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Stonehenge. Image credit Littlestone. Copyright waivered

An  exhibition featuring memorabilia about Stonehenge opened at Wiltshire Heritage Museum on 16 May and runs to 20 September 2009.

“Inspired by Stonehenge focuses on the changing ways the monument has inspired and been experienced by visitors throughout the past two centuries. Well-known archaeologist and broadcaster Julian Richards, who has publicised extensively about Stonehenge, has, as guest curator, compiled the exhibition and written the exhibition catalogue. It is hoped the exhibition will rekindle not only concern for the monument, but a willingness to embrace and take care of Wiltshire’s wilder heritage.”

More here –

We maybe late on this one, but an interesting meeting at the Hill of Allen highlights the reason why people care so passionately for the history written into the landscape. The Hill of Allen has been quarried for many years, though by some it is looked on as a sacred hill, but there is a certain irony in the fact that this hill has probably also been quarried to build the motorway that runs beneath another sacred hill – Tara.

 see here

 As for the storytelling, let us keep telling the rich myths and stories that wind round our own particular histories, not just for our sake but for our grandchildren as well.

 “And finally” Spat the sage, “When all these things are passed, when every trial and suffering is over, when at last you believe that you are finally free, then people of Erin, only then will the true depth of my spite take form, if it was the Fianna that upheld ye through your countless years of trial, if it was they and their descendents who’s sacrifice finally set you free, then thus I will repay them for their foolish loyalty, what are these baubles of loyalty, this child’s talk of honor, those who in there hearts turn away from the truth and the childish innocence and naivety of the kings of Erin they will share with me the riches of the world, gold beyond any dream you have yet dared embrace, even if these riches are to be the bars of their prison, it is a gilded prison I give them, with such splendour as this what fool could possibly say, that the laughing voice of a happy river or the cool majesty of the stars is of more worth to them, for their crime of selfless loyalty this a bequeath the Fianna of Erin, their fortress of Rath Lugh shall be overthrown, though their stand be valiant none shall come to their aid, except the cream of the cream of the men of Ireland and their sons, and these too shall be cast aside by my minions like the dying jetsam on the unstoppable poisoned tide, this too I give them for their daring to defy, that their beloved Tara shall be cast low before the courts of lesser kings, and none but the few of the few will care enough to pick her up from the mud and serve to heal the dishonor intended for her, the white stones of the Dun Allen shall be cast low, and smashed will be transported where once they were the upholders of the pinnacle of virtue now they will be driven beneath the feet of my slaves, now they will be bound to the service of ever greater torments, now they will be nothing more than the stones of the road of toil, the foundation of the road to IKEA…

The lady Caitlin spoke “you who would afflict my children, gloat at all that is base they have become, revelling in their supposed slavery, laughing as they learn to fear the sun. will feel the hope of all your tyranny, as the proud nonchalant summer first feels the breath of autumn, time and again the clarion call will sound, and as it falls upon the ears of my children they will rise up in peace, every stone that sings with memory, every smashed site and tomb and barrow will spill forth it’s magic till they wash your evil from my land, and finally the dignity with which my children stood in every generation, will shine once more, and the light of that shining will be the spirit of peace, and this time last forever, I have faith in my children my love will never betray them, I know they will rise against you time and time again and so I have no fear.”

Storytelling and a walk round the landscape; Meeting Point Car Park at Allen Church, Saturday 30th of May 2009 at 2pm.

Recently, many metal detectorists have been opining that antiquities in British museums should be repatriated to their source countries. Some may feel that’s a bizarre call from a hobby that involves digging up tens of thousands of artefacts like these…

Roman Coins 

and sending them to the United States, for money. Just how bizarre has just come to light – in pictures. Here is a link to a number of remarkable images showing off the latest consignment of British Roman coins recently dug up and supplied to an American dealer.  

It’s hard to count them but it looks like there are thousands. They beg the compelling questions: where exactly did each of them come from, have they been recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme and in what precise circumstances were they dug up and exported? No answers are provided. We also wonder what the metal detectorists earned for their kindness, bearing in mind the dealer is selling them for $2.90 each

Interestingly, we reckon they probably add up to about 20% of the total number of artefacts our artefact erosion counter suggests are dug up in a month – and maybe 50% of the Roman coins it implies for that period. But our Counter expresses our estimate of the output of ten thousand detectorists, whereas that lot was supplied by just a few of them presumably. For the avoidance of doubt, this is the same Artefact Erosion Counter that metal detectorists, to a man, say is a ludicrously exaggerated and a pack of lies!

So, it seems metal detectorists feel that in the case of stuff in museums repatriation to source countries is morally correct, but that this lofty principle doesn’t apply to stuff they dig up fresh from goodness-knows-where. The right thing to do with that, it seems,  is to depatriate it, in mind-boggling quantities, for oodles of cash!


