As noted before here on Aard, last winter a man handed in a 2nd century Roman cavalry parade mask to the authorities on Gotland, an island province of Sweden in the Baltic Sea. He says it was found illicitly in the 1980s by a recently deceased metal detectorist. The old man in question was a known nighthawk, and seems to have stuck a spade right through the mask when digging it out. Yet the mask has an excellent find context. The owner pointed to a Late Roman / Migration Period house foundation, my Visby colleagues excavated part of it this past summer, and they found a mixed metalwork hoard including missing bits of the mask. (This is unlike the case of the mask + helmet found in Cumbria last year, that was unearthed by a legitimate detectorist but sold at private auction without any legal protection because it was a single copper alloy object from a site with no other archaeology on it, at least not at the spot the guy pointed to.)
The mask is funny because someone with non-Roman ideas has blocked its eye holes with home-made metal eyes and irises. I imagine the mask re-purposed in the 4th or 5th century as the face of a wooden pagan idol, that is, the opposite of what has been suggested by Thomas Fischer for the Thorsbjerg mask.
But here’s an interesting legal conundrum.
The guy who handed in the mask says that he was present when it was found. He is thus an admitted accessory to heritage crime. It was a long time ago, maybe he was a child at the time, maybe the period for prosecution has expired. But should he be punished? Or should he get the sizeable reward a bona fide finder is entitled to? One thing is what the law says. Another is what would be best for future heritage management. Let’s say the nighthawk who took a metal detector to that registered, well-preserved archaeological site 25 years ago was this dude’s dad, and he came forth with the find once the old man had passed away. It would be disastrous for public relations to punish him. Still, he said nothing for all those years about a find and a site that could have been a focus of research for decades by now. And a central legal principle is that crime should not pay. I hope there’s a way to take the mask into public ownership without giving the man either reward or punishment.
See the excavators’ account in Populär Arkeologi 2011:3, “Romersk paradmask återfunnen. Unikt fynd lokaliserat till gotländsk socken”, by Johan Holm & Per Widerström.
Update same day: Dear Reader Johan points out that the guy has now made a complaint to the police, accusing Birgitta Gustafson, Head Editor of Populär Arkeologi, of libel because she hinted that the guy was accessory to a crime! Curiouser and curiouser.
Update 6 November: I’ve been contacted by the man who submitted the mask, and he tells me that he was not present when the mask was found, and did not even know the finder at the time. He fails however to explain why he did not hand it in when he received it from the finder’s estate in 1999. He does not seem to understand that he was legally obliged to. It remains my opinion that he should receive neither reward nor punishment.