British Archaeology, no 26, July 1997: News

New measures to combat trade in stolen artefacts

Police forces hunting for stolen antiquities and objects of art could find their work made much easier following the introduction of a new internationally-agreed checklist for recording artefacts, which was recently drawn up by representatives of 84 countries.

The international trade in stolen antiquities and art, thought by some to be the third biggest criminal trade after drugs and armaments, bases much of its success on the inadequacy of recording in many countries. In Britain, for example, it is estimated that fewer than five per cent of antiquities and works of art are catalogued and photographed. As a result, when objects are stolen from museums or private collections, the prospects of recovery are often slim. To the untrained eye, one Roman brooch, or one Egyptian figurine, looks very much like another.

The new checklist, drawn up under the aegis of the Getty Information Institute (part of the John Paul Getty Trust), consists of ten points of information - the `Object ID' - which museums and private owners are urged to complete for all valuable artefacts. The ten points emerged after three years of consultations with police, customs, insurance bodies, archaeological agencies and museums in each of the countries taking part. According the project's co-ordinator, the British archaeologist Robin Thornes, there was `extraordinary agreement' across all communities on the basic information required.

The checklist consists of the type of object; its material and manufacturing technique; its measurements; any identifying marks; its title, if it has one; the subject depicted; its date; its maker; any unusual physical characteristics; and a photograph. In Britain, this standard has been adopted by New Scotland Yard, the Incorporated Society of Valuers and Auctioneers, the British Museum - which sets the standards for cataloguing in all museums in the country - the Art Loss Register, a private database of stolen art, and others. It has been adopted by Interpol, Unesco, the Council of Europe, the FBI, and by similar bodies around the world.

`It is blindingly obvious that we should have been doing this for some time, but it has simply never been done before, ' Dr Thornes said.

According to Peter Addyman, Chairman of the Standing Conference on Portable Antiquities, it is `obviously desirable' that the standard should be adopted by archaeologists in Britain, so that new items of note are adequately recorded as they come out of the ground. Archaeologists, he said, routinely make a catalogue of artefacts during or after an excavation. `I hope they will record the Object ID items as well. It's not asking us to do anything we don't do already, and I can't think of any reason not to do it. '

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Rare Early Saxon village in Midlands

The remains of a large Early-Mid Anglo-Saxon village have been found near Melton Mowbray in Leicestershire. The village, one of the few known in the Midlands, lies in the next field to the deserted medieval village of Eye Kettleby, abandoned in the 15th century, and seems to have been its precursor.

The Anglo-Saxon buildings appear to spread right across a modern 13-hectare field (and could extend beyond it). Although no more than a quarter of the field has been excavated, at least 14 hall houses have been found - a significant addition to the 300-or-so Anglo-Saxon hall houses known in Britain - as well as 18 so-called `sunken-featured buildings' (possibly craft workshops, with their floors below ground level), and numerous hearths, pits and ditches.

Several halls overlap, and some were rebuilt at least once on the same site, suggesting the village was occupied over a lengthy period. Finds, including loomweights, spindle-whorls, bone combs, bone pins and needles, iron knife blades, copper-alloy brooches, and pottery, suggest the village was founded in the 5th or 6th centuries and survived at least until the 7th.

The excavations have produced some colourful indications of how the village might have looked in the Anglo-Saxon period, according to the project director, Richard Buckley of University of Leicester Archaeological Services. Drainage ditches were dug down to a stream at one end of the site - where the excavators hope a waterlogged area will produce environmental evidence for contemporary vegetation and diet - and part of a road (possibly Roman) has been found running through the village, which may have provided the original focus for the site.

Traces of prehistoric structures have also been found, some of which may have been visible in the Anglo-Saxon period, providing an additional focus for the settlement. These include two large Bronze Age `ring ditch' enclosures next to one another (one of which was a cemetery with more than 30 cremations), two further subrectangular Bronze Age enclosures on either side of the circular enclosures with entrances facing in opposite directions, another Neolithic or Bronze Age barrow, and a line of large Iron Age post-holes thought to have been part of a territorial boundary. Eye Kettleby is not the only site in Britain where an Anglo-Saxon settlement is known to be associated with prehistoric monuments: others include Thermiston in Leicestershire and Spong Hill in Norfolk.

Eye Kettleby may also have been connected to settlement at Melton Mowbray, which is thought perhaps to have been an Anglo-Saxon Minster town.

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Bronze Age ard, cereal grains and fields

A Bronze Age ard, thought to be the oldest known in Britain, has been found in a prehistoric channel of the River Thames at Eton in Berkshire. The ard - an early form of plough - was found with a small deposit of charred cereal grains close to a system of contemporary Bronze Age fields.

The arrow-shaped maple-wood ard has been radiocarbon dated to 900-760BC in the Late Bronze Age. Earlier Bronze Age ards are known from Poland and Denmark, but the next earliest dated British examples were made in the Iron Age. An ard found at Pict's Knowe near Dumfries in 1994 was originally thought to be Neolithic (see BAN, November 1994) but later radiocarbon dating suggested it was Iron Age. Ard marks, on the other hand, have been found preserved in ancient landsurfaces in Britain from as early as the Late Neolithic.

The Eton ard, although broken, has very little wear on its tip, and is thought to have been deposited in the river `fairly new' as an offering. There appears to have been a tradition of ritual deposition in this stretch of the river, according to the excavation director, Tim Allen of the Oxford Archaeological Unit, and several complete Bronze Age pots and a number of human and animal bones have also been found. The deposits lie close to the remains of timber posts which could have been a jetty or platform from which the objects were thrown.

Few plant remains have been found in the river and it was `very interesting', Mr Allen said, that the cereal grains were found next to the ard, as though they too were a ritual offering thrown into the river along with the ard.

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In brief

Finds reporting

THE GOVERNMENT awarded grants last month to fund pilot schemes in five areas of England for the voluntary recording of archaeological finds (see BA, March 1996). The two-year schemes will start in September, and be run by Kent County Council, Norfolk Museums Service, National Museums and Galleries on Merseyside, the Yorkshire Museum and York Archaeological Trust, and North Lincolnshire District Museum. The grants, totalling £55,000, will support the bulk of the cost of four full-time posts and one parttime post to carry out the work of recording the finds.

The British Archaeological Bibliography, the archaeological abstracts service, changed its name last month to The British & Irish Archaeological Bibliography, following a grant from the Irish Heritage Council. It is still available from the CBA, 66 Bootham, York YO30 7BZ.

Hominid bones

HUMAN remains, said to be 800,000 years old, have been found in a cave at Atapuerca, northern Spain, which (it is claimed) show that Boxgrove Man was not a direct ancestor of modern humans after all. The bones, dated by changes in the magnetic field within the limestone layer in which they were found, are claimed to represent an entirely new species of hominid, and to bear a closer resemblance to modern humans than does the younger Boxgrove Man (Homo heidelbergensis).

The Spanish archaeologists who published their find in Nature argue that both modern humans and Boxgrove Man were descendants of the new species, named Homo antecessor, and that Boxgrove Man was an ancestor only of Neanderthals. The claims, however, are based on only the fragmentary evidence of facial bones, and have been disputed by a number of palaeoanthropologists in Europe and America.

The remains of a Bronze Age farming settlement have come to light at Deeping St James in Lincolnshire, where buildings and field boundaries have been found preserved under alluvial clay, with a large area of apparently intentionally enriched topsoil. The site has also produced two sets of shallow parallel depressions which could be the oldest cart-tracks in Britain.

NEWS is compiled by Simon Denison

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© Council for British Archaeology, 1997