Thursday, 9 October 2008

A “Metal Detecting” holiday in Suffolk

There are many “metal detectorists” active in Suffolk in England, many of whom record their findspots to a high degree of accuracy and report them to the PAS and local Archaeology Service (the official line is that by doing so they are adding something to our knowledge of the sites from which they take their collectables, and therefore a bit about the past of the region). Many however do not, and simply exploit archaeological sites in the county as a source of collectables year after year.

There is a video on the Internet (entitled by Steve Ta[y]lor its author “the plunderers”) showing a group of metal detector using artefact hunters “in action” in January this year, apparently on the estate of Colston Hall, Badingham, in Suffolk. Most people probably would not watch more than a few minutes of it, it is overlong and self-indulgent and like certain avant-garde continental films of the 1970s, nothing much is shown happening in a series of loosely connected episodes. The banal commentary and dialogues make the comparison of the hobby with trainspotting so much more clear.

The film however has a value other than its rather dubious artistic merits. It is a document showing a few things which are worth noting in any discussion of British artefact hunting and in particular an examination of what its practitioners say about it.

In particular, at several points throughout the film, the camera scans over what has been found. The first time it’s the products of exploiting “our Roman field” and then on the third day. Although the quality of the photography is poor, it can be seen that:

a) Comparison with what we know the fields of rural Suffolk over a known Roman site will contain, it’s clear that the collectors have only picked up a highly selective range of artefacts from the sites they searched. These fields would have contained artefacts of ceramic,
stone and other materials which have apparently simply been ignored. Likewise the selection of items kept looks to be heavily biased towards how nice they would look in a collection (or maybe on eBay?) rather than being a proper sample of the archaeological content of each of the sites searched.

b) Nowhere do we see any of these “detectorists” recording where any of these finds came from. In the ‘third day’ general shots we see them all muddled up regardless of which field they came from (we see several of them being found earlier in the film) or which part of the field they were from. None of them has any sort of label attached to them on which this information could be recorded. The only provenance this can provide is “one of several scattered fields in the general area of Badingham”.

c) Metal “detectorists” make much of the threat which modern farming and agrochemicals poses to the survival of metal objects in the topsoil. In the shots of finds from “our Roman field” however it is noticeable that only one of the person’s finds shows the type of corrosion which is held out as ‘proof” that this is happening. In comparison, the other finders’ metal finds are perfectly all right. If all finds were being attacked by the modern farming regime, and since all the objects are said to be from the same field, clearly this is not the explanation of the effect. I would suggest that these detectorists were working a different part of the field and the difference in state of preservation is due to soil conditions (a different subsoil) rather than what is being spread in the topsoil across the whole field by the farmer. This is a good indicator that the glib tales told about chemical attack are oversimplification of a much more complex situation.

d) We are told by the commentator that four searchers over four days found 16-17 hammered coins and called it a “reasonable” number. The finds scattered across the tabletop by day three already comprised some 60 coins, a dozen or so Roman brooches and several tens of other finds (we presume that most are “ancient” as elsewhere in the film
another object is dismissed as not being “ancient”). Dividing this haul by four detectorists and dividing that by the three days that it represents shows that these people were achieving the sort of finds rate of ancient and PAS-reportable objects that makes the
Action Erosion Counter
entirely plausible. It works out at just
30 finds a year for the average metal detector user. Each participant in this four day trip took home about half that from this one trip alone, even though conditions were far from ideal and this is clearly a highly selective sample of the artefacts actually located with the metal detector and dug out, the rest were apparently discarded as non-collectable. But many of these fragments of what is discarded as “scrap” would be archaeological evidence all the same.

e) Any search of the PAS database is always a frustrating activity and I admit I gave up on it this morning. Life is too short. While my patience lasted, I could find no record there of any finds from the parish and the large chunk of Bronze Age ‘gouge’ is not among the ten from Suffolk thrown up for me by the clunky old PAS search engine. It looks very much from this like these finds were not reported to the PAS, though I stand to be corrected here, perhaps not all records made by SCC Archaeology Section end up on the PAS database. Certainly, however, no mention was made of the PAS in the film itself.

This video was posted on the Internet by a “metal detectorist” to show people what artefact hunters get up to, and what a lot of fun four middle-aged lads can have away from home with their snacks, booze and metal detectors. We see them in the field acting as they normally do, eavesdrop on their banter and discussions of finds. This is far more valuable a document than anything any critic could say about the hobby, this is part of the picture of the hobby that “metal detectorists” themselves are disseminating. Their own words, their own images, no charges of ‘manipulation’ by hostile critics can be laid. The picture presented can be confronted with the myths and mantras promulgated by the pro-collecting lobby and conclusions drawn about the degree to which what is said about the hobby and its effects corresponds to the reality.

There are many more such videos in the Internet, and discussion forums where one can to a degree not possible even a few years ago almost ‘get in among’ real artefact hunters, see what they are talking about, how they react to events (such as the reports of what happened at the Stixwourth rally). Taken together, this is an opportunity for those who also are stakeholders in “the portable past” to learn about what a minority group is doing to it. Close observation of candid internet videos of unsung heritage heroics are just one source which makes the mindset of the artefact hunter and collector a bit more accessible.

1 comment:

Paul Barford said...

Sadly, soon after this was posted the video apparently became "unavailable" from If this is a permanent state, its probably no great loss to the world of multimedia entertainment. It does however prevent enquiring readers of this blog who did not view it before it disappeared from seeing whether in my discussion of it I am telling the truth about what I saw there. I guess "metal detectorists" will inevitably claim it's all lies, the rest can make their own mind up.

Or perhaps, more charitably, the author is at this moment editing the drearier bits out (and that awful fry-up in the middle) and adding all the out-takes which show full GPS plotting and the distribution map of the finds and their visit to the local archaeology service to hand the finds and data over. Then the freshly edited version will appear to our great delight and applause.

Otherwise, we can only wonder why it disappeared and whether perhaps there is something somebody does not want people seeing, now attention has been drawn to it. Never mind, there are still more videos of metal detectorists in action out there in www-land. Perhaps we should rush and view them now and get an idea what this artefact hunting looks like before they too disappear.

I have had some interesting correspondence from a gentleman who claims to be the author of the film, and have just asked him for permission to place his letter on this blog so we can sdiscuss what he says there. Let's see if he agrees.

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