Monday, 25 May 2009

Strategic report strategically altered

The Final Report of the Strategic Study produced by Oxford Archaeology for the governmental advisory body English heritage on illegal artefact hunting was published online as a pdf document on Monday Feb. 16th. Just a few days later as reported here, it vanished (see here for a still broken link to the February release). It then reappeared on the English Heritage site without any announcement or explanation.

Closer examination reveals that the current document is not the same as originally published in February and which some of us printed out in hard copy. Just as in the memory holes in Winston Smith’s Ministry of Truth the old version has been deleted from the public record and a new politically correct one substituted.

The changes are not – as far as I can see – identified in the new document which is now identified on the title page as “issue no. 3, April 2009”). [We all missed the first, what was in it?]

The two changes I spotted are interesting. The most striking is the total and unexplained absence of one of the case studies in Wiltshire. This has disrupted the pagination in the section of the report from pages 58-64 [where there is now a blank half page to compensate]. What is striking about this – apart from the fact that this has happened at all in an official report after publication – is that the conclusions drawn from this particular case remain unaltered in the later sections of the report, but are now unsupported by any evidence gathered ‘on the ground’.

The second set of changes seem to have been made under pressure from a private metal detecting finds “recording scheme”. From 24th February, its owners were conducting a spamming campaign drawing attention to some statements made by the original Nighthawking report which it alleged were untrue. Lo and behold when the ‘Issue three Nighthawking report’ appeared, some changes had been made to its page 14 which has again led to a difference between the pagination of the two versions of this “Final report”. Significantly, they do not actually address all of the three main points made in the detectorists' spamming campaign - and the overall assessment of the database concerned is not changed (though it is interesting to see this being claimed as some kind of a 'victory' by those concerned).
I do not know what other changes have been made in this document, but certainly the text needs to be treated with caution. The same goes for the conclusion it draws. The way which the absence of a paper publication allows manipulation of the official record of what the Study found out as a result of over 100 000 (I believe it was) pounds and several months' work is profoundly disturbing.

Personally, I think this hasty alteration of an already-published document is symptomatic of the rather haphazard way in which Britain goes about assessing the effects of current policies on artefact hunting on the archaeological record. Obviously if a few days after publication of the Final Report it is silently withdrawn for emendation (i.e., deletion of a whole section of the findings and a rephrasing of others) then there clearly is something very wrong with the process by which it was compiled.


Paul Barford said...

I have just found this which seems to suggest the reason why Oxford Archaeology changed the Final report of the Strategic Study.

Marcus Preen said...

Fascinating stuff! So it contained potentially actionable material, it seems. Thank goodness the matter has been rectified.

That link contained more though. Two points stand out –

First, some advice to the authorities:
“So why not include a request to provide guidance on how to recognize a responsible detectorist? Perhaps ask them to produce their Federation photo-identity card and current insurance? Responsible detectorists will all have one.”

That’s a porky, isn’t it? (I hope that’s not actionable!). A FID or NCMD card offers no more reassurance of being a responsible detectorist than a bus ticket since neither organisation requires members to comply with the Code for Responsible Detecting and stress it is merely voluntary – a sentiment which the memberships appear to embrace with great enthusiasm judging by PAS’s statistics on the numbers that report finds to them. The recommendation is therefore ludicrous and could have no effect other than to grievously mislead landowners. It is to be hoped that the authorities will not be party to such a claim.

Second, a very telling reaction to the idea that efforts should be made to integrate metal detecting into the archaeological process, including development control briefs. It is clear what the authors of the report were thinking of when they wrote that. But here is the reaction on the FID website:
“I’m surprised that detectorists across the nation aren’t all jumping with joy over that recommendation. First dibs at new sites? On the state?”


Paul Barford said...

So it contained potentially actionable material, it seems. Thank goodness the matter has been rectified. Well Marcus, the 'second issue' version of events at this particular site that was withdrawn did not in fact. It was a perfectly neutral account, corresponding closely to this:

I think British archaeologists are so worried about criticising any aspect whatsoever of "metal detecting" that the moment one of them says "hang on there..." they back down.

The final report was published only AFTER EH accepted it. Now it turns out that they accepted (and presumably already authorised payment for?) something that when challenged they were not prepared to stand by. What message does that give out about the worth of this report? What else was changed after publication?


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