“In response to the inquiry by the PAS, seller Tony Jaworksi of Common Bronze indicated that the British coins he is selling were procured from a large number of detectorists (some actual collectors and some not) and assumes that they were accumulated over a year or more. He does not have any knowledge as to whether the coins were recorded under the PAS or not. He did not obtain an export license and stated he was unaware of the need for one.”

Well, no surprise there then! Still, all those that made it all possible did it for the love of history no doubt!

[Above image from Paul Barford’s Blog, Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage issues]


As an adjunct to the above story we thought we’d take the unusual step of reproducing here in full a survey carried out by Paul Barford of the ancient coins being offered on Ebay just this morning. It’s well worth reading. Anyone who tells you this isn’t a scandal and a world cultural catastrophe and that Britain isn’t one of the major victims or that a significant number of British metal detectorists aren’t up to their eyeballs in the process isn’t telling the truth, for their own purposes. In our view something really ought to be done about it – and a lot more than is being done at present.

“Given the unseemly fuss I mentioned here which was being kicked up last week by some US dealers about just two lots of “English dugups” being discussed by Frankfurt University numismatist Nathan Elkins, I thought I would take a look to see how typical of the material being offered for sale this morning they actually are.

On Monday morning at 7.00 am CET on eBay there were 6875 items being offered in the “Ancient coins” section of eBay(US) of which 721 finish in the next 24 hours. Some of these coins are fakes, many are single offers of selected cleaned coins. Others however are similar to those being sold by the three dealers discussed in these pages and by Nathan Elkins earlier. These are multiple lots of coins of less select condition, many are roughly cleaned or still have layers of earth on them. Most of these seem likely to be the remains of bulk shipments to the seller from which more presentable coins have been selected for individual sale. Most of them are described as “lots”, which is the search term I used. The eBay search engine told me that this morning there were 446 bulk lots of coins on sale in eBay’s “ancient coins” category. That is quite disturbing if we take into account that some of them are “1000” coins, “500 coins”, “hundreds of coins” or a “kilogramme of ancient coins”. Matters are not so simple however; looking through these 446 lots (and I did) shows that not all are multiple dugups, a number are single coins, two coins or three similar coins (usually semi-clean of cleaned, so potentially from the splitting up of old ordered collections). I decided to ignore groups of three or less coins. Most of the ones I saw though were considerably more.

The breakdown of these coins was interesting, there were a large number of lots of Roman coins. There were was 232 Imperial, 33 “provincial” and 34 “Republican” (though in the case of bulk lots the division between the three was somewhat fuzzy, judging from the photos, the sellers of these items do not really have any idea of what the word “Republican” means in Roman numismatics – which in itself is telling). In total, on eBay this morning there were thus 299 lots of Roman coins – mostly uncleaned and many cases the seller exclaiming they were “direct from the excavator” and not infrequently specifying a region of the Balkans as the source.

There were 18 lots of Byzantine coins listed and another 18 in eBay stores. The coins from “Biblical Times” (so from the area of modern Palestine) were scattered throughout several categories (primarily “Other” and “Greek”) when collected together there were 22, mostly so-called “widow’s mites” (how could they not be?). What is interesting is the eBay seller definition of the word “Medieval”. Being a medievalist, I was particularly interested in this category, but although eBay reckons it is selling 19 lots, there were really only seven (including a group from Poland but these were post-Medieval in fact). We are constantly told that collecting coins is a “gateway to history” (or some such claptrap). Well, here is aperiod of coin-rich history about a thousand years long which does not seem to be eliciting much interest and are invisible to the homegrown numismoscholars of eBay-land.

More interesting still was the section labeled “Greek”. This encapsulates very nicely the extent of the problems with the ancient coin trade. Misrepresentations abounded here. The first lot I clicked on were egregious [Bulgarian] fakes of Istrian (Istros, Thrace) coins. The second were copper alloy Seated goddess/seated king coins of Kashmir (like these ) of which there were several lots by the same seller mislabeled “Greek”. As mentioned above there were some Judean in this category too. In the end I discovered there were seven lots of Greek coins, though this includes two lots of Athenian tetradrachms being sold from Dubai and looking for all the world as part of a hoard (similar lots have been sold from here in the past both on eBay and V-coins). There is a section of ancient coins called “Persian, Indian and Asian” which has three real “lots” but 80 in eBay stores, mostly from India (which as we know restricts export of such material). Again Dubai is a source of some of the bigger lots in this and the next category, Islamic, today 20 lots. China the subject of the ACCG coin import stunt is represented by 12 lots (six listed, six stores) including three which would be covered by the US MOU if no paperwork is provided. I am sure though it was/will be.

What is significant is that most of the larger lots are clearly being offered by US sellers. This is more evidence that large quantities of the erdfrisch coins now entering the market are going to the American market. We should remember that many bulk lots of “dugups” are sold outside ebay from bulk sellers to smaller dealers or advertised on lists like “uncleaned coins”.

