The privatisation of objects

Christopher Catling, Contributing Editor for CA, delves into the eccentricities of the heritage world.

If you admit to being an archaeologist in answer to the question ‘What do you do?’, you will often elicit the response: ‘My daughter/son is very keen on fossils/dinosaurs’. The polite reaction is to smile and nod, rather than pointing out that archaeologists study human culture, and that dinosaurs were long extinct by the time the human race began. But it appears that archaeologists and palaeontologists do have one thing in common: a deep-seated concern about the privatisationof objects that form part of our common heritage.

Palaeontologists, according to a recent report inThe Times, are unhappy about the recent sale of a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton to a private collector forUS$6.1 million. The auction house said it was the firsttime in Europe that an entire T. rex skeleton had been offered for sale – though to call it ‘entire’ stretches a point: it is known as the ‘Trinity’ skeleton because it consists of bones from three different T. rex finds, excavated between 2008 and 2013 from the Hell Creek and Lance Creek formations in Montana and Wyoming.

For a T. rex skeleton to be classed as ‘high quality’, at least half of the bones have to be genuine fossils; in this case, fossil bones comprise just over the magic 50 per cent, while the rest are made from plaster and epoxy resin, cast from other bones. For this reason, Professor Steve Brusatte of the University of Edinburgh has described Trinity as ‘a Frankenstein rex’. Even so, the sale is seen as part of a growing trend that harms science by putting fossil specimens out of researchers’ reach. ‘These fossils are rare and scientifically important’, Professor Brusatte said, ‘and I feel they properly belong in a museum where they can be kept safe, studied by scientists, and inspire kids and members of the public of all ages.’

It is estimated that only 59 T. rex specimens are housed in museums, while 74 are in private hands. This one is from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Image: Scott Robert Anselmo, CC BY-SA 3.0

Could museums cope?

Dr Thomas Carr of Carthage College in Wisconsin estimates that there are 74 T. rex specimens in private hands and 59 in museums, where they often form the star attraction, on a par with such glittering detectorist finds as the Staffordshire Hoard. But do museums in the UK even want any more finds – especially the more mundane artefacts that result from developer-funded excavations?

The recently published Options for Sustainable Archaeological Archives report, commissioned jointly by the Arts Council and Historic England, talks about a tipping point in the near future when the amount of new material coming out of the ground will exceed the space available for storing it. Commenting on the report, Barney Sloane, National Specialist Services Director at Historic England, told the BBC that ‘the clock is ticking – we have four or five years before we really do start seeing massive problems. It would be a shame if we couldn’t find a way of making sure that archaeological archives are protected for the future.’

Adding to the shortage of space is the lack of dedicated archaeological curators with the skills to interpret the material and make it accessible. According to the Society for Museum Archaeology, fewer than half of museums in England now have an archaeological curator.

One solution being canvassed is to create one big national repository for all the finds; another is to ‘put them back where they came from, under the ground’ – though this rather misses the point that the place they came from no longer exists, which is why they were excavated in the first place. Such finds can also make attractive public displays. Underground stations in a number of European cities have glass-walled installations that are a cross between archaeological display and artwork, made up of finds from the construction of the transit system. The London Mithraeum at Bloomberg’s European headquarters in the City of London (see CA 334) is another example.

MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology) turned its store into a popular visitor attraction in its own right (albeit one that is currently closed while the Museum of London relocates), and some museums – for example, the National Railway Museum in York, and Reading’s Museum of English Rural Life – have publicly accessible stores that are as fascinating as the main displays.

To those who would ask why bother to store this material anyway, it is worth enumerating the many recent breakthroughs in our understanding of the past that have come from revisiting old collections – whether to extract ancient DNA or tooth and bone isotopic material, or to study lipids in ceramics, or to provide material for the Bayesian statistical inferences that have led to the rewriting of precise histories for many archaeological monuments.

More recently, a new project to study the Black Death made use of remains from excavations at the Hospital of St John in Cambridge, called up from the salt mine in Cheshire where they were held in store. That project used newly developed analytical techniques to learn about the ways in which viruses evolve to the benefit of medical science, as well as finding the archaeological evidence for the first incidence of the Plague in medieval Britain.

Cash from a hole in the wall

The former London and Provincial Bank building at 20 The Town in Enfield was recently granted Grade II-listed status. Not only was it the location of the world’s first ATM, but it is also a good example of late 19th-century commercial architecture. Image: Spudgun67, CC BY-SA 4.0

Another ‘first’ was celebrated recently by a commemorative plaque mounted on the wall of a bank building in the north London suburb of Enfield. Asked to name the location of the world’s first ATM (automated teller machine), it’s a fair bet that most people would guess New York, Seattle, or Silicon Valley, but the correct answer is the former London and Provincial Bank building at 20 The Town, Enfield, to which Historic England has just granted Grade II-listed status. Just as surprising is the date of that first ATM. The actor and comedian Reg Varney was living in Enfield at the time and, for publicity purposes, he was photographed making the first withdrawal from the machine on Tuesday 27 June 1967.

Barclaycard, the UK’s first credit card, had been launched the previous year, and the idea of a PIN stored on a magnetic strip was already under development. This machine, however, used a punched card that required the customer to key in a matching PIN code. The machine issued a single £10 note and thus, for the first time, made it possible to obtain cash outside a bank’s opening hours.

Would the bank have been listed were it not for this innovation? Quite possibly, since Historic England describes it as a good example of late 19th-century commercial architecture, built in 1897 to the Flemish Renaissance design of William Gilbee Scott, with a prominent corner gable decorated with cupola and small spire. Well-worth preserving, then, as an example of that Victorian and Edwardian skill in making good use of a prominent corner site, an art that arguably has since been lost.

All in the name

This column has recently featured words and phrases that have the power to irritate and annoy because they break the accepted norms of grammar, as well as noting the fact that some of these transgressive coinages are much older than one might guess. Sherds has recently learned of another example that dates back to the 16th century, but that has contemporary resonance. This magazine has recently reported on various events to commemorate the martyrdom of Thomas of Canterbury (see CA 398 and 376), and some older readers might well have asked themselves why we have styled him ‘Thomas Becket’, when our history teachers might have called him ‘Thomas à Becket’.

Dr John Jenkins of the University of York has mapped the use of several different versions of his name and has concluded that the ‘a’ (without an accent) was first used as part of a propaganda campaign designed to deride Becket’s saintly status. His contemporaries knew him as St Thomas of Canterbury, but 16th-century Protestants referred to him as ‘a-Becket’ by analogy with characters from rustic folklore, such as Robin Hood’s companions George-a-Green and Alan-a-Dale. Thomas Nashe, the satirical playwright who collaborated with Shakespeare, was the first to refer to Thomas a Becket in 1596, mocking Becket for being low-born and uppity – or, as Sherds’ mother would say, ‘no better than he should be’.

By the 19th century, however, the ‘a’ had acquired a Frenchified accent and ceased to be understood as a term of insult – instead, it now lent a sense of grandeur or aristocratic standing to the name. As for the man himself, Dr Jenkins says he spelt his name Beket, perhaps because his Norman father came from the Bec region of France or, more cruelly, because of his father’s beaky nose. Today, a French reference finds no favour with those who voted to leave the European Union, so we have gone back to plain old Becket.