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Celebrating Treasure

The British Museum tackles an old archaeological debate head-on in its exhibition Treasure: Finding Our Past, which relies on objects unearthed by private collectors. Curator J D Hill explains why this is a good thing.

Sometimes discoveries by the general public have the power to change interpretations of the past and add new insights into our history. Almost all the objects in this major exhibition at the British Museum ' the first temporary exhibition on a general British archaeological topic we have staged since 1985 ' were found not by professional archaeologists, but by amateurs: people using metal detectors, walking their dogs or digging their gardens.

The exhibition shows the different types of gold and silver object that in the past surfaced as Treasure Trove, and now regularly do so through the Treasure Act. There are no Scottish finds, apart from the Lewis Chessmen (known to many since their appearance in the first Harry Potter movie), because Scotland was excluded from the act (see Acting on Treasure overleaf).

Exhibits range from the Mildenhall Treasure (late Roman silver tableware found in 1942) through coin hoards such as Tregwynt from the Civil War (the largest from this period in Wales) and Fishpool (the largest gold coin hoard from Britain, dating from the Wars of the Roses) to the small objects that typify Early Medieval and Medieval treasure cases, such as crosses, sword fittings and badges, including the Chiddingly Boar (see BA October 2002). Gold and silver objects are sometimes found by archaeologists: the exhibition contains a reconstruction of the Amesbury Archer's grave, the extraordinary Beaker burial excavated by Wessex Archaeology in 2001.

There is a danger in concentrating on the big, spectacular and shiny discoveries. We hope that including far smaller, not particularly shiny and apparently insignificant things as well, will challenge people's expectations: any ancient artefact is a treasure if you know how to unlock it secrets. Displays of typical 'portable antiquities' found with metal detectors or by chance include sections on Bronze Age ornaments, pilgrim badges, Tudor dress fittings and Early Modern pewter toys.

These are all examples of surface finds whose accurate recording has revealed important new insights into the past. Viking and Scandinavian style metal finds have transformed understanding of the Viking settlement of Eastern England. Ralph Jackson's detailed new study of cosmetic grinders has highlighted the importance of personal grooming for people in southern England in the Late Iron Age and Roman periods. Some objects show the scope for future work. Rings, for example, are among the most common small metal objects found. They offer considerable potential for studying changing social history, superstition and attitudes to love and friendship, as well as fashion.

If our visitors take away only one message from the exhibition, we hope it is that any find is meaningless unless it is able to tell us about the past. Allowing treasures to tell stories is an exciting, if at times frustrating, business. Knowing exactly where an object was found is crucial, and archaeological excavation at the sites of major treasure finds is now more common than it was.

For example, the initial discovery of a small selection of Viking scrap silver and coins at Llanbedrgoch on the island of Anglesey in 1992, led to a major excavation directed over the last 10 years by Mark Redknap of the National Museums and Galleries of Wales (NMGW). It is now the most important Welsh Viking site so far discovered. In England, the recently found Ringlemere gold cup, East Leicestershire Iron Age coin hoards and Winchester hoard (all also in the exhibition) benefited significantly from excavations.

The rewards of working closely with the objects' original finders are clear. In all these cases, the metal detectorists were as concerned as the archaeologists, if not more so, to learn about the context of their discoveries.

The close examination of the finds, often using a range of scientific techniques, is also important. Science established who made the objects in the Winchester hoard and where. Analysis of metal content and technology, although often not given the prominence and credit they deserve, are essential elements of the BM's and the NMGW's work for the Treasure Act. Finally, there is the need to compare new finds with old and place the discoveries within the larger picture.

Unlike many previous exhibitions, this one celebrates the key role ordinary people play in discovering our past. It will also be one of the first the BM has staged that has been designed from the outset to be family friendly, with the opportunity to handle both replica and real archaeological objects at its heart.

