I am the Treasure Registrar in the Department of Portable Antiquities & Treasure at the British Museum. My team and I coordinate the adminsitration of cases of 'Treasure' finds - generally speaking, gold and silver objects and hoards of coins older than 300 years old - which by law are the property of the Crown. We handle over 800 cases per year, ranging from Post-Medieval silver dress hooks to Bronze Age gold penannular rings, and everything in between, includiing some massive hoards, like the Frome Hoard of 52,000 Roman coins.

Valuing Archaeological Finds

The TVC is careful to considr past valuations when arriving at new ones, so comparison folders come in handy

The TVC is careful to consider past valuations when arriving at new ones, so comparison folders come in handy

Talking about the financial value of Archaeology and archaeological objects is something that many heritage professionals shy away from, and the ‘value’ of heritage (in a wider sense) is the subject of on-going debates (for example, see ‘Can you put a price on culture?’ in the July/August 2013 instalment of the Museums Journal). But value is something that I deal with every day in my job. As the Treasure Registrar in the British Museum’s Department of Portable Antiquities & Treasure, I am responsible for compiling the minutes of the meetings of the Treasure Valuation Committee (TVC), and this particular task is what is facing me on the Day of Archaeology 2013.

The TVC is, in official parlance, a Non Departmental Government Body (in non-official parlance, a Quango) whose role it is to recommend to the Secretary of State the value of Treasure finds that come before it. This value is then used to pay a reward to the finder of a Treasure cases and the owner of the land where it was found. In cases where an interested party has acted improperly, the TVC also advises on the abatement of rewards. It is made up of a group of independent experts with knowledge of certain artefact types and other expertise and coming from a variety of backgrounds; current membership of the Committee, which is chaired by Lord Renfrew, can be seen here.

Fairness and equality are the underlying principles of the TVC’s existence and its work. The Treasure Act 1996 obliges finders of potential Treasure to report their finds to the coroner, and if the finds meet the criteria for Treasure, then the law says those finds belong to the Crown and they can be placed in an appropriate museum, with a reward equal to the market value of the find being paid to the finder and landowner. The effective working of the Act depends on finders coming forward and reporting their finds, and they will only do so as long as they feel they are being treated fairly by the law.

That is where the TVC comes into the picture. Its members fastidiously apply the Committee’s terms of reference (spelled out in paragraph 65 of the Treasure Act Code of Practice) and go to great length to arrive at mutual decisions as to the value of the finds which come before them.

The term ‘value’ is complex and prone to misunderstanding. What the Committee is tasked to do is to arrive at a recommended value equal to what might be paid for a find in a sale on the open market between a willing seller and willing buyer. The Committee recently adopted a memo explaining that it understands this scenario to be equivalent to a theoretical auction ‘hammer price’ – so in other words, the Committee endeavours to determine what a find might fetch at auction. This is different than a retail price set on goods in a shop, because the retail price incorporates a mark-up applied by the merchant to cover expenses and to bring a profit. Therefore the Committee usually finds it more straightforward to look at similar examples which have gone to public auction.

Discussion of an object’s value always begin with a report provided for the TVC by an independent ‘provisional valuer’, someone in the antiquities trade, external to the Committee, who has studied the object and done an assessment of it worth. This is also shared with the interested parties in a case – the finder, landowner and acquiring museum – who can supply their own comments on the provisional valuation or commission a valuation of their own.

What is clear, in my experience of working with the TVC, is that it is absolutely focussed on calculating an accurate ‘hammer price’ for these finds. It doesn’t allow itself to be influenced by whether or not a museum (who is responsible for paying the reward) will be able to afford a recommended value. Similarly, it doesn’t ‘take sympathy’ on a finder and inflate a price in order not to appear mean. The TVC makes its determination based simply on experience and evidence.

But it doesn’t stop there – in a further effort to demonstrate fairness, the TVC’s recommendation is circulated to all of the interested parties in a case, and they are invited to submit a ‘challenge’ to the valuation if they disagree, and the TVC will reconsider the case and take account of any new information or evidence that the interested parties provide.

It is these recommendations of the TVC which has me occupied today. We feel it is desirable (especially with higher valued finds) to provide interested parties with some of the rationale behind the Committee’s decisions, rather than just passing on a value. Therefore the minutes of the TVC meetings can grow into rather large documents! Minutes of past meetings, where all of the cases have been closed, are available for viewing on the website of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, here.

