British Archaeology, no 12, March 1996: News

Threat to urban research as archive faces closure

In a decision that could have momentous consequences for archaeology in London and elsewhere, the Museum of London has drawn up plans to close down its archaeological archive - comprising the vast majority of finds made in 25 years of archaeological work in the capital - following cuts in the Museum's central-government grant.

Barring a last-minute change of heart on the Museum's grant by the Department of National Heritage (DNH), the Museum has now decided to place the 100,000-or-so boxes of pottery and bone, tile, glass and other finds contained in its warehouse into `dead storage' - the finds will no longer be actively curated, access to the material will be restricted or stopped altogether, and no new finds will be accepted. The Museum also expects to lose about 40 jobs, and to reduce its education services for local schools.

The Museum, which loses UKP0.5m this year and UKP1.2m next, is not alone in suffering cuts to its budget - DNH grants to museums and galleries generally fall by UKP13m this year (from UKP226.3m to UKP213.3m), and by a further UKP5.5m next year. But the effects of the cuts are doubled for the Museum of London because of its particular funding arrangements - it is jointly funded by the Corporation of London, which is obliged to match the DNH grant, reducing its own if necessary.

Nick Merriman, Head of the Museum's Early Department, stressed that the archive was `the prime resource' for understanding the history of London, and that restricting access to the material would be a major setback for research. `It is used intensively by all the archaeological units that work in London. Hundreds of people consult it every year,' he said.

According to Taryn Nixon, Director of Operations at the independent Museum of London Archaeology Service (MoLAS) - London's principal contracting unit - com-plete closure would be `catastrophic for all researchers', but the greatest worry was the `potential break-up of the archive', the separation of the current material from future finds. She added that, if the Museum put its plans into effect, MoLAS would be obliged (along with most other units working in London) to find urgently a new repository for its finds, or it would be unable to carry out new work in London under the present IFA Code of Conduct. `I don't pretend it's going to be easy,' she said.

The Museum claims that, if the DNH cuts are confirmed, it will have no alternative but to close (or part-close) the archive. Some, however, disagree. Dr Michael Rhodes, former Finds Officer at the Museum, said that cuts should be made instead, if necessary, in the Museum's `overly expensive' programme of refurbishment and display. `By contrast with display, the Museum sees archaeology as peripheral,' he said.

Wider context

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Site of Roman defeat emerges in Gaul

Excavations in central France by a joint British-French team of archaeologists appear close to settling a long-running dispute of Roman archaeology in France - the location of the site of the Battle of Gergovia, where the Gallic leader Vercingetorix held out against Julius Caesar in 52BC.

Two sites are claimed for Gergovia - the hillfort capital of Vercingetorix's Arverni tribe - on opposing volcanic spurs north and south of the French city of Clermont-Ferrand. The site on the southern spur (the Plateau de Merdognes) was examined in the 1860s by the archaeologist Stoffel, who claimed to have found nearby two Roman camps with linking parallel ditches built as a base for attacking the hillfort, and described by Caesar in his Gallic War. The hillfort itself was examined in the 1930s, in work that seemed to confirm the site as Gergovia. Champions of the site on the northern spur (the Cotes de Clermont), however, have recently challenged those earlier conclusions.

The new excavations, directed by John Collis of Sheffield University and Vincent Guichard of Blaise Pascal University in Clermont-Ferrand, are now lending support to the traditionalist view, although the matter is not yet finally proven. The excavations have confirmed that the ditches described by Stoffel exist, and that they appear to be Roman and date from the mid- 1st century BC. According to Prof Collis, the ditches are V-shaped `as you'd expect in a Roman military context' - rather than flat-bottomed, which would be more typical of the Gallic Iron Age. The ditches and one camp have yielded mid-1st century pottery, and one ditch lies underneath a layer of colluvium that seems to have built up at the start of the Roman period, soon after the known date of the battle. Pottery and coins from the Plateau itself have also been re-examined, and some appear to be pre-Augustan. `So the evidence is not decisive, but is beginning to look pretty strong,' Prof Collis said.

