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by Nigel Swift

Just announced: “For reasons that we need not concern ourselves with, the location of our charity rally on September 28th has changed. The new location is right on the site of the famous WEYHILL FAIR….. We have been given two fields totalling 60 acres, which I am assured by the farmer to be “undetected” they are split by one of the 8 drove roads…. Sites really don’t come better than this!

If true that it’s right on the Fair site it’s surely unacceptable? I used to pass there daily and thought of it as history personified: 750 years of almost continuous gatherings including the country’s largest sheep fairs (100,000 sheep sold a day at the peak), mentioned in “The Vision of Piers Plowman” (1326) and held on land partly owned by Chaucer (it being quite possible he heard some of his tales from characters at the Fair). Thousands turned up for all sorts of other reasons including hiring workers and all manner of entertainments – probably jousting, sword fighting, dog-baiting, bear-baiting, cockfighting and strolling minstrels. There were also Mystery Plays and mummers. By the sixteenth century it was so large it had an on-site court to settle disputes and deal with lawlessness and thereafter it expanded further to include a horse fair, cheese fair and hop fair. There were even said to be cases of wife-selling there as immortalised by Thomas Hardy in the Mayor of Casterbridge.

So the announcement is spot-on if you’re one of the lucky 90 artefact hunters: “Sites really don’t come better than this!” But what if you are one of the other 65 million stakeholders? Everything dropped on those 60 acres forms an almost unique whole, a continuous record of social and commercial interaction in one small place over seven and a half centuries and crucially, “undetected”! So it’s just crying out for a comprehensive archaeological field survey one day – including, by all means, the use of metal detectors, but conducted entirely in accordance with EH’s “Our Portable Past” standards for professional investigations so as to maximise the intellectual yield for us all. How can that not be a better option?

Yet instead tomorrow (Sunday) it will be dug over by who knows whom from who know where with a propensity to report amounting to who knows what, using no survey methodology but instead a totally random approach followed by irrational selectivity. So by Monday the site’s uniqueness will be gone forever as multiple holes will have been punched in the record and an unknown number of material and abstract components of  history will have been respectively quietly pocketed or destroyed and hence put beyond the reach of science. No doubt many will bring finds to PAS if they are there but of course that “mitigation” can only ever be limited at best and then only to the unknown degree that 90 randomly selected individuals allow.

So it’s a fact, isn’t it, that tomorrow Britain will suffer major damage to a research opportunity to die for. And not moan publicly. On Britarch for instance! It’s a bloody shame really. I’m no archaeologist, just a no-account amateur, but I know when something irreplaceable is being needlessly destroyed. Weyhill Fair was more than three times as old as the United States of America and is the last place for this crass British spectacle. It’s scandalous. I’m left with two angry thoughts:

1.  How much more would we know about the past if someone had stood up to the barrow-digging vicars?

2. If PAS’s alleged millionth find had come from Weyhill would it have been trumpeted? I think not.

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More Heritage Journal views on artefact collecting

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