As promised, here’s a more detailed commentary on two of last weeks news stories.
The first story is that a Viking hoard has been found in North Yorkshire. This contained a gold sword pommel, 29 silver ingots and neck rings amongst other things.
The second story is that tombs in Egypt used as temporary repositories for artefacts found in nearby excavations have been raided in the last two years. This is a serious issue, as every artefact taken robs us of the chance to study it, and even if it is later recovered or access to it is allowed after it having been traded on the antiquities market, vital contextual information will have been lost.
Now at first you might wonder why I have chosen to bring these articles together. It is because really these two events are not that dissimilar, and yet whilst one is decried by the media, the other is celebrated.
Metal detecting brings to light new discoveries every year, with about 14 high-profile finds in the last 4 years. Whilst they give us the opportunity to look at these sometimes wonderful finds which may have gone unfound for some time, I despair over the information that is lost. UK policy has encouraged hoard finders to come forward with their finds, allowing them to be studied properly, but just as with the stolen antiquities, the vital contextual information is missing. Let’s not forget that these are not trained excavators that find these things, and they may not even have a great deal of interest in the past. In fact, for some, the prime motive is the monetary reward. I have heard of metal detectorists refusing to reveal where they found objects for fear of losing their prime spots for example. Even when they are revealed it is often only specified to a certain part of a field, and so the exact location cannot be knowingly investigated. Worst of all are night hawkers, people who go to current excavations at night to illegally search for artefacts and take them. The likelihood of archaeologists ever getting these finds is slim and the amount of damage done to a site can be considerable.
Whether any particular instance is legal or not, and even if the location of the finds is reported, much has been lost by the metal detectorist retrieving their finds. Whilst an archaeologist will take care to record everything about the area they are digging, so that sometimes vital clues can be preserved, the metal detectorist does not. This information which can be so enlightening is gone, for digging is an inherently destructive process. Ultimately the value of an artefact lies not in the object itself, but in what it can tell us. This is why even the simplest of objects can reveal a great deal about the past. Devoid of contextual information however, so much is lost to us forever, and we are left with little more than a pretty object. This celebration of metal detecting in the media has to stop, because until people realise the damage that it causes, metal detecting will remain a popular hobby which continually erodes our cultural heritage.