Loftus Saxon Treasures

– in Westminster Hall at 1:29 pm on 22nd January 2008.

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Photo of Ashok Kumar Ashok Kumar PPS (Rt Hon Hilary Benn, Secretary of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 1:29 pm, 22nd January 2008

This is the first time that you have presided over a debate in which I have taken apart, Miss Begg, so it is an honour and a pleasure to serve under you. May I put on record my gratitude to Mr. Speaker for granting me this debate? It is about a subject that is close to the hearts of my constituents in East Cleveland, especially those in Loftus.

I should like to discuss a set of archaeological finds that were uncovered in the countryside of Street Houses near to the market town of Loftus. I will stress the importance of keeping those treasures on Teesside for my constituents. That would be of great benefit to local people, particularly schoolchildren, as a reminder of the distant past of the area in which they live.

The find was an Anglo-Saxon cemetery near the coast, outside Loftus. The dig was conducted by local archaeologist Steve Sherlock with help from the Teesside Archaeology Society and local volunteers. The discovery is regarded by all the archaeologists who have seen it as one of the most important discoveries in the old kingdom of Northumbria. To set the find in its historical context, it dates from the era after the departure of the Romans from Britain, which left our shores and internal borders defenceless. By 450 AD, the Anglo-Saxons had begun their invasion of the north, colonising all the land north of the Humber in the area they called Deira, which was probably an adaptation of a Celtic tribal region or kingdom. The invasion was led by the Saxon warrior, King Ida the Flamebearer, and spread further north up to the valleys of Tyne, Wear and Tees. That was the early foundation of what was to become the great kingdom of Northumbria.

Spectacular gold jewellery, weapons and items of clothing found at 109 grave sites are believed to be from around the 7th century. The value of the artefacts suggests that they belonged to a member of the Northumbrian royal family. The team's first clues to the site's existence came from an aerial photograph showing evidence of iron age activity, but they did not expect to find a royal Anglo-Saxon site, as they are usually found only in the south of England. Steve Sherlock has long worked in the area, and realised the significance of the site from its size. Excavation began in 2005, when 30 graves were found. Another 13 were found in 2006, including the most northerly example in this country of a Saxon bed burial.

Excavations in the summer of 2007 revealed the full extent of this nationally significant royal cemetery. The team eventually uncovered an area the size of half a football pitch. No human remains were found because of the acidic soil, but a range of high-status jewellery survived, as well as glass beads, pottery, iron knives, chatelaines and belt buckles. Five of the graves contained gold and silver brooches, and one grave had a seax—a type of Anglo-Saxon sword. The site included a low burial mound, which is considered an indicator of high status, and an unparalleled arrangement of graves. The graves were laid out with measured accuracy in a square around the bed burial, which shows the planning and order involved in creating this marvellous cemetery. The cemetery also features a Saxon grubenhaus—a building with a sunken floor that is found rarely in cemeteries—which may have been used as a mortuary.

Among the finds are three spectacular gold brooches, one of which has red garnet settings and is believed to be an unparalleled example of Anglo-Saxon jewellery. Its workmanship has been compared with finds in the Sutton Hoo royal cemetery. Steve Sherlock, who has extensive experience, believes that such an item must have been commissioned from the best craftsman in Anglo-Saxon England, and he firmly believes that it would have belonged to an Anglo-Saxon princess.

In addition to those spectacular finds, other items of particular interest and value were discovered, including a triangular gold pendant and two silver coins that would have been worn as pendants. The coins were from the iron age, from a tribe that was known to live in what is now Lincolnshire. Mr. Sherlock believes that there may be a connection between the grave and St. Hilda, the abbess who founded the famous abbey at Whitby in 675. He has dated the jewellery back to around that time, when most of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria had converted to Christianity. He speculates that the owner of the jewellery, the princess, and St. Hilda could have known each other.

Amazingly, the site became a double top for Steve Sherlock and the Tees archaeology team, as it was found also to have been a site of habitation in the iron age. Evidence of houses and flooring materials has been found, and a number of iron age artefacts were unearthed and recorded. The fact that both sites survived intact for nearly two millennia is unprecedented. It is amazing to think how much time has elapsed since the princess and other members of Northumbrian communities were buried in those graves. Over the centuries, the graves have survived great upheavals in the world. They provide us with a link to our history and tell us about the order of society in the dark ages. They also show us that those people, far from being remote from us, felt some of the same emotions that we do and had the same sense of curiosity about the world around them and their place in it.

