Thursday 4 September 2014

British history revamped by London road works during the 1970s

Now a season of rock festivals and other general summer debauchery has abated, it's time to add a little to my blog ...

A couple of "Roman" lamps from "c.100 A.D." being sold on eBay caught my eye: (ending 4 September) (ending 6 September)

Both are described as "British found in London during 1970s road works". Since both lamps are actually types made in northern Syria during the 5th - 6th centuries AD, the finds could add a whole new exciting dimension to British history. Are they evidence of an early attempt to found a Syrian monastery in darkest Maida Vale?

Sadly, such musings are doomed by the harsh reality that lamps of this type are not found in Britain until brought back from the Levant as souvenirs in modern times, typically by either tourists or dealers rather than Byzantine monks. It is of course possible that workmen involved in the "1970s road works" inadvertently blasted through the basement stockroom of a London antiquities dealer in that era of black-outs and power cuts - oops! - but the reputation of the eBay seller suggests another reason for the sensational claim.

The seller is the infamous "Saxby's Coins". Even he seems to balk at trying to pass off ancient Greek, Egyptian and Chinese items as having come from an English meadow but he has no hesitation in describing almost everything else he sells as "British found". Despite the fact that much of his stock appears to derive from metal detecting on the European mainland, such as this "c.1450 A.D British Found Medieval Period Hammered Type European Silver Coin" (actually minted at Elbing in Poland and clearly dated 1632), the seller is apparently convinced that pretending it has all been discovered in the UK will enhance the price.

The stories weaved to launder 'high-end' antiquities are old news but these lamps demonstrate just how far some dealers are prepared to go in fabricating the provenance of even minor items. Not content with a mere "British found", it seems this seller has happily invented a place (London), a time (1970s) and an event (road works) to increase plausibility.

Just how much faith can we place on mere hearsay, whether it is a dealer's undocumented claim of provenance when selling an item or a person's undocumented claim of a findspot and circumstances when getting an item recorded in the PAS database?

There is much to be said in favour of Elizabeth Marlowe's contention (Shaky Ground: Context, Connoisseurship and the History of Roman Art. Bloomsbury Academic, 2013) that only 'grounded' (archaeologically documented) antiquities form a truly reliable basis for scholarship; those which are 'ungrounded' (lacking archaeological confirmation) can be risky and, if the stories attached to them are simply taken at face-value, may be thoroughly misleading.

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