Monday 17 August 2020

Reply to Twitter feedback

Ben Westwood, Finds Liaison Officer for Durham, Darlington & Teesside, has responded on Twitter to my earlier post about the silver seal from Shropshire. I'm grateful for his willingness to discuss the issue and his points deserve a thoughtful answer but rather than be constrained by the 280-character-per-tweet limit on Twitter I'll answer them here.
"I/we have no problem with debate or discussion, & don't always get things right. i'm very far from 'outraged' as your alternative interpretation, in fact i think it's very interesting." 
Sorry if I misjudged your level of reaction but a series of no less than fourteen tweets which included the boast "Like it or not, we are experts in portable antiquities & artefacts" did give the impression that you were ever so slightly miffed.

It's not an "alternative interpretation"; it's the only sensible interpretation - the interpretation your colleague should have reached.
"My problem, as i made clear was with the tone & offensive language used. describing a colleagues work as vacuous because you disagree with the way he has chosen to engage with current debate is a poor choice of words, especially given the context."
vacuous: showing a lack of thought

It was precisely "the way he has chosen to engage with current debate" that was vacuous. No matter how virtuous the cause, there is little excuse for a professional FLO to weave some wild fantasy around an artefact merely to fit topicality.

It doesn't require a great deal of 'thought' to show a tiny bit of sense and do at least a minimum of basic homework. It's a silver seal. The typical motif on a silver seal is heraldry - so open a book about heraldry. It's not rocket science. What on earth did he think it was? Some sort of weird trophy?
"That was only part of my critique though, & it's telling you've chosen not comment the main issue here. You part-quote me in relation to these two tweets, but seem to miss that i was drawing attention to @PortantIssues [Paul Barford]"
Huh? Please try to stay focused. Paul and I are not joined at the hip. Paul has his blog, I have my blog. I am discussing the post on my blog. Whatever your "main issue" may be, it has no connection to my post on my blog.
"more worryingly, in your defence of @PortantIssues blog [...] you make no reference to the very offensive language used ['negroid'] ..."
See my comment above. That word makes me uneasy and I personally avoid any terminology that may be insensitive but the term is still used by other people. Indeed, before going ballistic on Twitter, you might want to have a word with your own colleagues at the British Museum (e.g. see Curator's Comments: here, here, here).
"However, you seem sadly to have missed the point of my thread. We encourage, welcome, debate & discussion, but hyperbole and polemicism are not helpful, neither is accusing a heritage colleague of 'pseudo-archaeology', which I really think is unwarranted, & below you."
Please point to a genuine example of 'hyperbole' in my post. 'Polemicism'? I'm not sure you quite understand the difference between polemicism and justifiably strong criticism. Perhaps I expect a higher standard from a professional FLO associated with the nation's most prestigious museum than to cobble together a piece of unresearched rubbish and publish it on an academic website that the public would expect to be reliable. My post about it may have revealed a little of my exasperation but it was in fact very restrained (this current post may be somewhat less so!).

My comment about pseudo-archaeology was intended as a plea. Archaeology starts with evidence and then draws tentative conclusions; pseudo-archaeology starts with a conclusion and then selectively misinterprets evidence to suit it. The Reavill article came dangerously close to the latter.

There's no need for "debate". The article is demonstrably crap. It's also very unfair to those of his colleagues who are more knowledgeable. If your friend wants to write about the slave trade, I suggest he does his colleagues (and the public) a favour, engages in some basic homework, and finds an artefact that actually has something to do with it.

Thursday 13 August 2020

PAS: Truth be damned, let's just be topical!

On Friday (7 August) Peter Reavill, a Finds Liaison Officer (FLO) for the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), posted a long article which misinterpreted a silver seal found in Shropshire in 2013 (HESH-0A2407). Apparently in a misguided attempt to be topical, the author gave his article the subtitle "How a single artefact can shed light on the transatlantic slave trade" and tagged it as 'Atlantic Slave Trade, Black Lives Matter, Enslaved Person'. Excited by that theme, the author then went on to make wild assumptions in the text - "... design depicting a Black man – most probably an enslaved person", "the depiction of an enslaved person on this seal" - while desperately trying to link the seal to "the enslavement of African people".

When Mr Reavill publicised his article on Twitter, Paul Barford noted the trite narrativisation on his blog and I added a comment underneath to point out the real interpretation of the seal.

