Gareth Williams (ed.)
British Museum Press, £40
Review Julian D Richards
This report is about one of the most important Viking sites in England – one that remains shrouded in some confusion and secrecy. Mark Ainsley and Geoff Bambrook had been metal-detecting at the site (known here as ARSNY) since 1996, but it first came to archaeological attention in late 2003 when they approached the Yorkshire Museum with what was described as a Viking hoard. Richard Hall, Deputy Director of York Archaeological Trust (YAT), became involved, and the British Museum was also informed. The finds – which were legally classified as Treasure – were initially thought to have come from a Viking boat burial, but when YAT conducted a rescue excavation, although they found a large hole from which Ainsley and Bambrook had dug the ‘hoard’, there was no trace of a burial. The detectorists then revealed that, in addition to the 121 items reported as ‘the Ainsbrook hoard’, there were other finds from neighbouring fields including up to 282 Viking weights, two pieces of hack-gold, 70 pieces of silver, and 106 late 9th-century coins. As well as Viking weaponry there were iron tools, many of which had been discarded by the detectorists in the hedgerows, but which were retrieved by the team. Many of the finds had already been sold privately.
In light of the very similar assemblage at Torksey (see CA 281) where the Viking Great Army overwintered in AD 872-873, it is now accepted that ARSNY must have been the location of an undocumented camp. On the basis of the coins, Gareth Williams (Curator of Early Medieval Coinage at the British Museum) dates the latest activity to slightly later than Torksey, and it probably post-dates the departure of the Army from Repton. Both ARSNY (c.31ha) and Torksey (c.55ha) are much larger than the D-shaped enclosure at Repton (0.4ha) that Martin Biddle had interpreted as the Viking camp of 873-874 (see CA 100). These sites are very important, therefore, in challenging previous understanding and demonstrating the scale of the Army, which must have numbered in the thousands.
English Heritage funded a geophysical survey and excavation of several trenches, and there was a Time Team special, ‘Codename Ainsbrook’, but no substantial archaeological traces of the Viking camp were found. The report is largely a catalogue of the finds, with some landscape survey, and the publication is extended with additional chapters on other Yorkshire finds. The ARNSY finds that YAT and the British Museum were able to catalogue are described and drawn, and there are striking colour photos of many of them, including some now in private collections. There are useful trench plans of all the excavated features, but, unlike a conventional excavation report, no overall location plan, and the navigable river on which we are told ARSNY lies has been removed from the geophysics plot, making it difficult to appreciate the landscape context.
Given the lack of evidence for structures recovered during fieldwork at Torksey, we should not be surprised by the lack of substantive features at ARSNY. An Army on the move would not construct permanent structures, and we are left with the debris of trading and metalworking in the ploughsoil. Williams and the British Museum should be thanked for bringing these to publication, after Richard Hall’s untimely death, and this volume will be a valuable resource for further study. It also raises questions, however, about who ‘owns the past’. A commitment to the landowner meant that YAT and the British Museum could not disclose the location of ARSNY, although it is well-known by many metal-detectorists and dealers, as well as archaeologists. (Indeed, Dawn Hadley and I had discovered it via another route, unrelated to the ARSNY project, and discuss it in our Torksey report, as the landscape-setting of the camps, and their names, provides an essential part of our understanding.)
Our view was that the approach adopted at Torksey, working with landowners and police to control metal-detecting and to catalogue all finds, was the better solution, and night-hawking there has now ceased. Should landowners and detectorists be able to keep secret the location of places which belong to our history, and which have been excavated with taxpayers’ money? There are certainly interesting ethical issues raised by the story of Ainsbrook/ARSNY.