Archaeology at its best
I’ve been completely enthralled by the story about the discovery of Richard III’s remains. A controversial king murdered in battle; a group of dedicated supporters across the globe dedicated to transforming his reputation, half a millennium on; a dig that was like looking for a needle in a haystack to find his skeleton for the first time; the link with a living relative that confirms his identity; and now a battle royal over where he should rest for what remains of eternity. Quite astonishing. I’m sure the film rights have already been sold.
But for all the hullaballoo surrounding the discovery of Richard III’s remains in a Leicester car park, this story also reminds us that we have an incredibly impressive archaeological community in Britain. Our system is almost unique and among the best in the world.
We record and preserve our archaeological heritage through the requirements of the Treasure Act and the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), which was set up in 1996. Without going into huge detail, these measures mean that archaeological items, be they made of precious metal (in which case they’re classed as treasure) or with simply historical significance (portable antiquities) are recorded, with the finder and the owner of the land on which the object was found, getting a reward. It works well, and only a couple of years ago ensured that the Staffordshire hoard, the most impressive anglo-saxon treasure find for half a century, was saved for the nation.
It’s a sensible arrangement which represents a win/win for all parties. It ensures that archaeologists and metal detector enthusiasts work well together, not always the case in other countries. Very often the item that’s been discovered goes on show at the local museum, helping in a small way to make sense of the area’s past. Last year a fraction under 100,000 finds were recorded by the PAS, an 8% increase on the year before. Over the same period 970 treasure cases were recorded – again, 12% up on the previous 12 months. Not so long ago much of this material would have been discarded or sold privately – and that’s why it’s so important to have a simple and fair mechanism that gives finders a good reason for taking part.
There’s an interesting little postscript to all this. One of the 100,000 items turned up by the PAS last year was a copper-alloy mount in the form of a boar: chained, collared and wearing a crown, with a heraldic crescent above one of its legs. It was found on the Thames foreshore and was almost certainly made for a follower of Richard III – or even the king himself - during the Wars of the Roses. Richard took the white boar as his emblem, partly because its contemporary spelling, bore, was an anagram of ‘Ebor’, the Latin name for York. It’s rather neat that the two ‘finds’ should come so close on one another’s heels, 500 years after the event, I think.