When it comes to narratives of archaeological discovery, chance and naïveté beat out professional expertise, regional or collective knowledge, and educated guesses every time. The people want one thing, and that’s to hear about how some bored French teens/Syrian junior-high math teacher/family of eight on vacation accidentally stumbled upon the find of the century! Better yet, that their dog stumbled upon the find of the century, and they in turn stumbled upon the dog!
Frank Calvert and Heinrich Schliemann looking for Troy on purpose, conducting numerous repeat surveys, securing formal permission from local authorities, etc, boring. A local farmer with a history of discovering unusual objects in his fields, better. A group of underpaid parish priests renovating a 200-year-old temple and discovering it’s actually 2000 years old when they start selling off a bunch of bronze shoes underneath the foundations, better yet. An unnamed farmer plowing in happy ignorance only to descend from his puzzled horse after his plow strikes a Bronze Age artifact, better still. A trio of local shepherds stumbling upon a cave full of Dead Sea Scrolls, as good as it gets.
The more amateur and anonymous the discoverers, the more isolated and unheard-of the discovery, the more shocked and unaware the populace of local history, the better, at least as far as whoever writes those little label cards in museums is concerned. In addition to making for a snappy headline, these narratives of naive discovery have presumably made it easier to justify increasingly-extraordinary requisition ( “Gee whiz, will ya get a load of all this history? It was just lying here underneath our feet the whole time! Nobody was using it! Nobody even knew it was there! It’s already in the British Museum!”), plus it’s a lot of fun to think that you might uncover a Viking coin hoard the next time you go to the beach during low tide.
TRUNDHOLM SUN CHARIOT
Found by a….FARMER IN 1902
In a….PEAT BOG
Who initially….THOUGHT IT WAS A CHILD’S TOY
NEBRA SKY DISK
Found by a….PAIR OF TREASURE HUNTERS IN 1999
In an….ENCLOSURE IN THE ZIEGELRODA FOREST
Who initially….WERE OPERATING A METAL DETECTOR WITHOUT A LICENSE
CALIGULA’S SHIPS AT NEMI
Found by a….GENTLEMAN AMATEUR
In a….DIVING BELL HOLDING EIGHT SAILORS
Who subsequently….ABANDONED RECOVERY WHEN LOCALS RAIDED HIS DIVE SITE TO MAKE WINE BARRELS
Found by a….FARMER IN 1444
In a….FIELD NEAR SCHEGGIA
Who initially….GAVE THEM TO HIS SON-IN-LAW, WHO TRADED THEM TO THE CITY OF GUBBIO FOR FARMING RIGHTS
THE STRETTWEG CULT WAGON
Found by a….FARMER NAMED FERDINAND IN 1851
In a….FIELD DURING PLOWING SEASON
Who initially….SOLD PIECES TO LOCAL CHAPLAIN WILHELM DECRIGNIS
KING OF NA GOLD SEAL
Found by….A FARMER NAMED JINBEI
In an….IRRIGATION DITCH HE WAS REPAIRING
Who initially….NEEDED A BUDDY TO HELP HIM LIFT IT OUT
THE FONT-DE-GAUME PAINTINGS/COMBARELLES SYSTEM
Found by a….LOCAL SCHOOLTEACHER NAMED “DENIS” IN 1901
In a….CAVE OCCASIONALLY USED AS A STABLE BY LOCAL PEASANTS
Who initially….SOLD PREHISTORICAL ARTEFACTS ON THE BLACK MARKET
VENUS DE MILO
Found by a….PEASANT NAMED YORGOS
Who initially….HOPED TO SELL IT AS PART OF A SALVAGE OPERATION
UNDERGROUND CITY OF DERINKUYU
Found by a…TURKISH MAN IN 1963
Who initially….HOPED TO REMODEL SAID BASEMENT
Did you also grow up re-reading Roald Dahl's "The Mildenhall Treasure"?
*British Museum acquisitions department voice* We got this priceless ancient artifact from “””anonymous Middle Eastern peasants””” who didn’t know what it was and couldn’t take care of it anyway. No, we can’t tell you who we got [read: stole] it from, because then you might realize that they’ve been campaigning for its repatriation for decades.