Having successfully facilitated students organising and delivering four University of Chester Archaeology Student conferences, I recently asked the outgoing final-year students (i.e. those that organised and presented at the 4th conference) what they think should be covered by the 5th University of Chester Archaeology Student Conference to take place on Friday 31st January 2020 at the Grosvenor Museum, Chester, and FREE TO ALL!
What topics should we cover? This is the result of my initial ideas and incorporating generous comments in response to a request on Facebook and Twitter. I have created a Twitter Moment to archive these valuable and constructive responses.
I had ideas of a conference and publication on digital public archaeology, art and public archaeology, one on ‘Roman public archaeology’, or another on public mortuary archaeology, but the outgoing final-year students who organised the 4th UoC Archaeology Student Conference told me a preference to do a conference on another theme, looking at the intersections between public archaeology and ‘treasure’. So they agreed that the most interesting theme for next year’s class to tackle would be the ‘Public Archaeology of Treasure’. Partly, this came out of discussions of ‘Cadburygate’ earlier this year, when Cadbury irresponsibly encouraged families to dig up treasure at culturally sensitive sites, monuments and landscapes across these islands.
This would cover debates about the legality and ethics of precious metal finds in England and Wales and comparative case studies from elsewhere. It would reflect on metal detecting and the trade in antiquities and the illicit trade in antiquities too. This would focus on the work of England and Wales’ Portable Antiquities Scheme to promote the reporting of discoveries by responsible metal-detector users and others, as well as to create a valuable research database. A further issue would be how treasure finds can foster engagement in the broader historic environment and lead to further discoveries and community activities in heritage. How treasure finds are followed-up with further fieldwork, researched, published and foster public engagement needs considerable further evaluation.
Broader issues of value and ownership also could be considered. The public archaeology of treasure would also consider the ‘values’ we put on ‘treasure’ and well-preserved and rare/unique finds that are ‘treasures’ but don’t fit the legal definition, such as finds of well-preserved materials from wetland contexts. We will question where ‘treasure’ lies: in the inherent qualities of things, or their contexts?
So this conference might involve students exploring less charted territory regarding the relationships between ‘treasure’ and archaeology. Broader than simply reflecting on the legalities and ethics of reporting and trading of precious metal items, students might critically investigate how we define ‘treasure’ in the human past and present beyond legal terminology and popular parlance and in cultural and religious terms.
In this regard, key questions include: how do we responsibly communicate (incl write and visualise) ‘treasure’ without perpetuating modern myths and fantasies and capitalist value systems which commodify the past? Likewise, how can we better curate, and display treasure in museums and heritage sites, which often perpetuate an association between present-day monetary value and significant in the past, and ‘sacralise’ objects as ‘priceless treasures’ to be pickled behind glass. How do these treatments of ‘secular relics’ relate to other present-day perceptions of the holy and the sacred?
More broadly, how do we educate using ‘treasure’, and move beyond ‘treasure’ when discussing archaeology in schools and lectures. How do we capture the public’s imagination with ‘treasure’ but also to explain the contexts and environments from whence precious metal items derived and the human stories behind their making, use, circulation, reuse and deposition?
This takes us to the field of media archaeology: how should archaeologists effectively and responsibly talk/write/visualise treasures when communicating to, and operating in, the media and social media? Again, how do we counter/critique the obsession with discoveries and monetary ‘value’ in our media interactions? How do we challenge the commodification of archaeological sites and finds? How do we effectively lobby in the digital age, as in the case of the Cadburygate debacle?
This leads us to the question: who does treasure belong to? The public archaeology of treasure might lead us into further fields of contested ownership as well as identities, including ideas of the ‘sacred treasures’ and the rights of descendant communities, including the legacy of colonialism and the repatriation of ‘cultural treasures’. Whither the Elgin Marbles and the Benin Bronzes?
Then there is the issue of conflicting values and significances afforded to treasure. This might prompt students to explore, for example, the complex challenges of negotiating and countering pseudoarchaeological narratives about treasure, including beliefs in the magical properties and outer space origins of precious metals and other archaeologically derived enigmatic art, artefacts and substances.
What of the reception, replication and reproduction, including deliberate faking, of treasure in contemporary society: is this also a valid focus of archaeological investigation investigation?
Finally, students might consider how have archaeologically derived treasures influenced and inspired popular fantasy and fiction literature, television, films and video games from Aladdin and The Lord of the Rings to Treasure Island and Black Sails.
This idea is provision and the focus and parameters of the 5th UoC Archaeology Student Conference might change. This might be all too broad! However, I write this blog-post now to: (a) whet your appetites; (b) claim the title which seems not to have been used before; (c) see what feedback I get from esteemed colleagues on this idea; (d) get the students themselves thinking about the conference and how they are going to organise it and what themes they might address at it and (e) I might be on the look-out for guest speakers and contributions from academics and heritage professionals via social media/blogs.
Some of you may have read my deliberately provocative opinion piece on Archaeodeath from October 2015: ‘The Sutton Hoo Treasure Must Be Destroyed’ about one aspect of the ‘Public Archaeology of Treasure’: namely how we sometimes perpetuate the use of the legal term way beyond its merit for public engagement, and how it might have a detrimental and distracting impact on public appreciate of archaeological finds and the societies they represent.
It would be interesting to see what the students think about these matters! Do email me or tweet to @howardmrw with ideas and questions!
Update: 14/07/19. The preliminary abstract for the conference is:
Archaeologists work with and debate treasure in legal, ethical and research terms. But what is ‘treasure’ and how is it understood in contemporary society? This conference will explore how public archaeologists foster education and engagement with treasure, but also critically evaluate treasure-related misconceptions, abuses, and both unethical and illegal practices.
Incorporating presentations of the research of University of Chester final-year Archaeology students with contributions by experts in the fields of heritage and archaeology, this public day conference will tackle key controversial dimensions of the public archaeology treasure. In particular, the conference asks whether ‘treasure’-focused practices and narratives should be simply challenged and countered. Instead, can public archaeologists create new archaeological strategies and stories that promote the ethical, responsible and culturally respectful discussion of rare and unique items from the human past? Moreover, can public archaeologists create new definitions of treasure that directly challenge criteria focusing on artisanal skill and monetary value?
The Public Archaeology of Treasure is the 5th University of Chester Archaeology Student Conference Taking place on Friday 31st January 2020 at the Grosvenor Museum, Chester. Registration will open from 09.00 for a 09.30 start and the conference will come to a close by 16.30. The event is open and free to all members of the public.