Portable Antiquities Yorkshire: Community Archaeology

By Richard Moss | 19 November 2004
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shows a semi-circular brooch inlaid with red and yellow enamel

This late Iron Age horse-harness or vehicle fitting was found at Alne and is now being acquired by the Yorkshire Museum. © Yorkshire Museums

This is the fourth in a series of seven introductory features about the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) Roadshows, happening nationally on November 27, 2004.

Simon Holmes, Finds Liaison Officer for North and East Yorkshire is something of a champion of community archaeology. But this wasn’t always the case.

Having worked as an archaeologist for the past fourteen years he admits that, when it came to metal detecting and its role in deciphering the past, he was definitely of the ‘old school’.

Now, the intervening years of experience and the last three years administering the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) have forced him to have not just a re-think, but a complete volte-face. “Metal detectorists are re-writing history,” he says without a hint of doubt or irony.

“I realise now there is so much to be gained from talking to them, if it wasn’t for responsible metal detectorists we would have hundreds of finds that would be divorced from any kind of archaeological context,” he says. “If metal detectorists can salvage this stuff from the historical landscape for us then all the better”.

It’s a view consolidated by some dramatic finds and an ever-increasing network of contacts who bring with them an invaluable amount of knowledge. “There’s a guy called Jim Halliday – he’s been a metal detectorist for 30 years,” he continues. “He’s seen objects such as certain types of worked flints that we are only now accepting in archaeological circles”.

Jim also produces information sheets that he passes on to others involved in metal detecting and field walking. He has in turn become a ‘champion’ for the PAS in North and East Yorkshire helping to draw more members of the public to the scheme.

shows a picture of a man stood behind a bench which has a banner attached to the front of it saying: Portable Antiquities Scheme.

Jim Halliday, metal detectorist and champion of the PAS in Yorkshire at a Finds Day held on the first Saturday of every month at the Yorkshire Museum. © Yorkshire Museums

“I’d say 60% of our finds are from metal detectorists,” says Simon, “in fact the area is a real draw and people come from Durham, Lancashire and all over to look for things in Yorkshire.”

“Obviously they take what they find away with them, but that’s only a problem if it’s not recorded,” he adds. “As long as they are reporting the find to their own Finds Liaison Officer that’s ok”.

A rough guesstimate of PAS administered finds in the area hovers somewhere between two or three thousand objects per year. It’s a healthy number, partly explained by a varied historical landscape that yields a plethora of finds from all periods.

“There is so much regional variation that I can sometimes tell where a piece has come from straight away before I start recording the find location,” says Simon.

Many prehistoric items, such as polished axe heads are found amidst the varied topography of the Pennines, whilst towards Hull and the Humber Estuary the area is more indicative of groups of humans living together in larger groups. Here items tend to be from Iron Age, Roman and Anglo-Saxon settlements.

In North Yorkshire Bronze Age metalwork is more abundant than just about any other area in the UK, the East Riding is ‘choc a block with archaeology’ whilst the Wolds are good for polished flints. “If you’re out there hill walking and you see a black object sticking out of the fields, chances are it’s an imported object,” says Simon.

Some of the field walkers he has built up contacts with are so experienced at finding and identifying that he prefers to refer to them as ‘amateur archaeologists’.

“They don’t metal detect at all,” he says, “they are field walkers working independently, but they form part of a wider archaeological picture and it’s very important to keep in touch with them”.

shows a length of twisted gold braid

A Viking armband found amongst the possessions of a family's deceased father in York. © Yorkshire Museums

Despite the network of hill walkers and detectorists, items don’t always come directly from the finder. Sometimes it may take a series of circumstances to reveal something interesting and valuable.

In May 2004 a brother and sister contacted Simon after their father had died at the age of 83. As they were going through his possessions they had stumbled across a ‘thing in the loft.’

The ‘thing’ turned out to be 326 grams of pure gold. “They brought it into the museum, placed it on my desk and I almost leapt out of my chair,” says Simon. “At first I thought it was a torque of the Snettisham type, but in fact it was a Viking arm ring.”

The deceased was a builder from York, so even though the arm ring had become divorced from it’s precise find location, it was given a provisional find location for the York area.

“It literally came out of nowhere,” says Simon, “obviously we get to see a lot of great stuff through the scheme but I know I’ll never see anything quite like it again.” It is only the second such find recorded in the UK, the other one originating in Devon, Yorkshire Museum are now hoping to acquire it.

“That was my Sutton Hoo,” he says, “there’s a lot of gold in there so it belonged to someone wealthy at the top of the social scale or a member of royalty.”

Another recent find came with a very precise find location. “I had a chap bring half of a 7th century Anglo Saxon disc brooch gilded with gold from a find in Riccall,” says Simon. “I recorded and logged it and then I said ‘ok, now go back and find me the other half’. One week later I got a phone call saying he’d found it – 20 feet way from the original!”

The brooch is unusual in that all previous examples have been found in Kent; it’s also made from copper rather than the more usual silver. “This find has got a place in my heart – especially as Yorkshire Museum have got it now.”

shows a broken gold disc - inlaid with a red and sliver motif

An early 7th Century brooch, now on display in the Yorkshire Museum. © Yorkshire Museums

Other finds include recent objects brought in to the scheme after the fields have been ploughed and crops harvested and Simon will be taking at least half a dozen cases - “including rings and coin hoards,” down to the British Museum in December.

He may yet have to add to his load if the Finds Roadshow is a success at Yorkshire Museum in York on Saturday the 28th.

On the day there will be five Finds Liaison Officers on hand to identify finds and record them. There will also be a film crew present from Time Team who are currently making a documentary about the ‘Ainsbrook Hoard’ – a spectacular Viking find discovered by local metal detectorists in Yorkshire during December 2003.

For Simon and his colleagues administering the PAS in North and East Yorkshire the most important thing on the day is to spread the word further and draw more people into the scheme. But that said the documentary and the presence of cameras may be an added bonus.

“They have been following the process involved in a discovery like Ainsbrook,” he says, “I’m hoping it will be a good demonstration of how TV archaeology and community archaeology can work together.”

This is the fourth of seven features we are writing in the run up to the forthcoming PAS Roadshows.

The series started in Essex where we talked to Finds Liaison Officer Caroline McDonald.

In Devon Nicky Powell revealed some of the things that land on the desk of an FLO.

Shropshire and Herefordshire FLO Peter Reavill explained the historical topography of the Welsh Marches.

From the Welsh Marches we moved into Wales where Mark Lodwick told us about the varied archaeology coming in through field walkers and metal detectorists.

The series explored Yorkshire (this article) and then moved on to Oxfordshire and Berkshire, where Kate Sutton revealed finds from a very broad range of eras.

To read about the Portable Antiquities Scheme and get more information about the Roadshows read our Roadshows feature where we talked to Michael Lewis, Deputy Head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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