Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Salisbury Hoard

by Ian Stead. Tempus Publishing, 1998.

Stead’s sleuthing reclaims a national treasure and exposes the illicit trade of antiquities.

Metal detecting is a very popular pastime in Britain. For the most part, these hobbyists are considerate to the landowner and are helpful to archaeology. They bring their finds to the attention of local museums and split any earnings with the land owner. Objects of silver or gold are given up to the government. Sadly, there are also metal detectorists who are not so law-abiding. They are treasure hunters motivated only by the money their finds can bring them. In the 1980s a pair of ordinarily honest metal detectorists found a great hoard of Bronze Age and Iron Age objects. They gave in to temptation and sold the objects into antiquities trade. The artifacts were split up, sold and re-sold. If it were not for the work of Ian Stead, this collection and its history would be lost.

In 1988 Ian Stead was the Deputy Keeper in the Dept. of Prehistoric and Romano-British Antiquities at the British Museum. An antiquities dealer introduced him to a set of miniature bronze shields. They were authentic, yet unprovenanced. The British Museum bought them, but Stead was very curious about their origins. The Salisbury Hoard details the detective story that was his attempt to establish provenance and re-unite the scattered hoard.

Chapters 1-3 give an account of his hunt for the original finders of the hoard, tracking the find-site. Chapter 4 describes the British Museum’s excavation of the site, which confirmed the provenance of the treasure. Chapter 5 de-tangles the web of finders, dealers and collectors into which the hoard fell. Chapter 6 recounts the trial of the metal detectorists. 7 describes the Museum’s efforts to acquire the pieces. 8 explains the archaeological relevance of this hoard. Chapters 9 and 10 explain the value of provenance and the context in which archaeological objects are found. Various anecdotes are provided to illustrate.

An engaging read, Stead’s personal account guides us through a specific investigation to reach an understanding of the true value of artifacts. An object’s contribution to our understanding of the past far outweighs its intrinsic beauty.

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