July 4, 2008

Artefacts return to Shetland temporarily

Posted at 12:46 pm in Similar cases

Pictish art that was found on Shetland is going to return home temporarily from the National Museum of Scotland. Many islanders though want to know why they can’t have it back permanently.

Shetland News

The treasure…it’s back!
Hans J Marter
4 July, 2008

PERHAPS the most outstanding find of Pictish art has returned to Shetland to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its discovery.

However the return of the St Ninian’s Isle treasure, 41 years after it was last on display in the isles, is not without controversy.

Many islanders believe the eighth century treasure should be permanently housed at the new Shetland museum, instead of just being on loan for three loan from the National Museum of Scotland.

Fifty years ago today (Friday), Lerwick schoolboy Douglas Coutts made the discovery working his first day as a volunteer excavating at the St Ninian’s chapel.

This week a team from the National Museum arrived in Shetland with the 28 silver artefacts in their luggage ready to replace the replica that is always on display in Shetland.

The national museum’s principal curator for Iron Age and Roman collections, Dr Fraser Hunter, said the treasure was of outstanding value to the nation and beyond.

“You have got in the hoard a whole range of different materials. Some are unique, for example there’s a fitting from swords we have never seen before, and some are representing a broader pattern such as the brooches. They are styles we find elsewhere, but the best examples come from St Ninian’s,” he said.

“In the decoration in particular it ties the art found in St Ninian’s Isle to much broader patterns looking up and down the Western sea boards with the rest of Scotland, Ireland and into the continent as well.”

He said the National Museum understood the strong feelings islanders had for the treasure, but insisted it was best kept in Edinburgh with regular displays in Lerwick.

“There is no doubt that the treasure is of tremendous importance for Shetland, but is also of tremendous importance for the whole country. Any object could tell a lot of different stories. It can tell local stories, national and international stories.

“We are delighted to loan the treasure here for the 50th anniversary celebration. We think it is very appropriate, but it is also appropriate to tell a national story, and that is what we try to do in Edinburgh,” he said.

This week Mr Coutts, now 65 and a retired Sullom Voe librarian living on the island of Bressay, was one of the first to be given the chance to have a close look at the treasure that made him a local celebrity.

He said he got involved in the excavation in the summer of 1958 when the team from Aberdeen University gave a public lecture in Lerwick, volunteering to help at the dig during summer holidays.

“I came to the site and was allocated a small area to begin some trowelling, which is the task normally allocated to novices.

“I had been at work only possibly for an hour when I came across a thin stone slab, which I levered up with my trowel and underneath I saw a hollow with some green material in it.

“I realized it was something unusual and I called over the professor, and I could see by his expression that this was indeed something unusual. So I was asked to step aside while he and his team investigated further,” Mr Coutts said.

What the 15 year old had found turned out to be one of the best preserved Pictish silver treasures ever to unearthed in Scotland. Experts believe it was buried by a wealthy family who feared raids by the Vikings.

He said it only dawned on him that this was something very important when he was told to keep quiet about his discovery.

“I wasn’t really aware of the significance of it until I was asked that I shouldn’t mention it and that we must keep quiet about this until the finds were safely taken away to the British Museum for conservation.”

Being strongly in favour of the treasure’s return to the isles on a permanent basis, he added: “I am delighted to see it back. I know there is a debate about where it should reside, whether it should be in a national museum in Edinburgh or whether it should be here in our local museum.

“I feel that we have now the state of the art facilities in our local museum and that it would best be kept here near the place where it was found.”

The campaign to return the treasure permanently puts Shetland Museum curator Tommy Watt in a difficult position.

On the one hand his employer, the Shetland Amenity Trust, has signed up to the campaign. On the other, as the curator he said his main task was to make the isles’ heritage as accessible to as many people as possible.

To that end the amenity trust has signed a partnership agreement with the National Museum which will see a range of artefacts coming to Shetland on a loan basis over the next few years.

In the autumn of 2009, the Gunnister Man – the remains of a man from the late 17th century found in the peat bog at Gunnister in 1951 – will be on display, to be followed by an exhibition on immigration to coincide with the Shetland Hamefarin 2010.

The St Ninian’s Isle treasure is on show as of this morning, and will be in Shetland until 5 October. A weekend long international conference on the significance of the treasure will kick off at the museum later tonight.

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