Monday, January 26, 2009

Codename: Ainsbrook

I have been watching (UK) Channel 4's Time Team this evening. The programme looked at an undisclosed field (under a potato crop) where a Viking burial had been found. The location in Yorkshire was so sensitive that it was given a codename: Ainsbrook. Here is the summary:
In late 2003 two metal detectorists were working in a field in Yorkshire. They found 'treasure' buried just beneath the surface – a collection of Viking material next to a body. Although they had been detecting on the site for a number of years, during which time they had made large numbers of finds, nothing they had uncovered previously compared with this. They decided to share their discovery with archaeologists.
The programme explored the tension between metal-detectorists and the English Heritage sponsored archaeologists putting six trenches into the field based on a geo-physical survey. Finds made by the metal-detectorists did not easily map onto the archaeological features.

Part of the programme had an 'Antiquities Road Show' with a panel of experts (I presume from the Portable Antiquities Scheme - given the prominent poster displayed behind them). How much are these coins worth? How much could they fetch on the "black market"? Have the finds been undervalued? And so we get the views of active metal-detectorists on how the PAS is working. Quantities of finds from the field were flashed across the screen along with charts showing approximate depths as well as rough locations.

The programme website is worth exploring and has a section on 'The metal detecting controversy'.

My verdict?

The viewer was left with little doubt about the amount of archaeological material that has been removed from this site via metal-detecting over a long period period. And how much information has been lost? And should this Viking period burial - complete with weight scales, and small silver ingots - be dispersed over the internet? Or is it part of our cosmopolitan heritage and therefore deserving of display in a public museum?

4 comments:

Paul Barford said...

Two guys one site, and you ask how much information is lost. In the UK it is estimated that there are about ten thousand active metal detectorists, many of whom are out there many weekends a year on a variety of so-called "productive sites" (read: sites with large quantities of accessible archaeological material suitable for collecting). They are generally very secretive about where prcisely those sites ("their sites") are. A few thousand of them show a selection of the objects they find to the PAS, many do not - very few would seem to be showing anything like the full extent of the things they extract from the soil on these sites.

It is very clear that the trumpeted 'successes' of the PAS database obscure the very real large-scale erosion of the UK's archaeological record as a result of this hobby. Much of it totally unrecorded. How much? Well, who knows?

It is good that Time Team broke with the usual recent convention of patting these people on the head and calling them "unsung heroes of the UK's heritage" or worse still archaeology's "partners" or somesuch other similar claptrap. It is good that Time team exposed the very contraversial nature of British policies on artefact hunting and portable antiquity collection. Let's see more of this in the British media.

Geoff said...

My resolve not to reply to one of the many Blog sites commenting on the Time Team program on the Ainsbrook site has been broken.
I am one of the 'guys' Geoff, I am not a bad detectorist turned good as quoted on the program. I have always recorded my finds, however I report them when I feel the time is right to do so, except of course when my finds fall within the treasure act; similar to the hoard find at Ainsbrook. With regards to the ‘site’ name Ainsbrook, my partner and I were asked to come up with a suitable site name so the original site could not be identified. Information on the hoard was given to archaeologists because we found more than two silver coins and because we found bone whilst digging, we had never found two coins on one find spot before this event, not even bronze ones.
The Portable Antiquities Scheme works well and is a tribute to Roger Bland, what does not appear to be fair, in my mind, is the DCMS valuation committee. For example, the three coins of Burgred, which were defaced, were sent (photo's) to the USA for identification to a prominent expert in this field. He informed us that the coins were exceedingly rare and would render a market value of £5000 each, even if in poor condition. Finds therefore in my opinion were grossly undervalued. The British Museum obtained the Hoard, York Museum, to my surprise showed no interest - - - not sold on ebay or other auction rooms.

All finds recovered from the site were recorded, cleaned – weighed – measured – photographed – identified for find spot (+ or - one meter) – depth, and when required, x-rayed, I even used a spectrometer to identify the metal content of silver & gold.

With regards to tension between myself and the archaeologists, this never existed, even though it was portrayed so in the program. I have the greatest respect for Richard Hall and his team, and I am sure he is well aware of this.

The program was initially brought about to show how archaeologists and metal detectorists can work together, including the finding of the hoard; that is why I agreed to do it. Many good and positive points were not brought to light in the program. I believe it was purposely edited this way in order to provoke a talking point and bring forth derogative comments against the archaeologists and the detectorists. The program also failed to include other Viking finds that were found during the dig, mainly I believe because the cameras were not there to record them being found.

Furthermore, finds of interest from the site have been obtained by the BM, although the Yorkshire Museum has to date showed no interest in obtaining any of the finds unearthed. Before the showing of the program over 800 finds were at the museum for recording purposes and over 75 finds of silver and gold were going through the treasure act.

I would like to add one more piece of information before I finish. As previously stated I believed the valuation to be grossly under estimated, this message was conveyed to the DCMS. I asked if I could purchase the finds back for £6000 (£1000 above their estimate) I informed them that all profits gained at auction would go to charity – they refused my offer.
I have my own views on how the valuation system is unfair to the finder and how it can be constructively improved, but this is another matter.
From 2008 and the showing of the program the site is now being ‘nighthawked’ so finds from the site are not being recorded. I regrettably feel that I should not have gone ahead with the filming of the site.

I hope this information has been of use to you.

Geoff

David Gill said...

Geoff, I am very grateful to you for these comments. This programme is generating debate in, what I hope, is a constructive manner. There are, I am sure you will appreciate, genuine concerns about the damage inflicted on archaeological sites by intensive and sustained detecting.

sidnallie47 said...

geoff its a shame that they try and make us detectorist look bad, im new to detecting and its a great hobby i think they need to get out the iron age and join us in 2011, keep up the good work mate happy hunting

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