Sunday, 31 May 2020

Outdoor Recreation in Brexit Britain

Formby Beach, Liverpool
by Colin Lane@snapperlan
The metal detectorists are encouraged to go out and loot the remains of the past as a form of outdoor recreation as lockdown is eased, that shows about as much environmental awareness as another form of British outdoor recreation, littering. Shocking scenes as beer bottles, laughing gas canisters and rubbish are abandoned this weekend on British beaches.

What is the matter with the Brits?

Lockdown Looting Facilitated by UK Culture Department

On a metal detecting forum near you and seen from all over Europe (not just Poland) we all learn that in the UK the NCMD has been lobbying the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport DCMS for a Dominic Cummings exception to current lockdown rules for artefact hunters too, to allow a quick return of exploitative commercial rallies. So far, in a forum posting made a few hours ago they've only managed to puff up the government's announcement of Thu 28 May 2020 that groups of up to six people would allowed to meet in England from Monday 1st June as their own achievement. All the Baz Thugwits of the forums (who don't read the papers it seems) are delirious.

 It is worth noting this is happening while the UK papers are reporting that there are currently 54,000 new cases a week (for comparison, the total number of cases from the beginning of March in Poland, 40 million people, today is is 23,571). Johnson's move seems rash, but the metal detectorists don't care. They think only of getting out there and grabbing as much of the past as will fit in their pockets.

The conservation group Heritage Action  (PAS’s commitment to archaeology is about to be tested in public! 31/05/2020) note the DCMS's response
"I [sic] will further investigate the situation as it relates to commercial rallies [the DCMS actually used the term!] and get back to you as soon as possible. As lockdown measures are eased we will continue to update you, and the guidance, so that your members are able to safely enjoy [ripping up and pocketing the nation's archaeological heritage]"
the DCMS used a euphemism instead of that last bit, but the meaning is clear.

Heritage Action note that:
Given that most detectorists and most archaeologists (including PAS) disapprove of commercial detecting rallies on the grounds they are particularly damaging, not to mention morally dubious, it is to be hoped the answer is a resounding NO. Interestingly, just about the only “further investigation” the DCMS will be undertaking is to ask PAS what they think. We can but hope that PAS has the testicular fortitude to tell them!
I think we can safely assume that the shrinking violets of Bloomsbury (some of whom seem to be in the thrall of collectors anyway) are going to say with trembling lower lips and shoulders sagging in helpless resignation, "yy-ess, yes, go ahead, but pleeeease show us what-yer-got". This is how England preserves its archaeological record, in artefact hunters' pockets.

"History" written by Coins and Metal Detectors, a Cautionary Example from Wiltshire Reviewed

 "evidence thus produced can contribute
normously to the knowledge of a site"

Richard Henry @richardhenryflo · 23 maj
I recently published an article with one of my former @findsorguk volunteers @SalisburyMuseum where they tested metal detecting methodologies and also rewrote our understanding of the Roman small town of Sorviodunum (Salisbury)
So these karaoke recorder volunteers of the PAStexplorers project (as suspected but never explicitly admitted by the PAS) included artefact hunters? A bit of a conflict of interest, no?
Then there is a reference to this:

Alix Smith and Richard Henry  2020 'A controlled metal-detecting survey: Revising the Roman numismatic perspective of Sorviodunum' Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, vol. 113 (2020), pp. 190–201 (Henry is the local FLO, Smith lives on the site and she is presumably one of the two detectorists mentioned - and the acknowledgements tell us that the other one was Jonathan Brooks who did not contribute).
In 2017, an opportunity arose to carry out a systematic metal-detecting survey in the environs of the Roman town of Sorviodunum. Whilst controlled excavations and geophysical investigations have previously taken place both inside the hillfort of Old Sarum and the area immediately surrounding it, this is the first time, to the authors’ knowledge,that any metal-detecting survey in the vicinity has been carried out. This study also provided an opportunity to test the methodological approach of a 10 per cent sample versus a 100 per cent metal-detecting survey. Discussion of the coins recovered from Sorviodunum provides for (sic) new insights into the town from the perspective of numismatic evidence. In addition to Roman coins, metal finds of medieval and other periods were also recorded, and these are argued to contribute to our understanding of Roman Sorviodunum, as well as later occupation at Stratford sub Castle.
Note: 'an opportunity arose' and 'to the authors' knowledge'.

The first thing one notes is that the actual area of the site examined is not in any way explicitly indicated or properly described in the publication, it provides (not 'for' !)  loosely 'floating data'. It looks like the field in question is that centred on 51° 5'17.16"N   1°48'31.91"W. The administrative district of the site is not given, neither are the dates of the survey (needed for searching for information on the PAS database). The scales of the maps are idiotic and seem deliberately designed to obscure information rather than inform.