Those are the reasons why my constituents want the discoveries to stay on Teesside, as close as possible to East Cleveland, especially Loftus. The objects are being kept by an independent organisation until their ownership can be determined by a court—in this case, a coroner's inquest. After the inquest, the coroner will have to ask an independent panel of experts to place a value on the relevant objects. The people who decide such matters are usually academics, museum curators and antique dealers who buy and sell similar objects. I understand that the process is overseen by the British Museum, as an agent for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. When a price is set, the purchasing museums service, in this case Redcar and Cleveland, will have a set period of time to raise the money—usually about three months. The owner of the land on which the dig took place has said that he will make no claim on the artefacts, and that he would like them to be kept locally and safely.

The Kirkleatham museum, the nearest museum to the site, is more than suitable to house the collection. It has a fairly eclectic collection of approximately 100,000 objects with key themes including industrial heritage, rural life and social history. The museums service has worked closely with the Teesside Archaeology Society for many years. Together, they have found and collected many objects ranging from second world war aircraft remains to dinosaur fossils, and have made a great contribution to many fine exhibitions. They have skilled and dedicated curatorial and display staff, and I have every confidence that the artefacts would be safe if they were placed there.

Redcar and Cleveland borough council, which owns the museum, the Teesside Archaeology Society, Steve Sherlock and the landowner all support the artefacts being kept at Kirkleatham museum. They want the objects to be displayed locally for everyone to see, free of charge within a designated, secure exhibition area. The find has been described by the museum's curator, Alan Pearce as potentially containing the most iconic objects the museum would have. He is already receiving inquiries from Germany, France, New Zealand and America about the finds. Their monetary value is currently unknown, but their acquisition, conservation, restoration, interpretation and exhibition may cost around £150,000 to £200,000.

Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Culture, Media & Sport

Funding for all those aspects is important. One way that local museums gather treasure is by local people finding it literally in the ground. Since Devon appointed a finds liaison officer, reporting of finds has increased by 248 per cent. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if the funding of such people were discontinued, treasure such as that that he is trying to keep in his community would be lost to the community?

Photo of Ashok Kumar Ashok Kumar PPS (Rt Hon Hilary Benn, Secretary of State), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I certainly agree that the treasure is valuable, but I am sure that the Minister could respond more eloquently than me on the situation in Devon. I am making the case for my own area.

The exhibition would make a marvellous contribution to the attractions of the area and to its regeneration. It would obviously have to be done in partnership but, given the enthusiasm of the borough council in particular, I feel that the ambition could be realised. I hope that the DCMS will be sympathetic to the case for the retention of these artefacts at a local museum.

The bond between a specific area and the historical treasures that originate from it is strong in this case. I am sure that the Minister is well aware of the controversy over what are called the Lindisfarne gospels. As she will know, there is currently a tussle between the British Museum and the people in Tyne and Wear over the siting of the manuscripts. I want to avoid such a tussle occurring on Teesside, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend would concur with me on that. With her backing and that of her colleagues in the DCMS, we can be confident that these mementoes of a bygone age, which are important to the people in the rural part of my constituency in East Cleveland and especially Loftus, remain in Teesside at least. That would allow a whole generation of local people from the area of Northumbria downwards to enjoy what we have. I hope that I have sympathetic support from my right hon. Friend, because this is an important issue for my patch.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Culture, Creative Industries and Tourism) 1:42 pm, 22nd January 2008

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. Like him, I am excited by the excavations near Loftus in his constituency and what we are finding through them. I believe that it was somebody in his constituency who rightly described the objects as iconic, and those that have been discovered at the site are fascinating and beautiful. They certainly play a key role in helping us understand and link ourselves to our identity, history and culture.

The fact that this site is the first royal burial ground from the period to have been discovered in the north of England is particularly exciting, and, as my hon. Friend said, the excavations give us an unprecedented insight into the lives of the Anglo-Saxons who ruled that part of the country in the 7th and 8th centuries.

I congratulate Mr. Steve Sherlock, whom my hon. Friend mentioned in his contribution. Mr. Sherlock is the archaeologist leading the excavations at Loftus with the support of the Tees archaeology team and local volunteers. They are doing a superb job in helping us better to know and understand a key part of our history. Mr. Sherlock and his team have been digging at the Loftus site for the past three summers, and I look forward with great anticipation to what they will find when they start unearthing the next phase in excavations this year. Who knows what they will find?

My understanding is that the reports that the archaeologists have compiled about their finds at the site so far have been verified by experts at the British Museum and, as my hon. Friend said, are now with the local coroner. The coroner's inquest will make the formal ruling on whether the objects from Loftus are treasure, although there seems to be little doubt as to what the ruling is likely to be. Assuming that the objects are determined to be treasure, they will then go to the Treasure Valuation Committee, which is an independent panel of experts who will recommend a value for them to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Once a value has been determined, museums will be given the chance to acquire the objects.

