thinking about archaeology

Vote for the hoard?

In this unusually interesting general election there is a particularly interesting thing going on in the West Midlands. The Anglo-Saxon Staffordshire hoard was found near Hammerwich, within the Lichfield parliamentary constituency. But it will be exhibited at the museums in Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent, where an archaeologist and a historian are respectively standing for parliament. The hoard leapt through the normal specialist and hobby boundaries that surround most archaeological stories into wider public culture, and has been much talked about by local politicians and businesses. Will it now feature in campaigns for a national election?

An indication of the political interest came in a parliamentary early day motion proposed in January by Labour MP Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent Central). It was seconded by would-be arts movers (all in southern England) Don Foster and Richard Younger-Ross (Liberal Democrat) and Jeremy Hunt and Ed Vaizey (Conservative). The Lichfield MP, Michael Fabricant (Con), initially supported the motion, but then withdrew, adding a proposed amendment that found no signatories: he wanted the hoard to be exhibited “at a suitable venue in Lichfield, such as Lichfield Cathedral, in recognition of the fact that the Hoard was found in Lichfield constituency and contains religious artefacts, and that Lichfield was the ancient religious capital of Mercia” (see newspaper story below).

Jerry Evans, the LibDem candidate for Birmingham Hall Green, was a student at the London Institute of Archaeology when I was there and is now a freelance archaeological consultant. Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery is actually in the adjacent Ladywood constituency, where Clare Short is standing down (her engagement with the hoard was less than most in the area – on one day in February when it was reported that actor Judi Dench had pledged support for the hoard campaign, Short was in London at the Iraq inquiry; it took her two weeks to sign the early day motion). But how could an archaeologist, even a Roman one, ignore the hoard?

But the serious story lies in Stoke. Here former arts minister Mark Fisher (who lists in his register of members’ interests, an annual fee from the Qatar Museums Authority for advice on development plans) is standing down. Chasing his seat are at least 10 candidates. These include a Conservative (a belly-dancer who defected from the LibDems), a Liberal Democrat (a local councillor who came second to Labour in 2005), four Independents (among whom are the secretary of the constituency Labour Party who, according to the Daily Mail, has changed his name by deed poll to “Gary local Labour born in Stoke Elsby”; the deputy leader of Stoke-on-Trent city council; and a defector from the BNP), representatives of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, UKIP and the BNP itself, and someone from the National Front, which has yet to announce its candidate.

As if this wasn’t enough, into the fray has stepped (or been parachuted, depending on your point of view) the historian Tristram Hunt. Lecturer in history at Queen Mary University, London, and broadcaster and newspaper columnist, in January Hunt joined David Starkey and Tony Robinson to launch the Art Fund’s appeal for the hoard. Last November he wrote in the Guardian that it was “the type of find that changes the teaching of the past almost overnight”. Historically, Stoke-on-Trent Central is a safe Labour seat, and Hunt should have no difficulty in winning the vote. But who can predict the outcome of what looks like a good old bun fight? At least Hunt can rightly claim to have stood up for the hoard from the start.

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