private owners, it comprises six cases: 'Antiquarian finds', starting with the bronzes from Dato Hill, near by, including a Roman pan (patera; Gibson 1722: 479; thanks to the curator's research, the assemblage is now better explained); then the Saxon coins from Brantham and part of the Sedgeford hoard of Iron Age gold coins together with the cattle humerus in which it was hidden; finds registered under the Treasure Act, including Bronze Age axeheads and ingots exposed by a couple of Americans (who noted that they lay in a pit) and, reminiscent of the Snettisham Hoards (Stead 1991), an Iron Age gold torc from south-west Norfolk (near both Snettisham and Sedgeford); Saxon finds from the 'productive site' near Royston (Blackburn & Bonser 1987: 65-80) and a penny of Offa (king at Tamworth); some of the Viking finds from the big 'productive site' at Torksey; and forgeries, mostly coins, from Iron Age to a couple of half-crowns (Elizabeth I, George V). As usual in exhibitions of coins, enlarged photographs illustrate details. Other than a cartoon of Capt. Kidd burying plunder (intentional irony ...?), and a few phrases such as 'incredibly rare' or homey speculation about a sparkling Tudor pendant--'dropped by the Queen herself--the display is serious, elegant, modest, and donnishly wordy. It explains the Treasure Act and its background, although, ironically, the photograph of a detectorist is from a professional dig (for television's Time Team). The exhibition shows how some of the coins illustrate history (for example, a paradox in Offa's penny, affecting the East Anglian iconography of 'Wolf & Twins') and how the museum's Early Medieval Corpus is making sense of isolated finds by collating them in a national database. …

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