The name of Welbeck Hill (Lincolnshire) is reasonably familiar to me as I’m someone who has researched early Anglo-Saxon cemeteries (5th-7th-century AD). It’s now an early Anglo-Saxon collection up for sale: skeletons and artefacts all!

History teacher Gordon Taylor excavated 72 graves (including 5 cremation burials) over 17 years in the parish of Irby-on-Humber, Lincolnshire from 1962. Taylor was not a trained archaeologist and clearly was unable to publish his finds in a coherent and professional manner. Upon Taylor’s death, the collection has been inherited by his family. Two years subsequently, it is being sold off by auction, rather than donated to a museum, by Taylor’s widow and four children.

Details of the sale, by Hansons, are on their website. The justification for the sale is that it was discovered before the law of treasure trove (presumably they mean the current Treasure Act). To promote the sale of this regionally important early Anglo-Saxon collection, Hansons Auctioneers, headed up by a television antique celebrity, have sold the story to the Daily Mail.

The Hansons website and the Daily Mail article present the site with ludicrous hyperbole: “site has since been heralded as one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the 20th century.” This is clearly terminology utilised by the auctioneers to boost interest in the sale, as is the likely sale price of £80,000. Indeed James Brenchley, a Hanson’s ‘antiquities expert’ is quoted, describing the sale as a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ opportunity. Opportunity for what? Not to simply ‘own’ but to ‘work with’, the objects of a ‘carefully and professionally excavated site’. Moreover, they describe the collection as ‘amazing’ and which ‘..help us to understand Anglo-Saxon life with burials taking place over a 200-year period.’ How it does, and might, outside a museum, is difficult to comprehend. The claim is made that the ‘…material is extremely well documented with diary entries and photographs of the excavation.” Together, these statements aim is to foster interest from the archaeological community and museums themselves, and afford a sense of legitimacy to what is otherwise a poorly documented and old imprecise excavation of an early Anglo-Saxon cemetery.

The importance of the finds is framed unsurprisingly in terms of ethnic nationalism in the Daily Mail: ‘These objects were made and used by some of the first Englishmen’. The wife and son of Taylor are photographed holding choice finds, one of which may well have been a cinerary urn. Presumably the cremated human remains within have never been analysed or have long been disposed of?

As well as the gross promotion of the Daily Mail, Hansons Auctioneers have thus far supported the sale with a series of poorly articulated attempts at humour in tweets that also contain some inaccuracies.

The thing that has particularly attracted the most archaeological rage online, however, has been that ‘skeletons, and a skull…’ are among the sale items. One of Hanson’s tweets is of a human skull, with the attribution of ‘Charlie’ and the claim that ‘he’ was an ‘Anglo-Saxon man’.

Response

Paul Barford’s blog unsurprisingly regards it as a ‘disgrace’ that money is being made from the sale of artefacts and human remains. He poses a succinct series of questions unanswered by this scenario as it has accrued over six decades to this depressing situation:

  1. The ethics of the excavation itself and the lack of any publication;
  2. the labelling of the skull as ‘Charlie’ and this is presumably ‘misgendering’ if associated with a square-headed brooch (which tend to be interred with adult female gendered mortuary assemblages).
  3. who will profit and how much will the landowner get?
  4. does the widow have evidence that the collection is hers to sell?
  5. where’s the ethical code governing the treatment of human remains by the British antiquities trade?

While not everyone takes the hard-line of Barford regarding these situations, a wide range of archaeologists, bioarchaeologists and medievalists who are active on social media have picked up the story and rapidly and critically responded to Hansons and each other, debating the sorry situation.

With PR in his best interests, Charles Hanson has attempted to navigate the tirade of critical questions and justifiable indignation from the professional community at the sale, but it is evident that this supposedly experienced dealer had no real answer to the severity of the response and the critical and ethical issues raised by this scenario. If it was a ploy by Hanson to promote the sale (as argued by Barford), it is unclear yet whether it has paid off or backfired. I suspect the latter.

I’ve attempted to collect together the key responses in a Twitter Moment here. Unfortunately, this format isn’t easily ordered chronologically. However, I hope it serves as a crude compendium of initial responses by archaeologists and others. Inevitably responses are restricted in depth and clarity by the inevitable 280-character character limit of Twitter, but they are still full of heartfelt rage and cogent argumentation in equal measure. Let me attempt to summarise some of the key facets of archaeologists’ replies to the Welbeck Hill sale:

