Friday, 25 January 2013

Graffiti was ancient Facebook?

Nobody is going to deny that there was serious networking going on in Roman society. In fact, the whole society was based on patron – client relationships. The Romans were also master propagandists with whole cities standing as monuments for their might and power. They also used written word to propagate and advertise together with images.

Finnish colleagues at Helsinki have been involved in a series of archaeological projects in Pompeii. First they excavated a block there and recently Dr Eeva-Maria Viitanen has been mapping texts with GIS across this ancient town. She was recently presenting her results at the Archaeological Institute of America conference in and hit the international media jackpot for the project. Her results made it first to the LiveScience and they were publicised by the Daily Mail, too, which I must confess was my source of information once again. Unlike many other female archaeologists, I do openly admit my love of gossip, as anybody who has met me in Rome knows. I usually tend to relax with a copy of Diva e Donna or Chi. Nevertheless, the graffiti from Pompeii also made it to the Scientific American.

The external walls of houses in Pompeii have revealed hundreds of political slogans and the houses of the wealthiest voters offered the most lucrative advertising space for candidates. Eeva-Maria and her colleagues have found out that some 40 percent of the ads were on prestigious houses, which is worth noting, since only a third of the houses were rich homes whereas bars, shops and more modest houses and flats were more common. Clearly, candidates were looking for space on the homes of the wealthy. This has led the researchers to conclude that the ads reveal early social networking. Candidates probably needed permission from the homeowner to paint their ads, suggesting the graffiti is something of an endorsement. What caught the journalists' eye was the way Eeva-Maria compared these political messages to the Facebook wall messages we write today. This may not be totally accurate, but social networking in an urban landscape any way.

The graffiti in Pompeii was much more localised, meant for local 'consumption' and not to reach wider audience. Furthermore, it may be that Twitter may have been a better analogy. Even if the 'posting' in the past required the owners permission, the delivery was open and not restricted to the 'friends'. Nevertheless, the network could not cover the whole known Roman world as is the case with modern social networking. At least not in this case.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Richard III probably was buried in Leicester

Last week’s Society for Historical Archaeology conference at Leicester was probably the reason why the last summer’s excavations were in the news again. At least Dan Snow visited Leicester and discussed with the archaeologists involved. Although we have to wait for the definite news until early February, it seems likely that the skeleton found belonged to the king. This was at least strongly suggested by Richard Buckley when Dan Snow interviewed him in The One Show. This type of publicity is like manna from heaven to the universities and the appearance was duly published on the University web site. The skeleton had exactly the type of trauma Richard III is supposed to have had.

The One Show visits the Richard III dig

What really caught my eye again was how beautifully the traditional background work had been done. Before the ground penetrating radar investigation the old maps had been digitized and georeferenced and the position of the Greyfriers was placed on top of the current city map with all modern streets and buildings beneath. In that way the researchers could confirm that the cloister where Richard III was likely to lie was under the car park instead of being bulldozed when the surrounding buildings were erected.

Sadly, the public family-oriented day related loosely to the conference, themed The Past Beneath Your Feet: Archaeology and History in Leicestershire, cannot give a definitive answer, yet. Nevertheless, the event was worth visiting (see my 'review').

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Heritage crime unit?

Britain is not unique in allowing trade in antiquities, even when they are recently found portable antiquities. In many European countries, such as Finland and Italy, the heritage and antiquities belong to the state and you cannot legally sell part of this common property that are archaeological finds. Exporting any ancient items is strictly regulated and exceptional, and it is normally restricted to museum objects loaned to other museums. Britain has signed, but not ratified the UNESCO Convention to Tackle Illicit Trade in Art and Antiquities, and the antiquities trade is actually quite prestigious, if marginal part of the economy.

The rhino head in the Norwich Castle

Britain has ratified a series of international wildlife treaties, and there has been a dedicated wildlife crime unit. You may have seen occasional news about prosecuted or convicted egg collectors. However, now this unit may be closed. Just when the all-party House of Commons Environment Audit Committee had praised its work related to the rhino-horn thefts and international illegal reptile trade, among other things. Luckily, the final decision has not been made and there is some hope that the 10-person unit that is actually relatively speaking cheap to run with its £136,000 annual budget from the Home Office and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). The sum just has not been signed for the coming tax year, so theoretically, the unit may shut when the current money runs out on March 31.