I thought no more of it but I now see Ben Westwood, another FLO, is apparently outraged that anyone dared to challenge the nonsense in the PAS article. Let's have a look at his points:
"I’ve thought long & hard over whether to reply to this, but seeing comments describing Peter’s article  as ‘vacuously jumping on the BLM bandwagon['] ..., I think it’s important to respond. Firstly there’s nothing vacuous about what @findsorguk are trying to do in terms of the objects we record ..."
What is 'vacuous' is the warping of what should be a detached and impartial assessment of an artefact into an unlikely fantasy merely to fit topical agenda. Perhaps my standard for drawing a line between fact and wild flights of uninformed imagination is somewhat stricter than that of the PAS.
"[David Knell] argues that rather than Slave Trade, the device is a heraldic 'Moor's head', & of course such debate is welcome."
Any chance of an intelligent "debate" requires the immediate ditching of that "Slave Trade" narrative; it's a false accretion founded on an ignorance of armorial art. Instead of forcefully foisting topicality onto the artefact, we'll start from scratch.

Post-medieval seals could feature a wide range of motifs - ordinary copper-alloy examples tend to be generic (initials, sailing ships, classical busts, anchors, hatching, and so on) - but by far the most typical device on a personal silver seal of this quality was either a monogram or a 'family crest' (either literally the device displayed on a helm above the heraldic achievement, the main device ('charge') displayed on the shield, or the entire achievement). Regardless of whether the 'crest' was properly granted or merely assumed, it was nevertheless heraldic.

It shouldn't need me to point that out. There are more than two dozen examples on the PAS website, including one identified by Mr Westwood (DUR-A53171). Here's just one example (NLM-0D2C6D) that is fairly close to, though not quite as fine as, the one under discussion:

A variety of human heads occur as devices in heraldry: the 'wild man', the 'Saxon', the 'Englishman', the 'Saracen', the 'old man', the 'woman', the 'child', and so on. As I explained in my comment underneath Paul's blog post, the example on the seal is known as a 'Maure' ('Moor's head'). Although the device is by no means as common as a lion rampant, it is not exactly rare either (appearing on the arms of Corsica, Sardinia and Coburg among many others) and it's rather surprising that it threw the PAS team into a shocked wobbly. The use of human heads of any type is not to my taste - they run the risk of being insensitive - but that on the seal is very familiar to anyone with a passing interest in heraldry and, despite Mr Reavill's strenuous effort to make it topical, the device is most unlikely to have even the remotest connection with the "transatlantic slave trade".

As the name implies, the heraldic device of a 'Moor's head' was loosely based on Christian perceptions of the mainly Muslim population of northern Africa (the inhabitants of Sub-Saharan Africa, such as those used as heraldic supporters in the arms of the Royal African Company, were typically depicted wearing headdresses, not as bare-headed 'Moors') and is medieval in origin. Those examples proudly displayed by Corsica and Sardinia, for instance, date back to the 14th and 13th centuries respectively and probably allude to the defeat of Moorish rule during the Middle Ages; that displayed by Coburg honours the town's patron saint (Saint Maurice of Egypt) and was granted in 1493.

Saint Maurice
The 'Moor's head' featured in the arms of Freising wears a crown, since it represents one of the Magi, a saint or simply a king. Closer to home, legend has it that the device of the Moir family stemmed from fighting the Moors in Spain; more likely it is simply a pun on their surname - much like that granted to the Blackmore family and confirmed in 1620.

During the 18th century the main branch of the latter family (now using the variant spelling Blakemore but still bearing the same arms) was based at Darlaston [1]. Since Darlaston is less than twenty miles from Sheriffhales, it seems quite likely that the seal belonged to that family and was lost during a local visit. At any rate, still not much evidence of a connection to an "enslaved person", let alone to the "transatlantic slave trade".
"Either way, stereotypical African depictions, with the usual artistic tropes, are very problematic & must be acknowledged."
Absolutely agreed, it's long past time that stereotypical caricatures were consigned to oblivion. If the medieval legacy of heraldry is to be preserved, a modern heraldic depiction of any human being should be utterly free from any racist exaggerations or overtones. However, agreeing that I loathe stereotypical caricatures as much as Mr Westwood has nothing to do with a PAS article that favours sensationalist speculation over sound scholarly objectivity.
"The seal was found close to 2 wealthy C18th estates with Slave Trade connections"
That may well be - a disconcerting number of rich 18th-century families had invested in schemes such as the Royal African Company or benefitted in some way from the sugar, cotton or tobacco industries - but neither the company nor the Leveson-Gower family used that device as their emblem. And the Blakemore family made their money through the iron industry.

