Friday, October 7, 2011

Rewarding Archaeological Plunder

Should people who go out treasure hunting with high-powered metal detectors and often targeting sites where archaeological material has already been found - thus increasing their chances of finding something valuable - always be rewarded for digging the stuff up and handing it in? After all, they are only doing what the law requires. Should we be rewarding people for not stealing cars, not shoplifting and not smashing park benches and beating up old ladies?

The problem here is that when a treasure inquest declares an item to be Treasure, it is in fact declaring it to be the property of the state who curates it for the benefit of all its citizens. Why then does the British public have to fork out tens of thousands of pounds of money (which could be better spent) to buy back what - by virtue of the verdict of the inquest - already belongs to them? This question becomes all the more important with increasing numbers of such finds filling our museums, and making more and more demands on the public purse.

It should be remembered that many (if not most) of these finds are being recovered by metal detectorists deliberately out in the fields looking for artefacts, and many of them are coming from below the level disturbed by the plough. In other words, "metal detectorists" are selectively ripping them out of their archaeological context on otherwise unthreatened sites,. In many of these cases the main threat to the integrity of the site is the fact that they are being "done over" by artefact hunters hoiking out selected items for collection, or cashing in on their sale - such as selling Treasure finds back to the nation. All this is being done in connivance with the landowners who allow it to go on.

Should we be rewarding such activity, or - no matter how sparkly the finds ripped out of sites - condemning it?

And of course very time the newspapers write of another six-figure reward paid to an artefact hunter a number of members of the public decide to buy metal detectors next weekend and try their luck on one of the local archaeological hotspots.

Vignette: of course nobody goes out with a metal detector thinking of the money they could earn, do they?

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