So the entire process is engineered to ensure that interested parties can see that the Committee is acting on the best information it has available, that its decisions are objective and that it is willing to take account of their evidence. The consequence of this is that it can take some time for valuations to be agreed, rewards to be paid, and cases closed, but that seems an acceptable sacrifice to ensure due diligence, fairness and transparency. If this in turn contributes to finders reporting potential Treasure and the important discoveries ending up in museums, we’ll feel like we’ve performed a service to the heritage of this country. Just don’t ask me how to value that…

Second World War Memorialisation on my Day Off

My day job is in the Department of Portable Antiquities and Treasure at the British Museum, but today is a day off for me. Not to worry, I’ve found plenty of archaeology, or at least, Cultural Heritage, to keep me occupied! [Since the Institute of Archaeology runs a master’s programme in Cultural Heritage Studies, I thought this would be allowed]

Yesterday, the Queen unveiled London’s newest monument, a memorial to the men and women of the Royal Air Force (RAF) Bomber Command who gave their lives in service during the Second World War. The event was well attended by veterans and their families, and, coming 67 years after the conclusion of the war, could be regarded as overdue. Today I paid the monument a visit, and attempted to put it in context – amongst other monuments from the war, and also amongst the themes it addresses.

The new Bomber Command Memorial, viewed from the approach to the gyratory

The Bomber Command Memorial is a marble open-topped temple surrounding a bronze sculpture of seven crew members posed as if returning from a mission

Statues of crewmen in the Bomber Memorial

Doric columns, like the choice of building material, evoke classical values of the virtue of defense that are echoed in a quote from Pericles on the base of the statue. The monument is sited on the Green Park side of a large gyratory at Hyde Park Corner, inside of which are several other large war memorials and the massive Wellington Arch. So, whilst it dominates its corner of the roundabout, the new memorial is not out of place, and I thought if anything it mirrored rather nicely the neo-Classical (though Ionically columned!) entryway into Hyde Park.

  The monument also commemorates all of those people from any country who have suffered at the hands of aerial bombing, and in doing so makes a deliberate gesture to those who would criticize any commendation of the efforts of men who wrought such destruction on German cities like Hamburg and Dresden.  This is nice to see, and shows an awareness of the delicateness of the topic, which an earlier memorial did not.  I am referring to the statue of Arthur Harris, the head of Bomber Command during the closing stages of the Second World War, which stands in front of the church of Saint Clement Danes on the Strand.  The statue obviously commemorates the man, but a little plaque on the side also explains that it is erected ‘in memory…of the brave crews of Bomber Command, more than 55,000 of whom lost their lives in the cause of freedom.  The nation owes them all an immense debt.’  According to my little book London’s Monuments by Andrew Kershman (Metro Publications, 2007), when the statue of ‘Bomber’ Harris was unveiled in 1992, the attending crowd booed and threw eggs in disgust.  However much one may make allowances for Harris’ strategy of using his air fleet to attack centres of population (rather than strictly military or industrial targets) by saying that it ultimately helped win the war or was justified in the face of German attacks on British civilians, erecting an oversized statue in his honour was bound to be controversial.

What I found fascinating is the evolution of the capital’s commemoration of the RAF’s part in the Second World War over the last half century – and that you can see this evolution on a short walk or bike tour. Starting on the Strand, the church of Saint Clement Danes serves as the official RAF church and a memorial to everyone who has given their life for the force. Gutted in the war, it was reconstructed in the 1950s, and it’s interior is bedecked with plaques, flags and books recalling all of the individuals, units, and battle honours of the RAF. However from the outside the church is rather inconspicuous as a memorial and if anything is only noticeable for its ecclesiastical nature amidst the large buildings of Aldwych. For many years after the war, the more obvious monuments to the RAF would have been those to individuals.

Harris’s statue outside the church stands across the forecourt of Saint Clement Danes from another one erected in 1988, of his contemporary Hugh Dowding, who led Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain in 1940.

Statue of Lord Portal

Down on Embankment, the figures of Lord Portal and Viscount Trenchard, giant figures in the development and leadership of the RAF, have stood watch since the 1960s and 70s.
It was only in 2005 that the memorial to the Battle of Britain was constructed on the Embankment opposite Trenchard and Portal. This piece honours the rank and file of the RAF and goes to the effort of listing every person who died during that conflict in 1940. Like the new Bomber Command Memorial, it shows an awareness of the importance of collective effort (and sacrifice) in the achievement of a nation’s prosperity. This isn’t a new phenomenon – witness the many memorials that sprang up after the First World War which gravely paid tribute to ‘the noble dead’. However it is curious to consider that it is only 60 years after the event that London is in a position to feel that the statues of individuals do not pay due respect to the others who served and died for them.
I personally thought the new monument was fitting and a poignant reminder of the service of these individuals. Because of the negative associations of carpet bombing German cities, the airmen of Bomber Command have received (to my mind) rather less acknowledgement than they deserve. Certainly they have not been immortalized like their colleagues in Fighter Command, ‘the few’ whom Churchill said we owed so much to.