ACCG President Bill Puetz’s V-coins hosts 138 dealers in ancient coins. Today the homepage says it has 92,238 items on sale (so that is 13 times the total volume on offer on eBay today) and the joint worth of them is over 18 million dollars (aver. 196 dollars a coin). Using the search engine to find “lots” indicates that V-coin sellers have 1455 “lots” of coins… but searching through them quickly reveals that the name covers a multitude of sins. Some of them are not coins, and many are not even artifacts. In the first page of 200 items brought up by the search 65 were not bulk lots of coins, so although I found it a depressing experience to look through the whole site, let us assume this is representative and which would mean that the number of bulk lots being offered here is somewhere about 940. That is still more than eBay.”

Following our story about metal detecting hero Wayne who forced a small museum to run a public appeal rather than renounce his legal right to a £225 reward, unwilling-to-join-in-with-the-most-metal-detecting-is-harmless-mantra archaeologist Paul Barford made a tongue in cheek suggestion that the detectorists’ main customers, US collectors, should pay Wayne’s ransom as well as that of any other Waynes. 

Well, they’ve taken the bait (they don’t do irony over there). The trade body for dealers has set up a fund intended to pay small British museums up to £500 to hand to heroes who won’t let go, thus obviating the need for public appeals for funds. Why up to £500? Presumably because they recognise that petty amounts are the ones that reflect so outrageously on those who insist upon being paid – in colloquial terms, they are targeting the cases that stink most. 

Unfortunately for them, they betray a complete misunderstanding of the British system and may well be making offers that museums can’t take up – as explained neatly and hilariously by Paul here   

And here’s the rub. If this wasn’t merely a publicity stunt and a non-starter, and it really happened, what would they be doing? Well, ensuring a few coins stayed in Britain (hooray!) by ensuring Wayne got his dosh (boo!) while at the same time, every month, paying hundreds of Waynes (maybe even this Wayne) lots and lots of dosh to ensure lots and lots of coins DON’T stay in Britain! So this new breed, the All-American Dealer-Hero is about as heroic in net terms as our home-grown Detectorist Heroes.  

One good thing comes out of this though. At least the US Dealers have effectively acknowledged that they realise Waynism DOES stink and reflects disastrously upon metal detectorists (and indirectly upon themselves). Would that most metal detectorists were equally smart and able to see it. It seems they can’t – see the comments from some of them that follow our original article Dreadful by any measure, even by that of US coin dealers.

It’s been interesting to follow this week’s story of the “discovery” of the fossil named ‘Ida‘, almost as much for the detailing of the deal, with obvious parallels to the trade in archaeological finds, as for the consideration of the gains in evolutionary knowledge promised by this unique specimen.

According to the Guardian of the 24th May, a National Geographic photographer had seen, but had been refused permission to photograph the same fossil 10 years ago. It was originally dug out of the Messel pit, near Darmstadt, in Germany in 1983. We can only speculate on the impetus behind its eventual release to the world, but a payment of $1million was agreed between the collector’s dealer and a palaeontologist from the Natural History Museum in Oslo. Two German museums had previously rejected the fossil because of the prohibitive amount demanded.

It’s worth quoting the following, from the later Guardian article by Ian Sample:

“…she has already shed light on the murky world of fossil dealing. This is an international business, where middlemen, who often work with unnamed buyers and sellers, negotiate staggering sums of money for fossils that are sometimes of uncertain provenance and legality. While academics spend years unearthing and characterising fossils to further our knowledge of life’s history, there are private fossil hunters driving around with picks and shovels, intent on grabbing what they can to sell to the highest bidder.”

In fossil hot-spots around the world and particularly where local regulations are either nonexistent or ineffective, specimens are sourced and sold on, often disappearing into private collections. In many cases portions of fossils, divided in the course of excavation, are sold separately. It is debatable whether the occasional, expensive success story outweighs these losses to knowledge through dismemberment or concealment. ‘Ida’ spent 26 years, if ownership was constant, on a dentist’s wall.

Scouring is so not on these days…

White Horse

The Uffington White Horse, symbolic image of the Bronze Age, a totemic emblem of another age, is being cleaned up this Bank Holiday, a ‘magical horse’ forever in full flight across the downs, with his ‘manger’ in the valley below; this annual cleaning has been going on for centuries.

See Guardian article;  Bank Holiday grooming for White Horse

Silbury, the Winterbourne (middle distance) the Swallowhead Spring (extreme left) at which point both the stream and spring merge to become the source of the River Kennet (foreground). From William Stukeley’s  “Abury – A Temple of the British Druids”  published in 1743.
See also here

Many tributes have been paid to Lord Kennet (Wayland Young) who recently died. His influence extended far beyond the core issues of his parliamentary and ministerial roles to many conservation areas including chairmanship of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, campaigning for listed buildings including St Pancras station, supporting the Redundant Churches Fund and patron of Action for the River Kennet.

