Heritage Action is a grassroots organization seeking a better deal for Britain's archaeological mouments and landscapes, a group of volunteers passionately interested in the historic heritage and trying to take action against those, especially goverment bodies and institutions, that seem to be neglecting the duty to look after them. One of the topics of their recent concern is government policy towards artefact hunting and collecting, damaging archaeological sites in Britain on a worrying scale with very little being done by the authorities to prevent it. In his comments to my post ("making it sustainable ...") on this blog Roger Bland, Head of the UK's Portable Antiquities Scheme asks:
Equally, how can anyone put any credence into Heritage Action's Artefact Erosion Counter when the basis on which it is calculated is not stated? 316,000 finds a year? How impressive to be so certain on so little evidence. For you simply to say that you believe it to be accurate is hardly adequate.
[The Erosion Counter under discussion can be found here at the moment it stands at some3,478,000 'recordable' objects which have been collectively removed from the archaeological record since the start of the Portable Antiquities Scheme].
Well, I would like to hear Roger Bland's own best estimate on the number of 'recordable' artefacts that are being taken by artefact hunters (let us say just those using metal detectors) in England and Wales year by year and on what basis he arrives at his estimate. Is it possible to learn that after a decade or more and eight million quid's worth of liaison by the PAS? After not one but three separate 'independent reviews' of the Scheme's operation? It seems a pretty fundamental question to me. Too important to say "we have no idea, but one day we might".
I believe the Heritage Action Erosion counter figures are far more useful as a basis for discussion of current policies than the government's eight million pound "we don't know yet".
As Roger Bland knows only too well (!), I have been concerned about the scale of the erosion of the UK archaeological record due to artefact hunting and collecting for some years. Since no real figures seemed to exist in the context of which to examine the 'propaganda of success' that the pro-collecting lobby was putting out (concerning number of items recorded through the PAS for example), and nobody seemed keen to try and determine this, I took an interest in this problem and have been trying to determine this myself. A few years ago, after constant frustration of attempts to obtain such figures from the PAS and pro-collecting lobby in archaeology, I formed a small informal working group (now no longer active) called EAHAR (Effects of Artefact Hunting on the Archaeological Record) where we discussed this. The erosion counter grew out of these discussions.
I should perhaps admit that to some extent I was involved in the creation of the Heritage Action counter (though it is not by any means my own work or based solely on information I gathered) and I know how much thought and work of a number of dedicated volunteers passionately interested in conserving Britain's historic record actually went into it. I need not add that it did not cost the taxpayer a penny, but addresses questions that bodies that do should have been answering about the common archaeological heritage and how it is being "managed" (which in this case seems a loose use of the term).
A second point that needs to be made with regard Roger Bland's disparaging remarks is that the HA website is one doing “outreach” and not in itself an academic publication. The basis on which the erosion counter is calculated and the underlying definitions are all laid out in the book which Nigel Swift and I have written and will hopefully be out next year. I am sure they will then be well and truly scrutinised. My hope is that they will then be replaced by an even more firm estimate. I should add that in the course of work on the book after Heritage Action had set the Erosion Counter ticking away, we were led to the realisation that there were other factors not initially taken into account which should have led to the rate being set even higher. But as it says on the webpage, it is deliberately a conservative estimate of the erosion caused by the removal of artefacts from the archaeological record by metal detector using artefact hunters.*
I really do not see why Roger Bland scoffs at "316000 objects" a year. It is not a great amount if he himself accepts that there could be up to ten thousand detectorists in England and Wales alone. That’s just 31 objects a year each, a handful of Roman “grots”, a buckle or two, a hammered coin and some other bits. That’s not actually very much at all. There are artefact hunters on PAS who have (they say) recorded a thousand items in the last three years - 300 a year (Pete Twinn the Bristol detectorist who Kate Clark spent a lot of time talking to asserts that is the case with his finds). There are 'highlights' from metal detectorists' collections on UKDFD which show that individual detectorists have many more found in the course of a year. There’s the profoundly disturbing Mike Pegg video referred to on this blog a few months back with his “shedfull” of artefacts. There were the four guys (the video pulled from You Tube immediately after I drew attention to it here) who went on a metal detecting weekend in Suffolk and despite it being wet and horrible each proudly displayed a haul greater than thirty recordable items from just one weekend. There are many cases of personal artefact collections which contain more than thirty new recordable items added annually, especially if the searcher has found a "productive" site, like a Roman settlement or Early Medieval cemetery.
Of course at the other end of the scale are the dozens of sad individuals that plug away at the hobby and despite going out in all weathers for hours on end manage to find one or two things a year. There are a lot of them in the hobby, many of them probably only go out to meet other people they can talk to in a field at rallies and so on. Then there are many who fall between these extremes. What we need is a much greater amount of precision about artefact hunting and collecting patterns. I believe the Heritage Action counter takes these factors fully into consideration.
As things stand at the moment I believe the Heritage Action Erosion Counter is a relatively accurate reflection of the loss to the British archaeological record due to artefact hunting and collecting.
Supporters of the PAS scoff at the figures, but (as did Roger Bland just now) omit to address the second part of the question I ask about it. Even if the supporters of a "partnership" with artefacts and hunters think these figures are "wrong" (as they must in order to save face), then by how much must these figures be "wrong" to make the situation an acceptable one? Twenty percent, thirty, fifty? This is a question to which I would like to hear the answer.