On Intersections of Land, Law, and Literature, from Primitive Territories to the Post-National Future

Of Caves, Coins, Corieltavi, and Soldiers: National Trust Archaeology (July 7, 2014)

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I have been gripped by recent reports surrounding the find, at Reynard’s Kitchen Cave in Dovedale (Derbyshire, UK), of a literal treasure trove—26 coins, with some being of Iron Age British provenance and with three being Roman coins. You can see some great photos of Reynard’s Kitchen Cave here: (my brief excitement that this may have been named after Reynard the Fox was deflated by the National Trust, which links its naming with a “recent” highwayman who used it as a hideout). Besides the inherent interest in a sudden historical find—these coins were found by a tourist enjoying the scenery of this famously scenic area—this story spoke to me due to the many layers of territorial control, which range from the geological to the geographical to the historical.

            The coins are thought to have belonged to some member of the Corieltavi tribe [aka the Corieltauvi], whose territory, as this Wikipedia article shows, included a large swathe of the East Midlands, including today’s Derbyshire. The cave itself has yielded few clues as to why it would have stored coins, though it is hard not to be intrigued by archaeologist Rachael Hall’s speculation that it may have been useful as a storehouse because it was a “taboo” site—hence, a sort of sacred, exceptional space.

            What most intrigued me was not the coins’ origins, but the site’s current jurisdictional setting and the various players involved in the excavation. The site is exceptional space, for it belongs, as does all of Dovedale, to the National Trust, an organization first incorporated in 1884, whose original mission statement was the “aim of saving our nation’s heritage and open spaces,” and who currently describe themselves as a “UK conservation charity, protecting historic places and green spaces, and opening them up for ever, for everyone.” That this organization conflates the historical and the natural, seeing both as possessions by the people and the state currently dominating the area—that is, by the nation—is clear from its full name, the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty. Much like the national park system in the United States—also originating from the 19th Century—it is an institution that invokes both the timelessness of natural beauty and the timeliness of places of historical value in order to justify control of space. Due to a number of statutory acts explained here, this “charity” is a quasi-governmental body, which seems to be especially curious: it invokes the nation in its core identity, yet it is not fully meshed with the nation-state itself.

            Perhaps the most striking player involved with this exciting coin find is the Defence Archaeology Group and Project Nightingale, a group who use “both the technical and social aspects of field archaeology in the recovery and skill development of soldiers injured in the conflict in Afghanistan.” Citing a “close correlation between the skills required by the modern soldier and those of the professional archaeologist,” the Defense Archaeology Group has created a fascinating means for both soldiers and archaeologists to benefit: the public good of safely and effectively recovering historical objects is aided by experienced veterans, who are able to make productive uses of their skill-sets for public service. While this goal is laudable, it is of course hard not to think of negative aspects of linking warfare and archaeology. One need only visit the British Museum, http://www.britishmuseum.org/with its mind-bogglingly large collection of objects taken from all over the world, to see, as theorists such as Benjamin, Foucault, and Said have famously reminded us, how archaeology can be perceived as an instrument of empire.

            Since the National Trust clearly bases its claims on materials found originally on the land—and, in an intriguing recognition of the debates, ongoing since 1707 and taking on particular heat in the lead-up to the September 18 vote on Scottish independence, there is a separate National Trust for Scotland— it is interesting to speculate as to the point at which objects obviously from elsewhere but currently held in museums, such as the British Museum, will also become part of a “national” trust. While the Corieltavi may have gained the Roman coins through trade or perhaps through warfare, they clearly came from elsewhere and became part of this landscape. At what point might the caryatid from the Acropolis removed by Elgin, have stayed long enough on British soil to become part of its “national” trust? The Reynard’s Kitchen Cave hoard, having been being “cleaned” by experts at the British Museum and University College, London, will soon be placed permanently in the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum, where they will, as archaeologically categorized objects, play an ongoing role in British state claims over all time, space, and place associated with their territory.


Author: Randy P. Schiff

I am an Associate Professor of English currently at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. I specialize in Middle English literature, with special interests in alliterative verse, medieval romance, Scottish poetry, Old French poetry, Arthurian literature, ethnic identity, imperialism, nationalism, ecocriticism, courtly love, and literary history.

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