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We recently suggested to English Heritage that official coyness about the grim realities of “legal” metal detecting facilitates heritage damage that dwarfs that from illegal metal detecting. Now comes confirmation that general official weakness on the issue is indeed helping to deprive the public of large parts of its communal inheritance.

Of course, an EBay announcement providing “guidance” to sellers of found antiquities and saying they should provide clear provenances (including findspots) and reference numbers from the bodies to which they have been reported seems like good news at first glance. Especially as it is the culmination of five years of behind-the-scenes lobbying by various official bodies (the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Portable Antiquities Scheme, the British Museum, English Nature and the English Heritage Commission).

But sadly it doesn’t mean that hundreds of thousands of British artefacts will no longer be sold unreported through EBay each year. Quite the reverse. Demands made by the official conservation bodies for a  “no cheating” system have been rebuffed by EBay who have instead bowed to malign pressure from people who are implacably opposed to anything which compels them to reveal details of the origin of their goods. Why the official bodies should not announce they think EBay’s behaviour is scandalous is  a mystery.

The British buried archaeological resource has been sold down the river in two ways. Exhibit One is this, a neat little escape hatch right at the end: “You should state in your listing the clear provenance (including findspot) of the item, if known.”  But of course, as everyone knows, there are vitually NO metal detected items offered where a provenance or precise findspot or both aren’t perfectly well known or perfectly able to be established. Yet EBay added “if known”, no doubt because they were asked, rather forcefully, by representatives of their major customers, the metal detectorists and dealers. “Not known” is the magic veil that has been relied upon since time immemorial to hide difficult details by the dubious, the criminal, the lazy the greedy and the morally illiterate in many a field of commerce and never more so than by those who buy and sell unrecorded metal detected items on EBay. It can be confidently expected the magic veil will still be applied and that the vast majority of items will continue to have no provenance, no findspot  and no PAS reference number. After all, things have just got better for the knowledge eroders: EBay has now signalled it’s OK to  say “not known” and officialdom has hailed the wording as a welcome step forward!

The second Exhibit is this: “Sellers on eBay may have a legal obligation to report archaeological finds” and “eBay may remove any listings of archaeological finds on eBay that have not been reported in accordance with applicable law.” Well, that’s very good and strict, but it’s about Treasure items, which comprise 0.01% of metal detecting finds in England and Wales. What about the 99.99% of finds for which no legal obligation to report them exists? What does EBay say about those? It says this: “Finds that do not fall under the definition of Treasure, but are recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme will have a unique reference number, which sellers should list.” So Nota bene, for this is tricky wording of a monumental nature: the new EBay guidance is in no way requiring that a listed item should be recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme, only that a PAS reference number is supplied IF the item is reported to PAS! Non-reporting detectorists are being given carte blanche to continue to offload our history through EBay without telling anyone at all. EBay has drafted words to make it seem otherwise and the British archaeological establishment has said this is all a very welcome development! Hence our thesis: official coyness about the reality of the severe negative impact of legal metal detecting facilitates major heritage damage.


It is worth reminding ourselves, at the end of both 2009 and the noughties, of the sheer scale of the losses of historical information being sustained under the free-for-all system that currently exists. If our Artefact Erosion Counter is to be believed, the bulk of 289,000 artefacts has gone unrecorded this year and the bulk of 2.89 million artefacts over the course of the noughties.

Of course, we cannot peer over the shoulders of ten thousand detectorists so cannot be sure of those figures (maybe the majority of them has never reported to PAS because they have never found anything and constantly go out with metal detectors purely for exercise!)  And on that same basis (that they too cannot be sure) 10,000 detectorists say our figures are far too high and even the head of PAS says he has no confidence in them. (Strange. PAS was set up on the basis of an  officially trumpeted estimate that 400,000 items  per annum were being removed by metal detectorists yet our estimate of 289,000 is considered to lack credibility!) Of course, the reasons why people might be reluctant to accept our estimates are not hard to work out and it is notable that none of those who decry them offer their own  estimates – presumably because almost any figures reflect badly on the activity.