  • observing the inability for the auctioneer to recognise details of artefacts accurately and their likely burial context;
    • that a square-headed brooch is a female-gendered artefact and therefore not likely to have been associated with a male skull reveals the problematic nature of the excavation/collection/sale (Westwood);
    • correcting a Hansons tweet which purports to show ‘scissors’ when it should be girdle hangers (Brownlee; Cassidy; Halinski) as a further indication of a lack of recording/research ahead of sale (Cassidy; Willmott);
  • criticising the misleading details in the website about treasure law (Westwood);
  • objecting to the light-hearted tweeting about the dead (Westwood);
  • pointing out the use of the nickname ‘Charlie’ for the skull might be a ‘misgendering’ (give the supposed grave-goods are female [although it is worthy of note that ‘Charlie’ needn’t presume a male]) and/or reveals the ill-informed/unethical nature of the auctioneers to what they are handling (Westwood; Libby);
  • noting the lack of response to queries regarding whether the auction house possesses a code of ethics deployed in sales, and observing how the auctioneers possess no compunction about selling human remains (Westwood);
  • querying the legality of selling human remains (Petts) with many confirming that it is indeed (sadly) fully legal (Atkin; Harvey).
  • beyond the legal issue, stating that the principle of human remains being sold is ‘immoral’, ‘unethical’ and lacking respect (Curtis-Summers; Lewis-Simpson), shows ‘no respect’ and is ‘utterly gross’ (Edge), ‘disgraceful’ (Anderson-Whymark), ‘a disgrace’ (FLO Northeast; Griffiths), ‘ethically repugnant’ (Westwood), ‘#repugnant’ (Willmott) and simply should not take place (Kendall). Meanwhile, Wilmott articulates more clearly that these remains once had a family and mourners and another name (other than ‘Charlie’) and demand respect from us that cannot be afforded by sale;
  • making the point that the only way to move forward is for the human remains (and presumably the collection) to be deposited in a museum (Curtis-Summers; Harding; Rees), and one respondent explicitly states that the mortuary nature of the entire collection means it should be in a museum (Westwood). Meanwhile, one identifies that negotiations to have the material archived by a local museum are ongoing (Daubney);
  • arguing that this scenario reflects very poorly on the reputation of Charles Hanson (King);
  • regarding the sale as a good example of why the Treasure Act needs updating (Barford; Twinn);
  • revealing that Lincoln Museum had been seeking a valuation of the collection when the owners withdrew (Lee). This is linked to the posed concern over whether museums will have the funds for purchase (Bonney; Carter).
  • arguing that the provocative tweets and media attention are a ploy to foster outrage to get a crowd-sourced fund set up so the artefacts can go to a museum (Barford),
    • seeing the potential recording of the finds by the PAS as facilitating the sale without conscience;
  • discussing the broader situation and literature on the subject of the sale of human remains, including articles by Carla Valentine and Shawn Graham (also Atkin; Ruth C.; Killgrove; me), and how this is a dangerous and repugnant precedent (Willmott);
  • identifying a forthcoming paper on the broader subject of how artefacts from early Anglo-Saxon mortuary contexts are sold and collected (Daubney).

Reflections

I’m not sure I’ve got the stomach for denouncing octogenarian widows and their families, or indeed specific auction houses who have wandered out of their depth in attempting a sale through their usual methods, and then attempting damage limitation as the fury erupts. After all, there are always nuances to individual cases that mitigate some of the stark outrage social media often demands. No one would deny that this is an old collection (‘legacy collection’ would be the term if already accessioned). Furthermore, whatever we might hope for or imagine in an ideal world, the dig happened decades ago, the artefacts were accrued, and its excavator died: this sale is legal. It also remains unclear if a museum has the resources to take this in terms of purchase or donation were it offered. Moreover, the case involves the specific decisions of the deceased amateur archaeologist’s family who have inherited a collection; their motives and circumstances are not my business to comment on in a public forum. What is also clear is that the widow (quoted on the Hansons website and Daily Mail article) wishes the collection – presumably meaning the diaries, books, photographs, artefacts and human remains referenced – to be retained intact. It is described with love and affection to be his life’s work. Hence, I pitch no criticism her way. Moreover, I do welcome a solution to this situation that doesn’t involve the sale of human remains to a private collector or the separation of the artefacts from the skeletal components of the collection.

Instead, I feel it’s more constructive to talk more generally about what this case reveals, rather than the specifics of the Welbeck Hill collection. The complexities and nuances of this issue deserve more than outrage and finger-pointing on social media. This is one of many instances where human remains are bought and sold over the Internet. In any case, this is not over yet, and we need to keep up the momentum and interest to see what transpires with the sale and whether a museum can accept the collection as a donation instead. From their tweets, it seems that Hansons are trying to ‘broker’ with a museum, whether or not the advert of sale and the Daily Mail story really are the ploy that Barford suspects.

More broadly, this case clearly reveals a duo (at least) of horrors that are hard to fully accept about the treatment of artefacts and human remains in the UK today. First, the horror that human remains can be legally sold in the UK is something I’m aware of, but still can’t fully contemplate and many others must find this legal situation intolerable too. Second, the horrific nature of the British antiquities trade and their high-profile use of the media to promote  sales of both human remains and antiquities, including their lack of apparent ethical guidelines.

Broader still, I think it does raise the issue that, while human remains are the most emotive and particularly contentious sale items that prompted the ire of archaeologists, the integrity of collections of mortuary-derived artefacts are equally deserving of our attention. Indeed, I would suggest that the sale of mortuary-derived artefacts without human remains should be considered no less controversial and unethical.

I’m looking forward to a forthcoming paper by Adam Daubney reflecting on the ethics of the sale of artefacts unquestionably from mortuary contexts, since splitting bones from artefacts doesn’t make the latter any more ethical as sale items!

In a final, more positive note, might it be argued that, while we all have different agendas, expertise and viewpoints, this seems a great example of an antiquities story that unites and mobilises those on social media to lobby and contest auction houses’ activities. Is this good, positive, collective archaeological social media lobbying in action against common threats in the trade in antiquities?

My only hesitation to this last assertion is the uncertainty Barford introduces into my mind; was our outrage all part of the sales’ promotion in the first place? If so, then I fear I’m being played as well as the rest of us, and this blog is serving only to enhance the controversy and to up the sale-price to a private collector, or else to spiral upwards the funds required by a public museum to acquire the Welbeck Hill material…

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