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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.


May 2009

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