Like my hon. Friend, I look forward to seeing the objects from this burial site in a museum. I am thrilled by the thought of members of the public, young and old, being able to enjoy the beauty of the objects and learn about their history from them. I believe we all agree that a museum is the best home for objects such as these. A museum with the necessary facilities and expertise is the right place to ensure that objects are appropriately displayed and interpreted for the enjoyment of the public and for the education of our children, that they are preserved for future generations and that they are made accessible for any future academic research.

When the Treasure Act code of practice was originally drafted in 1996, the usual practice was to offer treasure finds to the appropriate national museum for acquisition before offering them to regional and local museums. Today, a much more collaborative approach is taken, and the national museums always act in close consultation with relevant local museums over acquisitions of treasure. Indeed, the British Museum, which, as my hon. Friend suggested, would be the most appropriate national museum to acquire the objects in this case, makes its position on acquisition absolutely clear. If he would like to see it, it is available on its website. The policy states:

"the Museum normally expects Treasure finds from England to be acquired by regional museums and, in general, will acquire Treasure finds either when those museums are unable to proceed with the acquisition or, in the case of finds of major significance, only with the support of the appropriate regional museum."

My hon. Friend will see that the British Museum has confirmed that it has always been its understanding that the objects from the Loftus excavations would be acquired by a local museum, so I can assure him that the path will be entirely clear for a museum in Cleveland to acquire the objects.

I agree with my hon. Friend that Kirkleatham museum, which has already had some involvement in the excavation project at Loftus, would make an excellent home for the objects. The artefacts would be a notable addition to its extensive and diverse collections. They will help to show the significant part that the Anglo-Saxons played in the area's rich history. As he will remember, the Treasure Act code of practice states that ex gratia rewards for treasure finds are not payable to archaeologists. In the case of the Loftus treasures, therefore, the acquiring museum will have to pay only the landowner's reward. I note what my hon. Friend said about the landowner not seeking a monetary financial reward for the finds on his land, but, even were he to do so, the code of practice means that the acquiring museum has to pay only half the market value of the objects.

There is further good news for my hon. Friend about the sources of potential funding available should local museums have to find money to acquire the objects. For smaller items of treasure, grants are available from the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and Victoria and Albert purchase grant funds, and from the Headley Trust. For the purchase of larger items of treasure, both the Art Fund and the Heritage Lottery Fund will consider applications for funding.

I hope that all that illustrates how well the UK's treasure system works. Indeed, it is a system that is highly regarded internationally, as my hon. Friend will know. Our approach of encouraging finders to report items of treasure, having them independently valued and then paying both the finder and the landowner an equal reward means that more and more items of treasure are being declared each year. If I may give my hon. Friend some statistics, in the period from 1988 to 1997, under the old treasure trove system, 256 items of treasure trove were reported in total. Since 1997, and probably thanks to some of the work of my hon. Friend Mark Fisher when he held my post, and with the introduction of the Treasure Act 1996, from 1997 to 2007 a total of 4,180 items of treasure have been reported. In crude statistical terms, that is an increase of 1,500 per cent., so there has been a massive improvement.

Photo of Mark Fisher Mark Fisher Labour, Stoke-on-Trent Central

I am interested in what the Minister says and I think that she is absolutely right to say it. When she comes to consider the future of the portable antiquities scheme, which I have no doubt she will be doing in the next few weeks, will she bear in mind this very interesting and important find? Although it was not found under the PAS but by a professional archaeologist, her statistics prove the PAS has done an enormous amount, so to limit the scheme in any way would be a very sad blow and make finds such as this much more difficult and much rarer.

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Culture, Creative Industries and Tourism)

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, which was similar to that from Richard Younger-Ross. I will refer to the PAS later, but I think that we would all concur that it has been an extremely successful scheme and wish to retain the best elements of it.

By giving museums and, in particular, local museums the first opportunity to purchase items of treasure for their collections, we are also helping to ensure that the best of what is found locally is available for study and enjoyment locally. This really is a win-win situation. The finder and the landowner get rewarded for their efforts in bringing the treasure into the public domain, and the public benefit by being able to see and inspect these important relics from their community's past.

Some people are concerned, however, that our past is a finite resource and that allowing metal detecting to continue unlicensed and unregulated will result in the unsustainable removal of our heritage. Indeed, I know that Channel 4's "Time Team" website contains a rather gloomy prognosis—I do not know whether hon. Members have seen it on the website—that

"there are likely to be no metal finds at all in the first foot of Britain's soil within 20 years."

