Friday, August 05, 2011

How the West was won - in ancient Britannia

How the West Country was won: Find of ancient coins in Devon could prove Romans controlled more of UK than first thought

The discovery of a hoard of 100 ancient coins could prove the Romans conquered more of the South West than thought, it has been claimed.

It had been believed that Exeter, in Devon, was the last major outpost of the ancient empire.

But the chance find of the treasure and evidence of a huge settlement further west may force historians into a rethink.

As one of the 'most significant Roman discoveries for many decades', it has challenged the theory that fierce resistance from local tribes to the invaders stopped them from moving any further.

Sam Moorhead, of the British Museum, said: 'It is the beginning of a process that promises to transform our understanding of the Roman invasion and occupation of Devon.'

The Roman coins were unearthed by two metal detector-wielding amateur archaeological enthusiasts.

Danielle Wootton, the University of Exeter's liaison officer for the Portable Antiquities Scheme which looks after items found by the public, was tasked with investigating the find.

After carrying out a geophysical survey last summer, she said she was astonished to find evidence of a huge settlement on the site which, for security reasons, has only been located as 'several miles west of Exeter'.


Ms Wootton said: 'You just don't find Roman stuff on this scale in Devon. this was a really exciting discovery.'

She carried out a trial excavation on the site, and has already uncovered evidence of extensive trade with Europe, a road possibly linking to the major settlement at Exeter, and some intriguing structures, as well as many more coins.

But she said most exciting of all was that her team had stumbled across two burial plots that seem to be located alongside the settlement's main road.

She added: 'It is early days, but this could be the first signs of a Roman cemetery and the first glimpse of the people that lived in this community.'

Not enough excavation has been done yet to date the main occupation phase of the site, but the coins that were found range from slightly before the start of the Roman invasion up until the last in 378AD.


Ms Wootton added: 'We are just at the beginning really, there's so much to do and so much that we still don't know about this site.

'I'm hoping that we can turn this into a community excavation for everyone to be involved in, including the metal detectorists.'

The chance find outside of Exeter, in Devon, was much further west than it was previously thought the Romans had settled

The discovery of a hoard of 100 ancient coins, like this one pictured here, could prove key to unlocking how much of the South West of England was controlled by the Romans


This discovery and the responsible manner in which it was reported to authorities is only the latest of many examples of how effectively the UK's Treasure Act/PAS scheme has brought all classes and interest groups in that nation together in their determination to responsibly explore and protect their ancient heritage.

Peter Tompa, in his Cultural Property Observer blog

made this cogent comment on the significance of that discovery:

"Here is yet another example of how a hoard reported by amateurs has given a lead to archaeologists that has resulted in a reassessment of local history.

Archaeological cranks complain that the UK does not give them exclusive rights over the past, but what are the odds archaeologists would have ever found the remains of Roman settlement had they not been alerted by metal detectorists?

The pragmatic genius of the UK's Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme is that it directs public interest in finding ancient coins and other artifacts in a way that benefits everyone.

The proof can be found on the PAS website. See

Can the countries archaeological hard liners look to as models like Italy, Greece and Cyprus report similar results? Of course not."

It would be hard to find anyone who better fits Tompa's concept of a hard-liner "crank" than archaeological blogger Paul Barford, whose uncompromisingly anticollecting and antidetecting writings in books, articles and most of all his hard-hitting blogs, have resulted in notoriety that eluded him during his relatively brief career as an archaeologist.

Mr. Barford has long been a fierce critic of the Treasure Act/PAS scheme and what he describes as intolerable abuses on the part of metal detectorists, whom he contends rapaciously exploit that scheme, inflicting irreparable damage upon Britain's archaeological record. This criticism is not without some factual basis, however it gives a very one-sided picture of the overall effect of the scheme and utterly neglects the very significant contributions metal detectorists have made to local archaeology in Britain.

An example of Mr. Barford's bias against metal detectorists is this recent post:


Metal detector users can plunder their way across the countryside, dealing with archaeological sites and finds which cross their path as they like, keep it, sell it, throw it away EXCEPT if they come across certain kinds of object or groups of object which the nation would like to look after. Despite their considerable freedoms to do what they do, not enjoyed by the majority of their fellows in the civilized world, even then their "rights" to the nation's archaeological heritage are not restricted. The state (and that means the British public) forks out for the privilege of getting back from the metal detectorist that which an inquest has determined belongs to the state. it is therefore the height of impudence for the metal detectorist to protest that they are getting "peanuts" as compensation for reporting giving up what does not legally belong to them.

