Historians and archaeologists are arguing over the single most historically important archaeological find among almost a million objects discovered in the UK in the last 15 years.
Contenders include the heap of glittering Anglo-Saxon gold of the Staffordshire Hoard, a scruffy little coin that proved the existence of a previously unknown Roman emperor, a bronze token that some claim entitled the bearer to the illustrated services in a Roman brothel, a stone hand axe, or the eerie shimmering beauty of the Crosby Garrett Roman helmet.
The debate will be followed over a week of primetime television programmes being made for ITV, Britain’s Secret Treasures, to be broadcast in July and presented by the historian Bettany Hughes and the veteran journalist Michael Buerk in his first appearance on the channel.
Although filming continues, the arguments are already passionate as the team attempts to narrow down almost a million objects recorded by the British Museum to a shortlist of 50. Most were found by amateurs using metal detectors, but others were uncovered by the mudlarks who comb the muddy foreshore of the Thames at low tide, during rescue excavation by archaeologists before road or building works, or by chance.
“How to choose? Like choosing between your babies,” Hughes said. She was fascinated by the corroded coin from a hoard of 5,000 found at Chalgrove in Oxfordshire, which proved the existence of the breakaway emperor Domitian II. The only other Domitian coin, in a French collection, had been dismissed as a forgery: the proud French curator will now bring his rehabilitated coin to the British Museum to compare the two.
However, Hughes’s favourite – which may not make the top 50, still less the top 10 – is an Iron Age wooden beaker, a modest but very rare survivor. “There’s something so touching about wood that survives from ancient history,” she said, “a useful reminder that this wasn’t really the stone or bronze or iron age but – for those who actually lived it – the age of wood.”
All the objects, from the most corroded Roman hob-nailed boot stud or lumpy fire-blackened pot to the gold and garnet glory of the Anglo-Saxon jewellery, are logged in the now vast treasure and portable antiquities databases held at the British Museum. Since the antiquities scheme was launched 15 years ago thousands of amateurs using metal detectors have been encouraged to report everything they find through a network of officers covering the country.
Although Roger Bland, keeper of portable antiquities and treasure at the British Museum, said they were excited about the chance to highlight the success of the scheme, the programmes will also inevitably revive the passionate debate about the ethics of metal detecting for antiquities, which some archaeologists regard as no better than looting.
Paul Barford, a British archaeologist based in Poland, who runs a fiercely anti-metal-detecting blog, has already described the series as “a travesty”, and one commentator posted on his site saying: “All archaeologists in this country should be speaking out against this rape of our heritage instead of just rolling over and letting it go on.”
A similar row has broken out in the US about two programmes on cable channels about antiquities finders: American Digger on Spike TV, starring Ric Savage, who has abandoned wrestling and his former alias Heavy Metal to take up metal detecting, and Diggers on National Geographic, which has been accused in a letter from the Archaeological Institute of America of encouraging looting and destruction.
In the UK some finds are legally treasure, like the 1,500 pieces of the Staffordshire Hoard found by Terry Herbert three years ago, and must be reported. Others are more modest but historically priceless, and after being recorded will usually be returned to the finders: the rusty scraps of copper, bronze, iron and alloy are helping map hundreds of previously unguessed sites.
Many of the most historically exciting or precious objects have been acquired by museums, but the programmes will also consider the one that got away, the Crosby Garrett ceremonial parade helmet, which exposed a gaping hole in the legal protection for finds. Although one of the most beautiful Roman objects ever found, and exceptionally rare across the entire Roman empire, it was not legally treasure because it was made of gilded copper alloy, and the finder exercised his right to send it directly to a Christie’s auction. It was estimated at £300,000 but sold for £2m, with the anonymous private buyer massively outbidding Tullie House museum in Carlisle.
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