thinking about archaeology

Staffordshire hoard now over 3,000 pieces

I’ve just realised the new British Archaeology is the 40th issue I’ve edited. It’s got some good things in it, reflecting the interesting times. As I said in the editorial (which I wrote the day after the budget), if it weren’t so tough – using the chancellor’s word – we’d be celebrating, with politicians praising archaeology, some great new archaeology schemes cleared from government desks and the Staffordshire hoard bought.

I was very pleased at the outcome of English Heritage’s major consultation and survey about public attitudes to ancient human remains – and delighted to carry a special report from Bas Payne in the new magazine, which came out three days after the surveys’ launch (whose date was for long uncertain, causing a little difficulty in the editorial office).

I’m pleased partly, of course, because the project’s conclusions very clearly support the interests of science: for example, between 86–94% of people in England (depending on age group) felt it was right for museums to keep human bones over 1,000 years old for research purposes. But I was pleased also because the fact that most people approve of scientific study and want to know more about the past, matches my own perceptions. Claims from a few academics and museum specialists for a wave of public support for the right of a Pagan minority to determine the future of excavated remains now seem hollow. In the Radio 3 Night Waves discussion, which was quite cramped for time, when I suggested these surveys might indeed favour scientific study over “reburial” (the only previous survey suggested exactly that, though it was very small), Piotr Bienkowski seemed to dismiss their significance, as if public interest did not matter. You can be selective in whom you wish to respect.

Incidentally, I put “reburial” in quotes for a good reason. In the debate about the issues, the standard use of this word is deceptive. It implies some kind of equivalence between the new (sought-after) act of burial, and the original burial rite – something that some “reburial” advocates do seem to believe in, claiming modern burial would be respectful to people in the past. It can’t be said enough that no such equivalence exists. When someone died 4,000 years ago, all sorts of complex stuff would have kicked off about which we can know very little: we really cannot say what might or might not have pleased people then if they knew what we were doing now. I do think it is absolutely right that we should respect human remains for what they are as much as for what they can tell us, but the nature of that respect has to exist entirely in the present – it consists in what we ourselves find respectful.

I was pleased too to record, just days before the magazine went to press, a new high for the number of pieces in the Staffordshire hoard – 1,750, Kevin Leahy told me. Yet even before the magazine was out, any smugness I might have felt was wiped out when I discovered the latest count (as I revealed on Radio 5 Live to anyone listening very early last Tuesday morning): 3,490! This extraordinary figure has come about as Kevin has catalogued all the tiny pieces of metal that were in the soil lumps that Terry Herbert retrieved from the field, and initially were examined only by X-ray. At the Portable Antiquities Scheme, said Kevin, “the most interesting objects are often those that we can’t immediately identify, that take us into new territory”. This will likely happen with the hoard, too, as the tiny, brittle fragments of decorated helmet and other as yet unidentified items are one by one examined and fitted together (or not).

I learnt this at one of the high points for the year so far, a conference of Anglo-Saxon specialists at the British Museum convened at the end of March entirely to discuss the hoard. It was an extraordinary event – a unique gathering of scholars brought together by a unique find. I was privileged to have been there, and I’m very grateful for it.

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