As for the antiquities, continuous work has been done in the Parliament, by the All Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group (see their ‘agenda’). Lord Renfrew, the former Disney professor at Cambridge has been prominent in this Committee and he used to oversee the Illegal Antiquities Research Centre that sadly was closed in 2007 as part of the reorganisation of Archaeology at Cambridge after the arrival of the current professor. One of the aspects of the Centre and the APPAG has historically been to get Britain to ratify the UNESCO convention. Britain is still among the 31 countries that have signed but not ratified the convention, together with the United States.

Recently, the former director of the Illegal Antiquities Research Centre was among the research group that got a large grant to study antiquities trade from the view point of criminology. They will gather and analyse the data on the movements and motives of traffickers. The team has already identified a key illegal trading route from Cambodia and Thailand through mainland Europe and on to the two main market destinations of London and New York. They will concentrate on studying and interviewing different parties at all levels along this route, including the middle men and police.

An eample of a heritage crime

Since the convention has not been ratified, the British authorities concentrate on local heritage crime, including preventing unlawful excavations, and metal thefts from church roofs. English Heritage works together with the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in order to tackle the problem; all parties have signed a memorandum on the matter. A number of local authorities, among them the Northamptonshire County Council, a party in the recent Castle Farm case, have also signed the document. This Alliance to Reduce Crime Against Heritage (ARCH) is working using a partnership model, but with the cuts biting any Heritage Police is a distant dream. Nevertheless, as the attempted rhino-horn theft from the Norwich Castle shows wildlife and antiquities and their illegal trade cross each other’s paths, and enabling rightful parties to enjoy legal uses of heritage and their profits instead of letting criminals to make money is worth a dedicated police unit, no matter how small.

Update in 2015: the heritage crime unit is reality and the plans were set up in late 2013. Now you can follow the Historic England Heritage Crime tweets!

Friday, 4 January 2013

ASBOs for illicit coin hunters

This week has brought about a second conviction at a short interval for the crimes against archaeology (for earlier, see Priddy Circles). This time around it was for illegal excavations at a scheduled settlement at Chester Farm, owned by the English Heritage. The culprits from Northamptonshire were metal detectorists who had excavated trenches in order to reveal Roman coins. Interestingly, once again this news was delivered by the Mail Online, which probably not only shows that somebody in their office and in the Daily Mail is seriously interested in archaeology but also reveals my love for gossip for entertainment (as a specialist online newspaper, Mail Online is actually updated more frequently than for example the Guardian or the Daily Telegraph, which is the best for the digital technology news).

The illegal trenches

This time around a quick googling to the world of web showed that this news has been picked up quickly in the blogoshere by the Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues blog, and English Heritage has it prominently in its news as a heritage crime. English emphasizes the fact that the culprits got prison sentences and Anti Social Behaviour Orders that deny them using metal detectoring equipment. Peter Cox and Darren West were sentenced already on December 19 after pleading guilty to stealing artefacts and damaging a scheduled site. They were caught after been seen by two English Heritage employees digging at Chester Farm in July. Their houses were raided and a large amount of Iron Age, Roman and Medieval coins, other metal artifacts, pottery and a series of maps and other material on this scheduled monument were found. They got one year imprisonment, suspended for two years, 150 hours of community service, a curfew, their metal detecting equipment was confiscated and they were sentenced to pay a compensation for damage caused to the scheduled monument.

Police taking the cast (photo from Mail Online)

The extent of the police operation was laudable, since the conviction rested on matching the plaster casts of the tools used at the site to their own digging equipment. This was made easier by the size of their trench (see above), which uncovered a pavement, and seemed to be wider than was strictly needed to reveal the metal objects. This suggests some genuine twisted interest in archaeology and points to the fact that managing Portable Antiquities is difficult when the truly interested and the ones stepping outside the law are the same persons.

The pair sentenced had to pay the legal costs, £750. Coincidently, their compensation was of the same size, £750, as their legal costs. Considering that the metal coins do have monetary value in Britain where the trade in antiquities – found outside scheduled monuments with the permission of the landowner – is legal, one wonders, if £750 is a sufficient deterrent. The British Museum has not yet officially valued their illegal loot, but one assumes its value should have had an effect on the size of the compensation demanded, keeping in mind that they were caught mainly because they dug during the daylight and were easy to spot on the English Heritage land. After all, they destroyed archaeological contexts apart from stealing artefacts, which should have resulted in a compensation multiplying the monetary value of their activities, don’t you think?