This state of affairs vis-a-vis a finite resource that deserves protection can hardly be right. Indeed, we hardly think those in responsible professional positions think it is,  and it defies  logic that archaeologists and heritage professionals in Britain truly see things in the opposite way to their colleagues elsewhere throughout the world.  At one time, years ago, the saving grace of official coyness had a certain claim to reasonableness – the hope that things would get better such that the losses would become negligible, given time. This is simply unsustainable now and the claim has become tired and pointless. No amount of statistical gyrations can obscure the fact that the original hopes for the voluntary system have not been proved to be well founded or the fact that after eleven years most of approximately 2.89 million British artefacts are removed and not reported – whereas the equivalent experience just across the water in Northern and Southern Ireland is that the loss, give or take a few, is approximately none.

So here is our view as 2009 and the Noughties come to an end, if we might be so bold as amateurs, taxpayers, heritage lovers and stakeholders to give one that so conflicts with the public (if not private) stance of the British archaeological establishment:

Orwell is dead. The island of Ireland protects its buried archaeological heritage adequately (against this danger at least) without much fuss, failure or expense. If even the Irish government can do so then is it not time the British government and its agents desisted from spin, gave up holding convoluted conferences about portable antiquities  stuffed with carefully selected speakers and told the truth about Ireland? By the time the teenies are over and another 2.89 million British artefacts have been lifted mostly without being reported, the Irish combined damage will once again be approximately nothing.

Metal detecting: a letter to English Heritage

Legalised metal detecting? “No thanks, we’re French (and we give a damn about our resource!)” – Official.

Nighthawking: much ado about the wrong thing.

The latest issue of Archaeology Ireland has reported the first dating evidence, ever, from a Burren area wedge tomb. In the wake of “an episode of animal disturbance”, a small sample of human bone was recovered from the chamber of a tomb, at Baur South, and dated, after funding was offered by the Shannon Historical and Archaeological Society, to a calibrated range of 2033-1897 BCE (95% probability).

There is no clue in the article, beyond that terse extract, as to what the “episode of animal disturbance” involved.  Infestation by heavy scrub, especially hazel and blackthorn, has heretofore been considered the most pervasive local problem. Compare the recent photographs of this tomb, on the Modern Antiquarian website for example, with the shot from the 1950’s provided by the Heritage Council (2007, 15), or read the words of their Archaeology officer, Ian Doyle, in discussion of a relevant study in the same report;

“Scrub was found to be damaging archaeological monuments at a structural level, whereby important built elements were being displaced and dislodged, where sub-surface deposits such as cremations and burials in tombs were at risk of being disturbed and where monuments once intended to be visible as markers in the landscape were gradually becoming shrouded by dense vegetation. Moreover, there is a danger that monuments would be at risk of future loss/damage through inadvertent scrub clearance.”

The area covered by hazel scrub, in the samples, almost doubled in the 30 years to 2005, spreading by as much as 4.4% per annum in the last five years alone. As we reported earlier this year, similar findings, relating to causes of monument deterioration, were obtained by the ‘Condtion and Management Survey of the Archaeological Resource’ in Northern Ireland;

“When one focuses on sites that were largely complete, substantial or had some definable features, it was found that a much higher figure – 48% – had been damaged in the previous five years. Agricultural activity was identified as being the main cause of such damage, along with the growth of vegetation.”

Just think about that for a moment. Approximately half of all the more complete monuments surveyed were damaged in only 5 years. How much, really, could a hedge clippers cost, or a decent fence, or half an hour of a farmer’s time?

Double-walling at Lough Gur wedge tomb.

According to William O’Brien (1999,7) there were, at the time of his writing, 505 wedge tombs in Ireland, mostly concentrated in the western half of the island. Many of the tombs show traces of what might once have been covering mounds, or cairns, but their present day appearance on the landscape – if complete – is as a roofed gallery, or box, with sides defined by one, or two, rows of upright slabs and a shape that often widens and rises, like a wedge, towards an ‘opening’ to the west, or southwest.

The same author (1993, 65) has also referred to the dearth of dating evidence, before 1988, for this particular class of stone monument. Only one determination, at Island, Co. Cork, a sample subsequently found to be from Late Bronze Age interference, had been available before this date.

