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REVIEW: Wiltshire's amateur archaeologists - finding what lies beneath our feet

Written by Tony Millett on .

50 Finds from Wiltshire - Objects from the Portable Antiquities Scheme by Richard Henry (Amberley - 2017)

This book will give pleasure - and a good deal of hope - to all those who imagine turning up some notable or even priceless archaeological find.  They may be metal detectorists, gardeners, tractor drivers or walkers crossing ploughed fields - and their find may turn out to be 'important' rather than worth that dreamt of fortune.

The author of 50 Finds from Wiltshire, Richard Henry is Wiltshire Finds Liaison Officer, so he has first hand knowledge of the extraordinary variety of finds as they pass across his desk to be recorded onto the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) database.  

"The scheme is a Department of Culture, Media and Sport-funded project to encourage the documenting of archaeological objects found by members of the public."   

Some of these objects will be judged to be 'treasure' and may bring considerable financial reward to finder and landowner. Most will not be treated as 'treasure'. 

Either way they will bring satisfaction to the finders - and possibly some financial reward.

Each of the 50 finds detailed in Richard Henry's account - just 50 objects from the 45,000 Wiltshire finds on the PAS database - has been chosen for the insight it gives into our past.  And each is clearly described and explained - and well illustrated.

The chosen finds run from a beautiful Stone Age adze (3,500-2,200 BC), through rare Roman coins, to the minute and delicate Saxon gold coin found near East Grafton (and on display at the Wiltshire Museum in Devizes), right up to a nineteenth century ceramic flagon found - in wonderful condition - near Burbage.

Along the way is the Pewsey Vessel Hoard (deposited AD 380-550, but with vessels left behind by the Romans.)  Marlborough.News has reported on this extraordinary find with its remains of Medieval plant life.

[Photo: Richard Henry][Photo: Richard Henry]Here Richard Henry has included a very useful drawing to show how the vessels were packed together and put into the ground - in Russian doll fashion. This created a sealed compartment that protected the organic material and so allowed it, when it emerged into the twenty-first century, to be scientifically analysed - throwing new light on Mediaeval England's natural history.

In amongst this rich selection of finds, Richard Henry has written fascinating mini-essays on aspects of 'experimental archaeology' - present day experts using ancient techniques to discover and explain how some of these finds were made.  They are experimenting just as our forbears experimented to find new ways to make essential tools and decorative items.  

We learn about ancient iron and copper smelting, even older techniques for creating flint tools, down to the medieval introduction of mass production with stone moulds used to make pilgrims' badges - by the hundred.

Richard Henry's map of Wiltshire's PAS finds shows how widespread and common these finds are.  I bet that there is a red dot within a hundred yards or so of every school in the county.   Perhaps every school in the county should have a copy of this book - it would inspire interest in a subject that is currently doomed to slip off curriculums as politicians and exam authorities turn their back on it.  

At the very least, this is a map and a book that may set a spark of investigation and discovery in many more of those amateur archaeologists in Wiltshire who are merely 'members of the public'.

Copies of '50 Finds from Wiltshire' are on sale in the Wiltshire Museum's shop - price £14.99.