He was also passionately concerned for the welfare of both Avebury and Stonehenge. He was a chairman of the Avebury Society and a staunch opponent of inappropriate development both there and at other World Heritage sites. In addition he was first chairman and patron of the Stonehenge Alliance and was for many years at the forefront of defending our national icon from a succession of schemes that would have disfigured it forever.

The day after he died it was announced that a new visitors centre for Stonehenge was to be constructed, well away from the stones. The fact that massive new highways will not be driven across the World Heritage landscape is due in no small part to his ceaseless opposition to such plans. He said of them that they were “…barbaric… No other country in the world would contemplate treating a site which is a world icon in such a way.” Now, they are abandoned, hopefully forever. It was a close call however and in the modern fashion his passing should be greeted with respectful applause.

Although there is a dearth of philosophical musings from British metal detectorists seeking to justify how helping themselves to everyone’s history is advantageous to society (apart from endless variations of “it’s legal, innit?”,  it’ll all rot in the soil if I don’t save it and I love history, I really do) there is no shortage of supportive and justificatory texts in support of them from their loyal customers, the antiquities dealers.

A large proportion of these are based in North America where they make a fine living out of buying what has cost the British public dear from the grubby grasp of Gary in Gloucester and selling it, falsely re-packaged as genuwyne history, to church-going Chuck in Chicago. It is a significant industry involving thousands of winners but sixty million losers – the British public.

Although rather better with words than the average metal detectorist, American antiquities dealers are unable to justify what can’t be and rely instead upon endless repetition of two falsehoods. One is that they only buy what they know is harmless and ethical. This boils down to a simple checking procedure – if Gary from Gloucester tells them it’s harmless and ethical then that’s fine.

As if that falsehood wasn’t sufficiently unconvincing, American dealers trumpet another: the loss of historic information implicit in removing items from their context and telling no-one is not very great and is far outweighed by the mass of information that Chuck from Chicago can deduce from the contextless object itself.

We recently stumbled upon an expression of this barefaced calumny by none other than American coin dealer Wayne Sales, founder and Executive Director of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild. We think it is so succinct it deserves highlighting:

The contribution of numismatics [the study of coins] to history, art history, economics, philosophy, religion, astronomy, biology and a host of other disciplines far surpasses the meager information provided by the context in which a coin is found.

Wow! As if anticipating that might not be entirely convincing to anyone that didn’t want it to be true he then adds:

Claims to the contrary are usually due to a poor understanding of numismatics in general. Or, they may in some cases be an attempted rationale for controlling coins—reviving the dictum “Repeat a lie often enough and people will believe it.

Well Mr Sayles, few people have difficulty in understanding what numismatics is all about, and as for repeat a lie often enough and people will believe it that doesn’t apply to ludicrous ones. Men DID walk on the moon.

It seems to us that Mr Sayles is actually rendering a service to Britain. He is providing a reminder that the thousands of British metal detectorists who sell their finds aren’t selling into a vacuum but into a market comprising people who have an intense financial interest in a continuance, nay an expansion of the activity and who are willing to utterly fictionalise the damage that is being done to our heritage as a result. Gary and Chuck are simply damaging our history for their own ends and no combination of words can change that fact.

These little pits had been made over generations for preparing inks for tattooing – our guide showed us how leaves and the ash extracted from certain fatty nuts were used to prepare the inks.

Recently two of The Modern Antiquarian contributors Jane and Moth took a trip to the French Polynesian islands of the Marquesas, and to quote from Jane Tomlinson’s blog on TMA “… these islands are the farthest from any continent in the world, lying more than 3000 miles from Mexico… the archipelago was first colonised by people in about 100 AD, probably by Samoans. The people remained Neolithic – that is, without metal tools, – until the arrival of Europeans in the 18th century.

It must have been a fascinating time exploring the islands and the remains of stone buildings and ancestor stone statues buried deep amongst a verdant jungle.  But what is interesting about this trip to the far side of the world, is how stone was used in a very similar fashion to what we see in our own Neolithic culture back home.

A giant polissoir stands at the side of track which leads you up to the site

Polissoir stones (which carry the marks of generations of use for grinding implements) tell a tale of Neolithic culture we can find here in Britain  up on Fyfield Downs at Avebury with the polissior stone there, together with the numerous cup marked stones found on the moors of Northern Britain. Stone limits and yet provides the material for so much more. Carved Tikki ancestral forms, their spectacled eyes menacing us gently from the past, are one of the delights to be found on Jane Tomlinson’s blog here, also a flying pregnant stone woman maybe?

Lipona Tikas at Puamau


May 2009

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