Paul Barford and David Gill have both commented on a news report (L. Hannam, "Treasure hunters set to coin it with Roman haul," MK News) about English metal detectorists who dug out a meter of soil to recover a large Roman coin hoard, which was associated with other ancient remains. To their credit, the detectorists did report the hoard - formally declared a treasure - to the responsible authorities.
Barford and Gill, however, both question whether or not situations like this are what the PAS was designed for. Many think of the PAS as recording primarily surface finds from ploughed fields, which were already "decontextualized" (in addition to the two original posts, see also Barford's "What would the PAS Say?"). The concern in this instance is the amount of earth removed to get to the coins and the fact that the hoard was not an isolated find. Important contextual information, which could provide greater insight into the circumstances surrounding the deposition of this hoard or conversely the associated remains have been destroyed.
Peter Tompa, a former president of the Ancient Coin Collectors Guild (ACCG), has responded forcefully to Barford and Gill's respective concerns. While he is correct in that it seems the detectorists did what UK law requires of them, his attempts at assuaging ethical concerns from an archaeological perspective are inadequate.
For example, he stated that since the find was made on ploughed land, the context was already disturbed. This is an argumentative claim since it is impossible to know how far the ploughed topsoil affects the archaeological remains without a proper archaeological investigation. Since one meter of earth had to be removed to get at the coins, it would appear the plough might not have reached this depth as the coins would have been scattered and pulled out to the surface had this been the case (on the depth of ploughing, see also Barford's "The Washington Lawyer and the Metal Detectorists").
Mr. Tompa also claims that the broken vessel which contains the coins is an indication the plough broke the vessel. Again, this is another assumption. It may be a possibility, but it impossible to tell without the context (now lost). Coin hoards are frequently recovered in archaeological contexts in broken or damaged vessels - this can be an effect of the geology or weather or can be a result of other post-depositional processes in which something may have fallen on the container or the container itself fell, etc.
Mr. Tompa cites Roger Bland and the PAS in his response, as so many of the dealers and collectors at the ACCG often do. It appears, however, they frequently take his work and views out of context. In a review of Cuno's recent book, Bland reacted strongly against "US cultural imperialism" of the sort the ACCG subscribes to (see Gill's, "'An Example of US Cultural Imperialism at its Worst'").
The archaeological inaccuracies in Mr. Tompa's reply are perhaps natural since he is not an archaeologist but rather a collector and attorney. I am sure if I were to attempt to discuss legal issues in some detail I would make some errors as well.
The concern of archaeologists and many numismatists is that information and history is destroyed in the search for curios and/or profit. The value of context and the threat of the indiscriminate trade has been highlighted in my article "A Survey of the Material and Intellectual Consequences of Trading in Undocumented Ancient Coins..." Frankfurter elektronische Rundschau zur Altertumskunde 7, 2008, 1-13. A collection of 11 essays - 10 of them in English -discussing the value of archaeological and contextual methods in relation to coin finds from excavations, hoards, etc., is about to be made available: H.-M von Kaenel and F. Kemmers (eds.). 2008-forthcoming. Coins in Context I: New Approaches in Interpreting Coin Finds (provisional title). Studien zu Fundmünzen der Antike 23 (Mainz: von Zabern). It is the goal of these essays to make developing contextual methods, which are already at the fore of research on numismatics and archaeology, more widely known and they build upon methods and theories that have been forming over the past few decades.
As Barford and Gill point out it is a false assertion made by some ancient coin dealers (which does not qualify them as being archaeologists) that most hoards are "isolated," i.e. found in the middle of nowhere with no associated remains and thus archaeologically "insignificant." In the above-mentioned article, I examined this assumption and pointed out that hoards can compose substantial percentages of all the coin finds recovered at archaeological sites. One of the largest hoards ever recovered (perhaps the largest), the Reka-Devnia Hoard, contained 350 kg of Roman silver coins and was found within a structure in the ancient city of Marcianopolis - not in an empty field devoid of associated remains.
While the finders of the controversial treasure acted legally and are to be commended for reporting the find as mandated by the law, we ought to consider the ethics of disturbing archaeologically significant sites in such a way as removing large amounts of earth and disassociating objects with their broader contexts (associated remains) and stratigraphy: these are the building blocks for writing histories for which we can only use material evidence (cf. Barford's forceful, but on point, "Give and Take of Obeying the Law"). Indeed, in most source countries this type of destruction is illegal, much to the chagrin of ancient coin and antiquities dealers who often trade in such material despite laws in source countries. There is a difference between picking up decontextualized surface finds and disturbing contexts deep in the earth.
(Image: A selection of coins from the hoard in question from L. Hannam, "Treasure hunters set to coin it with Roman haul," MK News)