The former Minister of Culture in Britain once likened artefact hunting with metal detectors to "fishing on land". As we all know, fishermen like to tell tales of the "one that got away". We are told that the Portable Antiquities Collection is managing to record "40 to 80%" of the artefacts removed by these people to scattered ephemeral artefact collection (or eBay) each year. How many artefacts then does Roger Bland, head of the PAS say are getting away unrecorded after being removed from the ground?
We can use the 2007 figures (summarized by Clark, p. 22 and now by Bland). Bland asserts that the total number of finds reported by metal detector users in 2007 is 40 to 80 % of all finds made by metal detector users in England and Wales in that year. This would mean that annually "metal detectorists" in England and Wales are removing from the ground between 70 and 165 thousand archaeological objects a year. Of these they reported about 58 thousand (on average ten finds per reporter). This means the number of “finds that got away” was between 12 and 107 thousand artefacts. that is the equivalent of between one and nineteen unreported finds per “detectorist”. So is each metal detectorist in the country holding back a statistical one object a year from the PAS (why? What is this mysterious object and why is it kept hidden away?) or are they statistically showing ten but holding back nineteen? What actually is the real pattern of activity behind Bland's broad estimate? Why, after over a decade of outreach among these people do we not have firmer figures?
The results of the gathering of data on this problem by the British volunteer group Heritage Action discussed earlier on this blog indicate that the national figures are much higher, at a conservative estimate, approximately 300 000 objects a year. How accurate is this comforting picture painted by Dr Bland? On what secret PAS data is it based? How well is Britain really coping with the plague of artefact hunting and portable antiquity collecting and commerce?