Due, to no small degree, to his own efforts, a number of further determinations have been obtained over the last 20 years and these dates, if representative, have refixed the class to the Late Stone Age and Early Bronze Age. Sources include a sample of bone from an unburned and headless female at Labbacallee, Co. Cork (2456-2138 BCE), samples from 9 of the unburned burials at Lough Gur, Co. Limerick (2500-2000 BCE) and an unburned human tooth, from O’Brien’s own excavation at Altar, Co Cork (2316-1784 BCE) (Waddell 1998, 92-101).

Approximately 15% of all Irish wedge tombs are located in the relatively small area of the Burren, Co. Clare, tending, for the most part, towards a simpler, box-like construction type. The new dating evidence, at Baur South, now fixes at least one of these typical Burren tombs within, but towards the close of, that discovered sequence, in the Early Bronze Age.

Altar wedge tomb.

With such widespread similarity in fundamental tomb design, over a substantial period, it’s also tempting to speculate on what must have been the driving imperatives. Concerns possibly with death, the ancestors, or the sun and moon, are all implied by the monuments’ morphology – the same elements that frequently combine in the extant residues of other early cosmologies.

Plausible theories and notions, are numerous however. To get some idea of the complex interface that may once have existed in and around, these structures, consider the following, from Book VIII of the Brihadaranyaka-Upanishad;

“Householders who know and worship sacrificial fire; ascetics who know it in solitude, and worship it as faith and truth; pass after death into light, from light into day, from day into the moon’s brightening fortnight, from the moon’s brightening fortnight into the six months when the sun moves northward, from these months into the territory of gods, from the territory of gods into the sun, from the sun into lightning. The self-born Spirit finds them there and leads them to heaven. In that Kingdom of heaven they live, never returning to earth.

But they who conquer the lesser worlds by sacrifice, austerity, alms-giving, pass into smoke, from smoke into night, from night into the six months when the sun travels southward, from these months into the world of fathers, from the world of fathers into the moon, where they become food. As priests feed on the moon, so gods feed on them. When their karma is exhausted, they return to air, from air to wind, from wind to rain, from rain into the earth where they become food, where they are offered as sacrifice to the fire in man; offered as sacrifice to the fire in woman; then they are born again. Once more they rise, once more they circle round.”

In any case, it’d be nice to hang on to them, intact, don’t you think?

Altar wedge tomb faces southwest, to the point at which the early November/February sun sets into the triangle of Mizen peak. This peak; Carn Uí Néit is associated with the mythical Fomorian 'Balor of the one eye', occasionally Balor Uí Néit, a solar deity who was fated to be slain by his grandson Lugh (O'Brien 2002, 169-170; O'Rahilly 1946, 60).

Gormley, S., Donnelly, C., Hartwell, B. & Bell, J. 2009 Monumental Change. In Archaeology Ireland Vol. 23 No. 2; 11-13

Grant, C. 2009 Early Bronze Age Date for Burren Wedge Tomb. In Archaeology Ireland Vol. 23 No.4; 5

O’ Brien, W. 1993 Aspects of Wedge Tomb Chronology. In Shee Twohig, E. & Ronayne, M. (eds.) Past Perceptions: The Prehistoric Archaeology of South-West Ireland, 63-74. Cork University Press ISBN 0902561898

O’ Brien, W. 1999 Sacred Ground: Megalithic Tombs in Coastal South-West Ireland. N.U.I. Galway ISBN 095356200X

O’Brien, W. 2002 Megaliths in a Mythologised Landscape: South-West Ireland in the Iron Age. In Scarre, C. (ed.) Monuments and Landscape in Atlantic Europe, 152-176. Routledge ISBN 0415273145

O’Rahilly, T.F. 1946 Early Irish History and Mythology. Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies ISBN 0901282294

 The Ten Principal Upanishads, (trans.) Shree Purohit Swami 1937. Faber & Faber ISBN 0571093639

Waddell, J. 1998 The Prehistoric Archaeology of Ireland. Wordwell ISBN 1869857399