It is interesting to ponder what some future students of material culture will make of the dates and styles of these various monuments to the RAF. I wonder if, when they question why the British felt it proper and necessary to construct a memorial to the 55,000 people from Bomber Command killed in the Second World War, they will reflect on contemporary outrage over British involvement in the Iraq War and the continual disappointment of the campaign in Afghanistan.

Poppies and a message left at the Bomber Command Memorial

On expedition to Russell Square

Archaeology is digging. Simple. It’s one of those professions that makes for good dinner party conversation, easy banter in the pub and suitable fare for family reunions, because everyone knows what archaeologists do – they dig stuff up. Or do they? Archaeology and the people who get paid to do it may have a clearer (and more positive) brand image than bankers, consultants and CFOs, but the field is anything but one-dimensional. Sure, some of us dig or get our hands dirty in other ways, but archaeologists are involved in all manner of work in their pursuit of a greater understanding of human activity. I hope that in the course of viewing these blog posts, readers will get an appreciation of the vast scope of ‘our’ world.

My own day of archaeology began with a visit to our offices in Russell Square by a cameraman who was capturing footage of a colleague for the next instalment of the History Channel series ‘Mud Men’. Our building is a converted Georgian terraced house facing on to Russell Square and is connected to the British Museum via our back garden. I set to work typing up the minutes of a recent meeting and watch my colleague reposition a few props to make the space seem more ‘archaeological’. There isn’t so much as a trowel in our office, but this space is the epicentre of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), the network of archaeologists (Finds Liaison Officers, or FLOs) across England and Wales who are working with the public to record their finds and help transform our understanding of the past.

Some days it can seem like we are sitting at the other end of the Bat Phone, where the next call could be one that informs us of a compelling discovery. This is one of those days – a hardworking FLO has just rung to let us know there has been an Iron Age hoard found in a northern county. We start a new file and enter the information into our treasure database, giving the case a very bureaucratic ‘T’ number.


Installing a selection from the Frome Hoard in the Treasure case

I dash off to a meeting in a nearby building about the future display of ‘Room 2’, the ‘Changing Museum’ gallery here at the British Museum. As part of our role in administering the Treasure Act 1996, the British Museum takes in hundreds of finds of Treasure each year for study. Many of these are eventually acquired by regional museums, with others being returned to the people who found them. Until last year, these finds remained locked away in secure storage for the duration of their stay, but recently we’ve been offered the chance to display some of this material in the public galleries. We currently have a case in Room 41, but as this gallery is closing for redevelopment, our next ‘home’ will be Room 2. Even though we only have one case and one information panel, at a large museum like this there are a great number of people involved in making the project a success. Today I’ve found out that the folks in exhibitions have sourced a new case for our use, one with interior lights and more space than a previous example, so I’m excited at the opportunities for display.

Back at my desk, my work takes me in the direction of the PAS Database, where I’m checking to make sure some specific finds have been recorded and recorded properly. The magnificent rebuild of the database by Dan Pett has made for a much more ‘user-friendly’ platform. In the past, as finds of Treasure were recorded as part of a legal process, they weren’t always given an entry on the PAS database, so one of the tasks that we engage volunteers for is to go through historic Treasure reports and create a database record for the items in them. They’ve been doing a great job, but there is plenty more work to be done.

Its time to organise the logistics for a Finds Day that the PAS is running at Arundel Castle in Sussex on Saturday. There will be a team of us heading to the town from across Southeast England, and we are all bringing various supplies – among other things the British Museum has a good supply of latex gloves so I’ll be taking those. We’ve also sourced an old banner to pack up. The Finds Day is the culmination of a busy two weeks of outreach organised under the banner of the Festival of British Archaeology by the CBA. Many of the PAS staff have been participating in or running events throughout the country since mid-July.

Most days I ask a colleague to return my museum keys for me, so that I can leave directly from our front door on to Russell Square. But today I have change of mind and walk along the ‘East Road’ behind our offices and the hotels on Montague Street, out into the forecourt of the British Museum. Tucked away behind a computer screen it is amazing how quickly the image of those massive columns disappears from the mind, but such is their presence that all it takes is one glance to instil one with a renewed sense of purpose. I may not be traipsing amongst Mayan ruins in the Yucatan but there is plenty of archaeology to be found here in Bloomsbury.