Roman Mask Find Causes Legal Conundrum


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 Ã¥terfunnen. 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.

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

8 thoughts on “Roman Mask Find Causes Legal Conundrum”

  1. Murder no longer has a statue of limitation in Sweden (since 2010). If the crime was commited after 1 july 1985 and the perpetrator was over 21 years of age at the time the crime was commited there is no limitation.


  2. Hi! Just like to comment on one thing in your text. The guy who handed the mask to the County admin does not, as far as I know, say that he was present when it was found.

    That is a later addition to the story of the mask. I just like to point that out.


  3. How did the mask get to Sweden in the first place? This is bearing in mind that Sweden is hundreds of miles away from the Roman Empire’s nearest outpost.


  4. Though made in the 2nd century, the mask seems to have been deposited in the house foundation no earlier than the 6th century. We don’t know where it spent the meantime. But Roman luxury wares / war booty were traded into Scandinavia in considerable quantities. Such distances were never prohibitive, even in the Neolithic. And finds of uncirculated 5th/6th century East Roman gold coinage on Gotland and Öland suggests that men from those islands served in auxiliary forces in the Empire, possibly through contacts with the Goths whose language they could understand.


  5. This article is Dr.Rundqvist personal opinions and speculations. The law in this matter investigated by the Swedish authorities, not Dr.Rundqvist.


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