And then they have the blatant impudence to say its "not about the money", and "we don't sell finds" when the Treasure process is nothing but selling finds back to the stakeholders on a massive scale. Certainly the cost to the British public of current policies on artefact hunting - even if we just look at the direct and indirect costs of the treasure process alone, certainly not "peanuts".


Mr. Barford has lately written a book on this subject, due to appear next year:

Britain's Portable Antiquity Heritage: Artefact Collecting and the Archaeological Record
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Boydell Press (15 Mar 2012)
Language English
ISBN-10: 1843834561
ISBN-13: 978-1843834564
"In recent years the discourse on artefact hunting and portable antiquity collection, and their relationship to archaeology in Britain, has become dominated by a particular blend of ideas grown up around the ethos of 'liaison'. These have had a far-reaching impact and are reflected in almost anything that is currently being written about artefact hunting and portable antiquity collection. This book takes as its starting point an examination of some of the fundamental assumptions on which this model is based and subjects the rhetoric of this discourse to careful analysis. As a result, a somewhat disturbing alternative picture emerges. After a historical chapter, artefact hunting and collecting are discussed with reference to basic principles of archaeological practice and ethics. The phenomenon is also examined against the background of portable antiquity collecting and the antiquities trade. The authors then move on to consider justifications offered by the advocates of collecting both in the hobby itself and the profession; the role of the media in forming public opinion; the part played by metal detecting; the use of personal collections as a means of curating Britain's archaeological record; and the role of the Treasure Process and export licences in creating a national heritage from the finds of artefact hunters. Alternative proposals for dealing with the problem are also presented."

Hopefully the editor, Nigel Swift, will have added readability to Mr. Barford's often somewhat impenetrable prose. There will doubtless be much in the way of solid exposition of the radical anticollecting perspective toward the UK Treasure Act/PAS system in this book. I will certainly acquire a copy and read it closely despite the rather steep price, since I have never considered Mr. Barford insignificant as a writer, or deficient in archaeological expertise.


Blogger Paul Barford said...

Nigel Swift is not an "editor", he is the co-author of the book you mention.

We are thinking of doing an online summary in Simple English for those that were unable to finish their schooling and thus cannot keep up with the argument written normally.

9:46 PM  
Blogger Paul Barford said...

Oh, by the way, hoard deposited (yet another one) IN a settlement, at a crossroads. These guys were metal detecting and collecting items from a Roman settlement when they found this hoard. the non-hoard coins from the settlement are ... where?

10:35 PM  
Blogger Dave Welsh said...

Please pardon my inadvertent error, which resulted from copying information originally published by without scrutinizing it to ensure that it had been fully updated.

Presumably "We are thinking of doing an online summary in Simple English for those that were unable to finish their schooling and thus cannot keep up with the argument written normally" refers to those who would find your writing style so difficult that they would abandon the book as not being worth the effort to finish reading it.

I would agree that many would be likely to do so, however I think that would be a pity because I expect there will be a great deal of substance in the book which the general public should read and understand.

12:19 AM  
Blogger Dave Welsh said...

I'm sure that their detecting and collecting practices will indeed be viewed by you (and those who think as you do) as invalidating this discovery, and all the contributions to the history of Roman Britain it has offered.

This is consistent with the policy of the AIA, which refuses to publish descriptions of artifacts whose provenance does not conform to AIA guidelines.

However, I doubt that historians or the general public will be constrained by such policies. In my view knowledge cannot be suppressed simply because the circumstances of its discovery do not conform to the party line.

12:33 AM  
Blogger Sheddy said...

"We are thinking of doing an online summary in Simple English for those that were unable to finish their schooling"

I Enjoyed that. Nearly as much as I enjoyed reading this:

It would seem that the allegation stands the Mr Barford did not finish his schooling either.

In other news ....

Dave, you said:
"In my view knowledge cannot be suppressed simply because the circumstances of its discovery do not conform to the party line."

Unfortunately it would seem that the PAS do not agree with you. At the first PAS convention Philip Wise of Colchester Museum took the stand and said that the PAS should not involve itself in recording any artefact that had been found (rescued?) from a building site as the legal ownership would be questionable. I failed to see the relevence of Mr Wise's statement there and I fail to see the relevence of Mr Barfords dismissive attitude toward this coin hoard.

It would seem to be the way of the archaeologists though. If they are not the ones to find it then it doesn't exist.

12:00 PM  

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