Piggledene, the Valley of the Grey Wethers. Image credit Willow
Geoffrey Grigson’s 1960s guide to touring the countryside (The Shell Country Alphabet: From Apple Trees to Stone Circles, How to Understand the British Countryside) has been republished. See a review here, and here for a little more about Geoffrey Grigson, Paul Nash, Nikolaus Pevsner and John Piper.
Sophie Grigson (Geoffrey Grigson’s daughter) writes about her father in the forward to his book that, “He knew about Roman roads, poets and the countryside, Sheila-na-gigs and shooting stars. He knew where to find stone-age flints, fossilized sea-urchins, or glow worms in their season. You could ask him about fog-bows or gloops, the work of Richard Jefferies or the workings of windmills, and he’d offer an explanation that took you beyond the obvious.”

This really is a book packed full of fascinating facts and ‘beyond the obvious’ sums it up perfectly. A book either to just dip into for an idle half hour or to use as a more serious reference. The entries are arranged alphabetically, beginning with Aber and ending with Zodiacal Light. There are entries on Drove Roads, ‘Druidical’ Remains, Stukeley, Well-Dressing and Winterbournes, among many, many more. The lengthy entry on Henges and Standing Stones asks the question what they were for, and Grigson argues that they may have been no more than supports for fencing with the spaces between the stones being filled with thorn, hurdles or loose stones – corrals in other words (this suggested back in 1966!).

The book is peppered with poems, one of which is by Wordsworth which Grigson has used in his dedication to Colin Banks –

Not in Utopia, subterranean fields, –
Or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us, – the place where in the end,
We find our happiness, or not at all.

We have posted an image of meadowsweet today for two reasons.

First, at a moment when Britain and Ireland are in the iron grip of the cruellest of cold weather it is nice to remind ourselves that soon the year will turn and those balmy, heavy-scented days will once again be ours. In the words of Henry James: “Summer afternoon, summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”

Second, meadowsweet has just been found in a bronze age grave at Forteviot, south of Perth, as described by Mike Pitts in his blog and in British Archaeology. This is by no means the first time meadowsweet pollen has been found in such contexts but it has never been clear whether it was associated with mead. This time there seems no doubt. The sprigs were placed there as powerfully scented flowers, tenderly laid next to the deceased’s head in a touching gesture of farewell.

There is a tendency in discussing prehistory to suggest that the ancient people were radically different from us. This discovery rather suggests the reverse, that their thoughts and emotions and practices with respect to the simple human things that matter, may actually have been just the same as ours.

West Kennet Long Barrow. Image credit Willow

Tonight the wind gnaws with teeth of glass
The jackdaw shivers in caged branches of iron
The stars have talons
There is hunger in the mouth of vole and badger
Silver agonies of breath in the nostril of the fox
Ice on the rabbit’s paw
Tonight has no moon, no food for the pilgrim
The fruit tree is bare, the rose bush a thorn
And the ground is bitter with stones
But the mole sleeps and the hedgehog lies curled in a womb of leaves
And the bean and the wheat seed hug their germs in the earth
And a stream moves under the ice
Tonight there is no moon
But a star opens like a trumpet over the dead…..

From “Winter Poem” by Laurie Lee

Dear English Heritage,

At the recent conference, Combating Nighthawking – reducing the threat from illicit metal detecting you were at pains to give the public the message that the main problem with metal detecting was “nighthawks”. But we know you know it isn’t since you are aware that the historical knowledge lost due to non-reporting by a few hundred criminal nighthawks is tiny compared with the vast amount that is lost due to non-reporting by 60% of “ordinary” “legal” detectorists.

We also know there is consequently a strong body of opinion in English Heritage in favour of some sort of legislative control in order to tackle this “legal” loss and that the words of your Dr Peter Wilson, “English Heritage has no plans for wanting metal detecting banned” is not the whole story, although several obvious political and strategic considerations prevent you from saying so.