One of the figures - two dot distribution maps, of course

The second is that the editors of Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine seem to have no idea about how to edit. The first three pages of this text is a solid block of narrativisation (called 'background') that could have been presented in four paragraphs with references to the literature. This is just padding and 'bibliography bulking'.  After the waffle we get (p. 192) to the research aims. This too is equally waffly. The searchers wanted to "determine the paucity or otherwise of artefacts within the site", in other words find out "how productive" the area next to a scheduled site was, a typically detectorist concern. Anyway, they say:
When practised responsibly following the Code of Practice (2017), metal-detecting outside the areas of the scheduled ancient monument [...] can cover a large area reasonably quickly and produce noteworthy results. If carried out with care and precision, evidence thus produced can contribute enormously to the knowledge of a site. To put this into context, before this study the total number of coins discovered at Sorviodunum was 91; by contrast, two detectorists undertaking a survey over a total period of 16 days, produced 133 coins.
Super eh? How could it be otherwise? But merely "recovering more artefacts" is not a valid research aim. That's just an extension of the  "wottalotta finds we got" PAS-mantra. They also reckon along with the coineys that "moneta uber alles" and merely getting 224 coins to put into "Reece periods" and make a histogram is 'doing archaeology' and  "can contribute enormously to the knowledge of a site".

By the way, note that 133 coins alone in 16 days is the equivalent of 130 recordable items each in a month - as opposed to Heritage Action's 30.25 per year.

To return to Brooks and Smith's "research aims":
The final aim was to test field methods for conducting metal-detecting surveys [...] Assessment of these results would, in turn, help demonstrate the value of metal-detecting as a complementary component of any archaeological examination of a site, adding substantially to the knowledge and evidence obtained from other elements such as non-invasive surveys and excavation. 
So rediscovering the wheel. Except they did not do any of those other elements, merely collected as many COINS as they could from an area of about 160 x 255 metres ( so that's 4 ha off the edge of a site that has an area of 17ha). Hmmm.

Methodology (pp 192-4) is more waffle (a lot of this should have been in the 'background') They followed the 'Code' (but make no mention of 'Our Portable Past') and say they had 'photographic evidence from the owners which showed the site had been ploughed in the 1970s'. They could have used Google Earth, where you can see it was ploughed in 2017. Padding.

Due to previous ploughing and agricultural use, the soil contained a large quantity of ferrous objects within the detectable depth, giving a high level of ‘background’ noise across the entire survey area [...] both detectors were nevertheless set to discriminate against ferrous objects, as is common in most metal-detecting surveys [refs]
Note that here the notion of 'background noise' is "not-coin noise" - they are aware that they are leaving evidence of Roman use of the site in the soil, but all they want are the goodies for their coin loss histograms. On p. 293:
finds were retained and recorded by being placed in individually numbered finds-bags, with an accurate GPS position of the finds recorded on the bag, using a Garmin Etrex 20 which is accurate to ±2m. All recovered finds were shown to the Finds Liaison Officer and all finds meeting the remit of the PAS (i.e. dating prior to AD 1700) were recorded onto the PAS database (www.finds., search ‘Sorviodunum survey’).
Go on, search. That information is hidden away under 'Other reference' in the PAS records, as shown by the anonymous record ('created 2 years ago, updated about one year ago') of the sole find that is (for some reason, its a bog-standard two standards Gloria Exercitus) presented in the article WILT-9D9B89. But that data-field seems not to be publicly searchable by the search engine provided. Padding.

Note the glaring fact that no mention is made in the article of where the objects recovered during this project were deposited. But then, the PAS record states 'Subsequent action after recording: Returned to finder'. This is important in the light of the declaration that an upcoming course of the so-called Institute of Detectorists on doing precisely such surveys "is about how to use the metal detector as an archaeological tool to contribute knowledge for public benefit - nothing to do with any "collection-driven exploitation". Here it looks like the detectorists pocketed the finds from this "survey". In other words, this article refers to a bout of collection-driven exploitation of a known site, right next to a scheduled site that is masquerading as an archaeological survey.