Or perhaps it is being seriously proposed that rather than following family tradition, a member of the English landed gentry crassly commissioned the seal as a one-off to gloat over the source of their wealth and advertise that they were nouveau riche? Really?

Sadly, I gather the topic is closed and my input counts for nothing:
"This record is published/green flagged, meaning that it has been written by the FLO, examined by the Treasure Registrar, & at least 1 (poss more) specialist British Museum curators. In addition, the article written by Peter has been checked/examined by specialists/experts in advance of publication. Like it or not, we are experts in portable antiquities & artefacts, & see more Treasure than anybody, thus well placed identify archaeological objects."
Well, that's that then. The PAS and the BM have spoken. But as much as I'd love to doff my cap in subservient awe, forgive me if I don't have undiluted faith in a PAS that described a common Syrian artefact as "Romano-British" and a BM that describes a depiction of Dionysus (1913,1021.2) as "a tragic mask of a woman" [2]. We all make mistakes (including in my own books and articles); the trick is to accept a blow to our ego sometimes and correct them.

In the meantime, I dare say the PAS team feel better for pointlessly letting us know they sympathise with the aims of BLM as if everyone somehow thought they were an isolated pack of Neanderthals. It's just a pity that they ignored the aim of their employment, threw any semblance of detached objectivity out the window and thoughtlessly distorted the reality of an artefact to do so. The phrase "context of diversity" normally refers to accepting different kinds of people, not inventing different versions of the truth.

Despite the misleading subtitle of the Reavill article, the artefact has not shed an iota of light on the transatlantic slave trade (hardly surprising since the artefact has nothing to do with it); the article merely illustrates the validity of Paul Barford's warning about narrativisation. It is a reckless reversal of archaeological practice: instead of dispassionately allowing an artefact to speak for itself and learning from it, a largely irrelevant sermon based on misinformed guesswork and irrational assumption has been clumsily piggybacked onto it.

There is already more than enough pseudo-archaeology in the world, please don't add to it.


By the way, hopefully Peter Reavill already knows the "Royal portraiture similar to that seen on coinage" is Queen Anne but seems unsure of the others. The "armoured male ‘adventurer’ in cuirassed armour [tautology epidemic?]" is Hannibal, the "classical revival imagery" is Hermes or a Greek hero, and the "18th century male gentleman [is there such a thing as a female one?] in a frock coat" is George III.

While Mr Reavill's failure to recognise common 18th-century iconography is understandable (his strength appears to be the Bronze Age), he was clearly far out of his depth in trying to guess that on an 18th-century seal. It is therefore alarming that despite that inexperience and hyped up almost exclusively on a huge diet of irrelevant slave trade literature rather than proper research (see his 'References') he decided to publish an article about it anyway. And it is even more alarming that his deeply flawed article was apparently "checked/examined by specialists/experts in advance of publication".

Is this the sloppy standard of academic rigour (or indeed copy editing) we should expect from a team of professional "experts in portable antiquities & artefacts"?



By their very nature, seals have a traditional character and their designs often tend to be deliberately conservative. Thus, they can be difficult to date precisely. I noticed that many PAS entries refer to previous entries of similar items as a means of determining the date but there is a danger of simply perpetuating an error if the previous entry was itself based on unsound attribution. The dates given in a few entries strike me as somewhat earlier than is likely.

I'm not entirely convinced that the PAS date of "late 17th or very early 18th century (pre-1713)", though conveniently classifying the seal as Treasure when found in 2013, is correct for the item in question. The octagonal shape with beaded border is a common Neoclassical theme which, together with the artistic style of the head, might suggest a later date, perhaps around 1750-1800.

It would be useful to test the standard of the silver. The Britannia standard (95.8%) was in use between 1697 and 1720, after which the Sterling standard (92.5%) was revived. It is not a completely reliable method of dating since there are many exceptions (small items did not always adhere to the law and the Britannia standard has continued alongside Sterling in some cases up to the present day) but it might provide a reasonable clue.

The letter B stamped on the seal is likely to be one of the maker's initials, not a date letter, but tracking him down would be difficult.


[1] Burke, Sir Bernard, Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Landed Gentry, London 1852, pp.106-7.
[2] see Green, J.R., 'Roman bronze lamps with masks', HEROM 2012, p.32.



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