However, that assertion is not borne out by the facts. In 2006-07, the last financial year for which we have figures, the number of reported treasure items was 744, which was the highest figure for a single year ever. Indeed, it was up from 673 in the previous year, which again was a record figure at the time. Therefore, the data shows that, year on year since 1997, the number of reported finds has grown steadily. That does not give a picture of a resource that would appear in any way to be in terminal decline.

There is a vast amount that the objects buried beneath us can reveal about our past. In fact, I describe it as modern day fishing—without the water—to see all the individuals using their metal detectors in that way. However, we think that people should carry out metal detecting responsibly. That is why we have a code of practice for responsible metal detecting, which has been endorsed by all the stakeholders, including the museums, English Heritage, landowners' associations and metal detecting groups.

If I may, I would like to commend David and Andrew Whelan, the father and son pair of metal detectorists who discovered the Harrogate hoard early last year. Those of us who are aware of that Viking hoard of coins and other treasures will know that it is the most significant find of its type to have been made in more than 150 years.

I cannot conclude a speech on the treasure system without also paying tribute to the excellent role that is played by the PAS. This scheme runs parallel to the treasure system and provides a network, as hon. Members have suggested, through which non-treasure material discovered by amateur archaeologists and other enthusiasts can be identified and recorded. The finder gets to find out more about her or his discovery; a bank of information is built up for the benefit of everyone through the publicly accessible database, and the finds can be displayed and interpreted for the benefit of the public.

The database that we now have covers more than 300,000 objects. It is available for everybody to use, free of charge, and anyone who wants to research the archaeology of their local area—or anyone else's local area—can do just that. It does not matter whether someone is doing a postgraduate research degree at one of our top universities or a new entrant to secondary school in year 7 struggling with their homework; everyone has access to the same information. That is a really wonderful thing and represents a marvellous step forward in the democratisation of the study of our past.

Photo of Richard Younger-Ross Richard Younger-Ross Shadow Minister, Culture, Media & Sport

The Minister paints a very rosy picture of the PAS. However, the reality is that funding for the scheme is likely to be frozen, which, in effect, is a cut. Considering the success of the scheme, will she make a very strong case to the Treasury for funding to be continued to the scheme at the rate of inflation, so that it can continue its good work?

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Culture, Creative Industries and Tourism)

I am proud of the settlement that we achieved within the DCMS in a very tight fiscal environment, when many other Departments faced rather swingeing cuts. Within that tight settlement, we must give flexibility to the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council to dispense its money in the way that it wants. We have ring-fenced the money for the renaissance in the regions budget and I believe that all hon. Members here think that that programme has done a fantastic job in building the capacity of our regional museums. If one looks at the data, it is those regional museums that have really opened up access to museums for people who, in the past, would probably never have gone over the threshold of a museum. Conserving and building on that hugely successful programme is very important.

The PAS does a good job. However, in the current environment, I suggest to the hon. Member that to pick out growth for this particular area is a little naive. We have done very well to get where we are. As with all other parts of Government, the PAS has to seek its efficiency savings. There is no organisation in the public voluntary sector that is funded by Government that does not have to go through that task, particularly making backroom savings out of their administrative budgets.

As I said, the PAS is funded by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, which recognises its national significance and it is committed, as the Government are, to seeing it thrive and evolve. Indeed, the council has said that, for 2008-09, it will commit to maintaining the current levels of support for the PAS. Given the position that the MLA itself is in, that is a very powerful recognition of the importance of the PAS in the MLA's view, as indeed it is in the view of all of us.

The MLA has now announced that it will review the PAS over the coming months to look at how best the programme's objectives—they are what we are interested in—can be delivered in the future and explore whether there are any potential synergies with the renaissance in the regions programme. We need to see whether that process can save some money and ensure that we can keep the scheme, as it operates on the ground at the front level, going. I think that that is good. I support the review—we will see what it comes out with—and I am extremely pleased that the British Museum has agreed to carry out this review in partnership with the MLA.

I am sure that all hon. Members will agree that the treasure system and the PAS are in rude good health. The Government believe that our policies of encouraging the voluntary reporting of archaeological finds, encouraging responsible metal detecting through a mixture of advice and inducement in the form of rewards and sanctions and penalties for irresponsible or inappropriate metal detecting strike the right balance between protecting our national heritage and allowing people's legitimate interest and passion for our past to continue to flourish.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland on what is happening in his constituency and I wish him and his constituents well in enjoying the fruits of that particular archaeological excavation.

It being Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.