As for what it 'tells' us:
The distribution of Roman coins can also be compared against that of medieval and postmedieval finds (Figure 5). Roman coins have a clear focus towards the south of the field with only 17 coins located in the northern half, whilst the medieval and post-medieval material distribution is greatest to the north and is more evenly spread. The distribution of Roman coins potentially indicates that the extents (sic) of the settlement are greater than previously thought
Since along the west side of the field there is a modern hamlet, the later finds will more likely relate to the earlier stages of its development, and in particular to material carried out as manure from it . But the authors are more interested in making a histogram of the coins (pp. 195-198). They try to assess (classify!) the site, ignoring any archaeological evidence that was not a coin. There was pottery, probably slag, ferrous objects such as mounts, fittings and tools in that ploughsoil - some of it (if we believe detectorist lore) being eroded by being in that topsoil. Yet the opportunity to study it was ignored in favour of the COINS because they are (a) collectable and (b) have pictures and writing on them so they don't take a lot of effort to analyse and understand, unlike the rest of the archaeological evidence from a site where an understanding of context of deposition and discovery are needed more than an x-marks-the-spot-accurate-to-two-metres.

I'd have more sympathy for their notion that they have "discovered" that the extent of the settlement was greater at this point than previously thought if it was based on similar gridded fieldwalking of pottery, tile, nails and other archaeological evidence, and not based on the selective pocketing of a single class of evidence, ignoring its relationship with others. All we have is a pattern of dots.

As for the alteration of the coin histogram from this site that seems to so excite these writers, the histograms that 'show' this are not really very convincing. Both the peak of coins of Reece's period 13 (260-275) of the pre-survey sample and those of period 17 (330-348) of the survey results as well as that 'Flavian peak' (p. 192) into which much was read, could merely be due to localised effects. For example in the infield to the north of the settlement may have been a field ditch or largish quarry pit with a shallow upper fill that had been levelled by the dumping of domestic rubbish  in the 330s and 340s that was later ploughed out and that would explain why in this modern field, the coin assemblage differs from other areas of the site. In order to interpret these 'data', more information is needed about both context of deposition of these items and the context of discovery. It seems to me that apart from these peaks, the rest are within the range that could be explained as random sampling effects.

I think most of the authors' conclusions (pp 198-9) can be challenged, but this post is too long anyway and I can't be bothered. What is not coin-based is trite stuff (about waterways and all that) that is not particularly innovative, while other bits just go into text-driven speculation. The authors seem to think their (selective) 'evidence' from a single field, instead of reflecting what was happening in  a small part of the area just adjacent to part of a site apparently a kilometre long, can be a pars pro toto representation of the site's history that they then go even further and extrapolate into the regional context, but without any discussion (or even apparent awareness) of whether or not that is justifiable. Bonkers. 

The conclusions of this article are bulked out by including bits that should be in the 'recommendations for future metal-detecting surveys' but then both needed editing to remove the repetition. I'd add that any detectorist intending to attempt such a survey first needs to learn how to properly write up the results to avoid a train wreck like this paper - even if an archaeologist is involved in its drafting.

Two tekkies searched a field next to a Roman road, without saying which field, and without saying when, without saying what they eventually did with the material. They tell us about the coins, but nothing about the other finds (which are difficult to identify - if they are there at all - in the current form of the PAS database). They draw some 'conclusions' that are impossible to verify due to inaccessibility of the details of the 'survey'  or the material recovered. And then somebody writes, with the aid of the FLO, a paper 11 pages long that probably could have covered the same material in five if the excess narrativisation and padding were cut out. Yes the metal detector can be a useful archaeological tool, but only when used as such, and not a means to provide loose items to collect and witter about. 

Thursday, 28 May 2020

Artefacts from Northern Africa

There has been massive militant Islamist activity in Africa over the last few years. See the article by Jacob Zenn, 'I SIS in Africa: The Caliphate’s Next Frontier' Centre for Global Policy May 26, 2020.

One of the most prevalent prehistoric antiquities sold online on eBay are lithics and other objects (ancient beads in particular) removed from sites in the Sahara Desert and surrounding regions. I've got an article about this coming out in the next couple of months or so. Most of them are being sold by dealers in the USA and UK. Absolutely none of them offers any kind of paperwork showing legal procurement or the manner by which they were exported. Although the majority of the sellers do not  state where the items they are selling come from, we can determine that quite a lot of them are coming from the regions shown on this map.

The photomontage below shows only a small part of the stock of just one British dealer.
I have personally handled over 50,000 of these Neolithic arrowheads or 'flints' during my collecting over the last 20 years. All of my items are authentic, I do not sell fakes or reproductions, this is as important to me as it is to you. If any of my sales are ever proven to be anything other than stated and genuine I will refund in full.
Several sources talk of the stripping of entire sites over entire regions of the Sahara by artefact hunting precisely over that past 20-30 years.