We should like to suggest, however, that there comes a point at which coyness is misplaced and actually damaging. Your recently commissioned study of Nighthawking illustrates this well. It opines that “Restrictions on hobby detecting can be counterproductive” yet makes no reference to the fact it can also be highly successful – for instance, in the Republic of Ireland where hobby detecting is banned or in Northern Ireland where it is licensed (and where the report admits nighthawking is almost unknown). Not pointing out the fact that proper laws, properly applied, CAN greatly reduce damage is facilitating damage, surely?

We should like to put something else to you. Although many metal detectorists claim long, loud and en masse that “restrictions” will “drive the hobby underground” and “massively increase nighthawking” there is no certainty that this would happen to a significant degree in the end. These are threats, not certainties, and as such are not something upon which public policy ought to be based. Indeed, they are akin to blackmail and should not be allowed to succeed.

Further, it is worth recognising that not all detectorists think licensing is a bad idea. Many, (the more thoughtful and respectable, as can be easily seen) support it and have said so. It must therefore be asked whether it is fair that moderate sensible voices within the hobby should be ignored merely because there are other, bellicose ones threatening lawbreaking? It seems to us that no-one in the hobby that reports their finds in accordance with the Code of Practice would have either a wish or a reason to be opposed to measures to ensure all others acted in the same fashion. Perhaps they should be asked? Might it not be reasonable that the co-operative (and “responsible”) detectorists who already report their finds are the ones whose views are heeded rather than the others? In logic, one might just as well seek and act upon the views of nighthawks as those of non-reporting detectorists do you not think?

In essence then, our plea is for policy to be based upon a single sentence expressed at your conference by Dr Andrew Rogerson of Norfolk County Council. He said: “There is a common heritage, but that must include all detected, recordable material.” On that basis (and who can deny it’s validity) the problem is NOT primarily nighthawks, nor is the voluntary system a fantastic success.

On the contrary, most detected, recordable material is NOT being recorded and the bulk of the damage is being caused by ordinary, non-nighthawking, non-lawbreaking non-reporting metal detectorists. Surely that little-spoken-of but inescapable reality should govern all that is said and done by English Heritage?

"Hobby metal detecting - not nighthawking, perfectly legal, but with a 60% probability that nothing found will be reported and a cumulatative effect far more damaging than nighthawking."

Copyright Bawn79

Press release.

The Save Bremore group launched their campaign at the Martin Brennan conference at Newgrange. The group hope to highlight the threat of major industrial development to the North County Dublin area near Balbriggan.

The Bremore-Gormonstown coastline is among the most beautiful and unspoiled areas of coast left on the north east side of Ireland. The wide open beaches provide a much needed amenity in the area and are home to many varied species of wildlife and migrating water fowl. These waters are also home to rare seal colonies. Along the coastal strip badgers, foxes and hares can be seen in abundance.

However, this idyllic landscape is under serious threat of being destroyed in order to make room for a massive $300 million deep water port and the associated infrastructure, pollution and industrial and suburban sprawl that this will bring. Drogheda Port Company has launched a process to have this port included under the Strategic Infrastructure Act and if successful they could use this Act to bypass much of our current environmental and heritage protection. This must not be allowed to happen.

Why Drogheda Port needs to expand has not been clarified. The ten state ports in Ireland are all under performing, all have spare capacity and all urgently need aid. Industrial production is in free fall, jobs are being lost and our economy may never again reach the heights obtained when this development was first planned. Experts tell us that the world of production will move to Asia and that a service and smart economy will survive here, yet the plans for this port proceed as though the opposite is true.

This planned “all in one” gigantic port will rob Dublin city of its port, it will mean less employment and less chances for all the other struggling ports. It will centralize shipping into a narrow built up and deeply populated channel area bringing with it the dangers of spills, pollution and accidents. It makes no sense under any modern form of thought. The Save Bremore group call for an independent study based on the economic now, on the reality of the future, before a development is allowed which will again wreck our history, heritage and environment.

The heritage in question here consists of the Bremore Passage Tomb Complex- a National Monument, a series of several unclassified monuments in the Knocknagin townland as well as the mid 16th century Newhaven Bay.

As with Tara, the surrounding landscape consists of a rich archaeological heritage.