Champions of the northern site claim an Iron Age settlement there with defensive ditches, but according to Prof Collis the settlement there seems to date from c 100BC `according to our new chronology', and the ditches are `probably modern revetments for vineyards'. Work continues this summer.

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Finds-reporting scheme is `an advantage'

Government proposals for a code of practice on portable antiquities, aimed at encouraging finders to report their finds and findspots in England and Wales, have been welcomed by archaeologists as an important advance in tackling the problem of non-reporting. The consultation document, published last month, complements a Bill to revise the law of Treasure Trove, which goes before Parliament this month.

The document recognises that large numbers of finds of archaeological value are made by metal detectorists each year, only a few of which contain gold or silver and so come within the scope of Treasure Trove. Noting that only a few of these are reported, the document states: `The Government believes that this represents a considerable loss to the nation's heritage.'

This recognition that non-reporting is a major issue of public interest is `the most noteworthy aspect of the proposals', according to Richard Morris, Director of the CBA. `In 1989, they denied it was an issue. But now the Government has rethought its position. That's very significant, and very much to its credit,' he said.

The document contains no details, but rather seeks advice, on how a code of practice might work. It indicates, however, that the Government favours a voluntary over a compulsory code, on the grounds that it would be cheaper and quicker to introduce. Colin Renfrew, Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge University, said that a voluntary code would be `an appropriate first step', even though a compulsory scheme might be `ideal'. A voluntary code would provide a stimulus to finders to report finds, he said, and make it clear where they should report them. `It would also be a little clearer what should be recorded and how,' he added.

In order to work, however, the code would have to be presented to the public with care and skill, according to Mick Cuddeford, a detectorist and writer on antiquities. He said a culture- change was needed in the detecting hobby, where the concept of treasure-hunting had precedence over historical enquiry; and that it was necessary to `overcome distrust on both sides'. `Also, detectorists are apathetic and need to be motivated to report their finds,' he said.

Some archaeologists are also concerned about the potential costs, in time and money, of processing a large number of new referrals. The Government has estimated that a voluntary scheme might cost an additional UKP700,000 a year to run, but it has not yet promised to foot the bill.

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In brief

Roman Ireland

The discovery of a possible Roman fort at Drumanagh, 15 miles north of Dublin, suggests the Romans may have invaded Ireland after all. The heavily-defended, 40-acre coastal site has produced 1st and 2nd century Roman coins, but its significance is disputed. Some claim it may have been a Roman bridgehead, used as a base for military campaigns inland, whereas others argue the site was simply a native Celtic settlement with evidence for trade with Roman Britain. The discovery, announced last month, was made a decade ago but kept secret because of a legal dispute over the ownership of finds from the site.

Avebury burial

Traces of a burial mound inside the henge and stone circle at Avebury have been found on air photographs taken by the English Royal Commission this summer. Two concentric circles, appearing as parch marks in the earth, have been interpreted as the double perimeter ditch of a burial mound dating from c 3000BC - about half a millennium earlier than the other remains at Avebury, which date from c 2450BC - c 2200BC. The date of the mound suggests Avebury may have been used as a sacred place for centuries longer than has previously been thought.

Early synagogue

The only known example of a medieval synagogue in Britain has been found underneath a shop in Guildford. It consists of a single, elaborately-decorated room reminiscent of other medieval synagogues known in Europe, with evidence for activity concentrated on the eastern side of the room, where the Ark containing the Torah Scrolls would have been kept. The room, found by archaeologists from Guildford Museum, was identified as a synagogue by Joe Hillaby of Bristol Museum, an authority on medieval Jewish history. The synagogue has been dated by pottery and coins to between c 1180 - c 1280, a period of prosperity for England's Jewish community which ended in the late 1270s when almost all of England's Jews were expelled on charges of clipping silver off the coinage.

NEWS is compiled by Simon Denison

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1996