Asad's Men Destroy Ancient Tombs

Reports are coming in that militias fighting alongside the Syrian regime of President Bashar Al-Assad  have desecrated and destroyed the tomb of the eighth Umayyad caliph ʿUmar b. ʿAbd al-̵ʿAzīz (r. 717-720 AD) located in the north-west province of Idlib.
 Video footage of the destruction emerged on social media yesterday, showing the graves of the Caliph, his wife and his servant damaged and with the contents exhumed and disappeared. The site in which the graves are housed, located in the village of Deir Al-Sharqi in the area of Maarat Al-Nu’man, is seen to be burnt following its capture by the regime and militia forces in February this year.  

Tomb of Umayyad Caliph Umar Ibn Abdul
Aziz  burnt and destroyed by militias,
28 May 2020 [Sana/Twitter]
This, although particularly sickening in itself, is not the first time such an incident has taken place after Assad regime loyalists have conquered territories.
In February, videos surfaced showing regime forces and militias desecrating and exhuming the graves of numerous opposition fighters and commanders buried in Sunni areas, with other videos showing Syrian soldiers playing with the skulls of exhumed bodies. Similar scenes were also reportedly witnessed back in 2015 when regime forces exhumed dozens of graves in Homs and stole the corpses.  

Still no Arrests Made, But Soothing Messages from the British Museum

A spinoff from the July 2019 Heathrow seizure of two trunkloads of antiquities from Bahrain... (Jonathan Gornall, 'Why fakes are replacing real trafficked antiquities from the Middle East' Arab News May 25, 2020). Readers will know I do not buy the argument offered (see also here), but the graphic is nice.

The article is not very well-researched though. For example, the looting in Iraq did not "begin" in 2003, in some areas we now know that it was coming to a close.  And to claim that this is due to "the on-the-ground support of the British Museum" is just junk journalism copy-and-pasting the type of self-gratulatory puff the BM pumps out analogous to the vacuous spin it produces on the Portable Antiquities Scheme. This - in the light of what actually is happening out there - ins nothing short of scandalous and irresponsible:
The discovery was confirmation, believes archaeologist Dr. St John Simpson, senior curator and assistant keeper of the British Museum’s Middle East Department, that the war on looters is being won. 
Because it most certainly is not, and the BM is doing precious little to contribute to that. I also profoundly disagree with the next statement. I do not know what the BM curator has been seeing, but this is not at all true:
Faking, added Simpson, “is an emerging trend. There is still looting going on in certain parts of the world — in parts of Syria there has been very bad looting. But the supply of fakes is on the increase. 
But to return to the fakes:
Unlike looting, which deprives an entire nation of its heritage, faking artifacts has only one direct victim — an unscrupulous wealthy individual blessed, perhaps, with rather more money than sense. “In this case I think it was somebody very gullible indeed,” says Simpson, “probably somebody who is interested in collecting ancient Mesopotamian documents as examples of the first writing in the Middle East, has read about them, maybe seen pictures of them, but has never actually handled the original, and who fell for fraud.” [...]  It was, said the museum, “as if the whole genre of ancient Mesopotamian writing was represented in one shipment: An entire collection ready for a single, uninformed buyer.” [...] Exactly where the forgers’ workshops are based “is difficult to say at the moment,” said Simpson. “We believe they are probably somewhere within the Middle East, but we have seen evidence of metalwork purporting to be from Iran or the Islamic world actually being made in the Far East. There is a global market.”
The article also puzzles over a "mystery" about the consignment seized by the UK authorities:
 despite extensive investigations no arrests have been made in the UK.
and I wonder why that is? Perhaps the people responsible are in some way connected with Dominic Cummings?

Wednesday, 27 May 2020

"Understanding the Contemporary Market for Antiquities": Erin Thompson's Auction Houses Exercise for Students

Erin L. Thompson @artcrimeprof tweeted 3 hours ago:
I had fun making an interactive activity for walking a class through an investigation of an antiquities auction for provenance and authenticity concerns. Use it in your art history, classics, or cultural property class if you want! Link.
It is well written in the author's inimitably humorous but open and informative style and has several sections:
Antiquities for Makers
Antiquities for Pre-Meds
Antiquities for People Who Don’t Blush Easily
Antiquities for Poli-Sci Majors
Antiquities for People Who Like to Play with Fire
Antiquities for Military History Buffs
Antiquities for Animal Lovers
Antiquities for Slackers
(the last one you can't actually choose) and then:
If after this exercise, you want to keep up with fakes, looting, and other scandals in the antiquities market, here are some good sources:
Some of the antiquities given as examples have been discussed  in the social media by Prof Thompson and myself (I'm even cited as an "expert" on erotic art in one section)

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