Eminent Archaeologist Prof George Eogan has stated that “Bremore may have been the first point of entry for the settlements of what is now known as Fingal/East Meath and the Boyne Valley area”.

According to Dr. Mark Clinton of An Taisce ” the two cemetery complexes must be considered within the greater context of other passage tombs nearby at Knowth, Dowth and Newgrange”, and also that ” it would be more appropriate that the World Heritage site of Brú na Bóinne be extended to include the Bremore- Gormanstown complexes rather than Drogheda Port extended to include them. In terms of archaeological importance Bremore is comparable with Tara: Tara started with a passage tomb known as The Mound of the Hostages and developed over different periods: likewise the Bremore tombs would appear to be the start of Brú na Bóinne. The parallel is clear- no Mound of the Hostages no Tara: no Bremore no Newgrange”

Prof Cooney of UCD also had this to say; “ There is agreement across the archaeological community that if they were bulldozed it would be a national loss given the number of sites we know, the potential significance of them and the fact there’s a complex of them”.

Joe Fenwick, Dept of Archaeology NUI Galway told the Save Bremore group that “In terms of archaeological importance the passage tomb cemetery at Bremore can be compared with The Mound of the Hostages; one of the earliest monuments to have been built on the Hill of Tara’

The Save Bremore group invite you to join our campaign .


Carmel Diviney 0876100771

Brendan Mathews 0857077678

The Cove in winter. Image credit Littlestone

Circles in Time: Photo competition to mark the turning of the year at Avebury.

Anti-lovers walk: 14 February, 10.30am – 12.30pm.

Discover the Avebury Landscape: 18 February, 10.30am – 1pm.

More here –[…]et/default.aspx?propertyID=316

Photo courtesy

Groups of people will gather in the tomb each morning from Friday until Wednesday to wait for the light to enter the tomb at dawn.

Among those who have won the opportunity are people who will travel to Meath from Los Angeles and other parts of the US, France, Sweden, Portugal, Austria, the UK and all over Ireland.

The names of the winners were drawn from 32,995 entries!

by Littlestone. Heritage Action.

“A coach penetrating deep into the sacred heart of the Avebury complex, never right!”

Image credit Arcturus

The Diamond Stone (or Swindon Stone) in the corner of the north-west sector of the Avebury Henge is thought to be one of the few stones in the Avebury complex that has never fallen or been moved. In other words this massive megalith, which is some four metres high, three metres wide and over a metre thick (and estimated to weigh nearly fifty tons!) has stood in its present position since it was first erected there some four thousand years ago.

The Diamond Stone (fourth stone at top closest to road) as recorded by William Stukeley in his 1724 Groundplot of Avebury

But for how much longer will this ‘diamond’ from our megalithic past remain unmoved, let alone undamaged? The Diamond Stone sits perilously close to the Swindon-bound A4361 that runs through Avebury, indeed one corner of the stone hangs over the fence between the grass verge and the road itself and is subject to constant (and during the morning and evening rush hours heavy) vibration from passing traffic. It is astonishing that the local authorities have only recently introduce a 30 mile an hour speed limit through Avebury but is this enough to reduce vibration to the stone let alone minimize damage to it should it be hit by a passing car, bus or heavy goods vehicle?

The Diamond Stone at the edge of the Swindon-bound A4361. Image credit Moss

Surely the answer is to narrow the road at this point (increasing the grass verge nearest the megalith) and install road signs with alternating priority arrows. This would have the effect of distancing the stone from the road, reducing vibration to it by limiting the speed of traffic passing by, and would also have the added benefit of making the road safer for people crossing between the north-west and north-east sectors of the Henge. This is not rocket science; road signs with red and black arrows indicating priority are found all over the country so why not here? With a little imaginative planning two simple electronic road signs could be installed and programmed to change their priority with the flow of traffic during the morning and evening rush hours.

There has been an appalling amount of destruction of, and damage to, the Avebury megaliths over recent centuries, and the Diamond Stone is sadly yet another tragedy waiting to happen there – let’s act now to protect this monument from our ancient past from similar damage before it is too late!

This feature first appeared on Avebury Matters  and is reproduced here with the kind permission of its author.


December 2009

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