The author of the 2008 PAS Review was asked to recommend how the Scheme can be funded and managed in the future in a sustainable way. It seems to me that the sympathetic version of the practices of artefact hunting she has adopted in the report as a whole and especially in the superfluous Chapter two have led to her seriously downplaying the role of the PAS in mitigating the erosion of artefact hunting which was the reason for it being set up in the first place. As a result, the author has not examined this aspect of the current and future functioning of the PAS in any detail. She apparently accepts the soothing messages put out by the PAS suggesting that the current total of finds being reported to the Scheme by metal detector users is acceptable – and clearly has ignored any contrary opinions.
There is some considerable doubt about to what degree the PAS can currently be seen as providing any sort of mitigation of the cumulative, long term and permanent damage being caused to the UK's archaeological record by the deliberate removal of archaeological finds from it by collectors for entertainment and profit. Clark makes much of the database of 350 000 objects (a more accurate idea of the information being recorded would be given by quoting the number of records, not finds within a record) and seems to regard that as a satisfying quantity. This should be seen however in the light of the model presented by the Heritage Action artefact erosion counter which estimates that until today, since the start of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, 3,475, 000 recordable artefacts have been removed from the archaeological record and disappeared into scattered ephemeral collections. The fact that just 350 000 of them were recorded by the PAS really is no reason for comfort. If these figures are correct (and I believe that essentially they are) it actually means that 90% of the archaeological material being removed from the ground in the UK by metal detector users is simply disappearing and we have no idea what is taken or where its going. It seems inconceivable to me that any proper review of the past decade of operation of the PAS would not take that into account.
The Portable Antiquities Scheme claimed (page 9 of its eighth annual report for 2005/6) well over a year ago that it had actually fulfilled its own fifth aim which was the all-important task of defining:
the nature and scope of a scheme for recording portable antiquities in the longer term, to assess the likely costs and to identify resources to enable it to be put into practice.It turns out that despite this explicit claim, subsequent events showed that not only had it not in fact actually done this at all, but had no idea how to start (it remains an open question why an official scheme would state it had when this was not true and that no questions were asked about such behaviour when it turns out it had not).
Kate Clark (without commenting on the previous claim) has set about doing this, but on the assumption that the current levels of recording do not need to change drastically. Surely as a first step in designing a PAS that will act as part of a coherent heritage management policy, relatively reliable information on the actual numbers of artefact hunters involved and the patterns of their activities is required. A decade’s activity of the PAS might be expected to have produced this information and a review of that decade would normally start on using that as a basis for future prognosis. Well, all we learn from Clark’s review (p. 15) is that
It is difficult to estimate the number involved in England and Wales, as many people who have bought detectors don’t use them regularly, but both the clubs and the PAS estimate that there are between 8,000 and 10,000 people who actively take part in the hobby.It should be noted that this is up 2000 on the estimate (about 8000) provided by the Head of the Scheme in a recent text (Rescue News 99). It should be noted that the Heritage Action figures quoted above are based on the total number of active detectorists involved in England and Wales as 8700, not 10 000.
Clark refers several times in her review (pp. 6, 28-9, 36, 38) to the “demand for recording” as though this was a service provided to “finders” rather than an archaeological resource conservation measure mitigating information loss. She sees this “demand” as increasing in future but soothes (p. 38) that “An increase of £160,000 (c 12%) would enable PAS is to maintain regional equity and put in place a long term solution to the ever increasing demand for recording”. If 12% more money could be translated into 12% more recording of archaeological artefacts being removed from the record by UK collectors, it still means that 89% of the finds predicted by the Heritage Action model would be vanishing without record. How much would it cost to get 75% coverage of this lost information? About ten million pounds annually should fix it. Ten million pounds to service the archaeologically erosive hobby of eight to ten thousand (one in 6000 individuals). That seems too high a cost to me.
I think that is why nobody in the pro-collecting lobby is at all interested in determining the patterns of activity and real effects on the archaeological record of current archaeological (so-called “heritage management”) policy. I would argue that a decade of operation of the PAS costing us all in excess of eight million quid should have equipped us with detailed information of precisely this type. I would ask why it did not. I would ask why Kate Clark’s review did not point this out.
The reader will however note a further inconsistency in Clark’s treatment. In her highly selective paean to metal detectorists (Chapter two, p. 15-6) she mentions with apparent approval (or a lack of disapproval) the UK Detector Finds database. She does not point out any of the problems which have led to it being criticized by some (but by no means not all) archaeologists and conservationists. Seeing that this database costs the ordinary citizen not a penny, the reader might well ask therefore why following the model of this database is not one of the “options” considered in her discussion of funding the NuPAS? Exploring all the options in a government funded review would require a fuller treatment of this issue. If nothing else, the differences between it and the PAS are a significant pointer to the fact that the latter does not accurately reflect what this particular group of “finders” think a database of their finds should look like. Also the guides to particular categories of “small finds” which its users have written are precisely what one should be finding on the PAS website, showing readers what information these objects can provide. I am not an admirer of the UKDFD, but think it has important lessons to which this review should have paid much more attention. Clark mentions it but does not examine it to suggest alternative options to the NuPAS she sets out to institute.
* How much would the Heritage Action figures have to “be wrong” to make them and the current rate at which the PAS is recording the vanishing information acceptable? 20%? 30%? 50%?