The exhibition aims to publicise the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which went nationwide across England and Wales this year after regional trials, and to encourage its future funding. However it should not be seen as a glorification of metal detecting: it does not shy away from the destruction caused by a small minority of detectorists. The exhibition, the book and the education programme include famous examples of how the looting of archaeological sites such as Wanborough, Surrey, and the theft of discoveries such as the Salisbury hoard and the Snettisham 'bowl hoard', have destroyed and stolen our past. Objects have been chosen for the exhibition not just as examples of cooperation between professionals and amateurs, but also in some cases to show the terrible losses when the past is stolen by illegal nighthawks and looters.

The British Museum is 250 years old this year. Treasure: Finding Our Past is a contribution to the celebrations. It also represents our partnership with regional museums. When it closes in March, it will tour to four other locations in Wales and England (see below). People across the two countries will have the opportunity to see some of the most important and famous British treasures beside other lesser known discoveries.

'Treasure' evokes mixed emotions for archaeologists. The glint and allure of gold is not what 'proper', serious archaeology is or ought to be about. Yes, there is a danger that these often very beautiful objects are seen only as art or pound signs. But ancient gold and silver objects''Treasures' in the legal sense of the word'do exist, and continue to be found with alarming regularity.

Treasures often have the visual power to stand for a particular period of the past. Imagine, for example, the Iron Age without the Snettisham torcs; the end of Roman Britain without the Mildenhall and Hoxne hoards; or the Anglo-Saxon period without the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Like pot sherds or animal bones, gold and silver objects have stories to tell about the past. The great public appeal many treasures have offers an important way to engage people in those stories. There is no denying this is an exhibition of objects largely (although by no means all) found by people using metal detectors. This will be anathema to some archaeologists'even if the objects themselves are beautiful, grab the popular imagination and are important new clues to Britain's past. However, the traditional enmity between archaeologists and detectorists is breaking down. The Portable Antiquities Scheme has shown both parties the benefits of working together.

Looting still happens and vital clues to Britain's past are lost. However, I would argue that condemning all metal detectorists, as some archaeologists do, ignores the fact that most detectorists themselves abhor illegal activity. I would also say that some archaeologists who condemn have made little attempt to show exactly why 'treasures' are important historical evidence. An ancient object's worth lies in the story it tells about the past, not how much it would fetch on ebay or at auction, and archaeologists need to explain why this is so.

Treasure - legally objects of more than 10% gold or silver that are over 300 years old, although there are different qualifications for coins and now also for prehistoric non-precious metal objects - is at the heart of the BM's contribution to British archaeology. The museum has the responsibility under English and Welsh law to administer the Treasure Act in England. In Wales, this responsibility lies with the NMGW. Probably more curators, conservators and scientists spend their time working on new discoveries of treasure than any other single curatorial activity in the BM. So an exhibition about treasure and other portable antiquities is an exhibition squarely about the major role these museums play within British archaeology.

Whether the exhibition succeeds in its aims is up to the visitors, and you, to decide. Inevitably, when putting together a museum display practical and administrative factors conspire to alter what might have been the original intention. Then there is the major problem of how to tell stories with only a few objects and a limited number of words on a label. Museum displays are not books or television programmes. And just in case we give the impression that the exhibition is only about gold, silver and other metal objects, probably the most important object in the exhibition is not made of metal and was found by someone walking their dog on a beach. To find out what it is you will have to visit the exhibition at one of its venues over the next three years.

Treasure: Finding Our Past, sponsored by Anglo American and Tarmac, is at the British Museum till March 14 2004, the National Museum and Gallery of Wales, Cardiff (May-Sep 2004), the Manchester Museum (Oct 2004-Jan 2005), the Hancock Museum, Newcastle (Mar-Jun 2005) and Norwich Castle Museum (Jul-Nov 2005). A book of the same title by Richard Hobbs accompanies the exhibition (BM Press '9.99). A study day on the science and conservation of treasure will be held at the BM on March 11 2004 (see Briefing). For further information and 'virtual tours' see www.thebritishmuseum/treasure.

J D Hill is the British Museum's Curator of Iron Age Collections, Department of Prehistory and Early Europe
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