Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Is UK cultural property for sale to the highest bidder?

The UK government has recently placed temporary export bans on two archaeological finds.

The first is a bronze mirror, dating to 75 BCE, that was found by a metal-detectorist in a shallow grave at Chilham Castle in Kent. (Part of the grave group now resides in the Canterbury Museum.)

The second is a bronze horse and rider found just outside Cambridge in eastern England.

Bronzes do not count specifically (in England and Wales) as “Treasure” under the terms of the 1996 Treasure Act as they do not have “metallic content of which at least 10 per cent by weight is precious metal”. The Act does allow for such finds to be included if “The Secretary of State may by order … designate any class of object which he considers to be of outstanding historical, archaeological or cultural importance.”

Both pieces are clearly important in cultural terms. The mirror is described as follows:
As the only Iron Age mirror to have been discovered in Kent, it is important for the study of this type of object. Only 17 complete decorated mirrors dating from the Iron Age have been found in Britain. This is one of the earliest, and is especially significant because it comes from a known context which was subsequently investigated by archaeologists using modern excavation techniques.
The justification for stopping the export of the bronze rider is stated:
the statuette is of outstanding aesthetic importance, and of outstanding significance for the study of art, religion and society in Roman Britain.

The two pieces will leave the country unless the money is found: £35,000 for the mirror £22,066.81 for the rider.

Such prices only encourage some to conduct deliberate searches for archaeological material. Damage to archaeological sites remains a problem in England and Wales in spite of the much publicised Portable Antiquities Scheme. Only this month it was noted that North American coin dealers can claim to offer coins "straight from the ground" of Suffolk (see report). In the wake of the 2009 publication of the “Nighthawking Survey” Keith Miller, Inspector of Ancient Monuments for English Heritage, is reported to have said, "To say the problem has gone is absolutely untrue".

Icklingham in Suffolk yielded Roman bronze figures that were acquired by North American collectors. And the site continues to attract regular searches in spite of the opposition of the landowner.

Yet it now seems that archaeological finds that are deemed to be “especially significant” or “outstanding” for English national culture are being offered to market forces.

And worse than that. In the case of the horse and rider from Cambridgeshire, the “ransom” price seems to be more than twice the figure that the market could achieve.

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