Thursday, 8 October 2009

"Stop sneering at Metal Detectorists": British Museum

British Museum curator Gareth Williams has written in defence of the artefact hunter and collector. His text is a reply to a comment by Alexander Chancellor in the Guardian newspaper a few days ago on the potentially damaging effects on the archaeological record of the publicity given to the discovery of the so-called "Staffordshire Hoard". Dr Williams writes of Mr Chancellor's views that "in complaining that the Staffordshire find will "inevitably bring metal-detecting in from the cold and lead to a modern gold rush", he harks back to a cold war mentality between metal detectorists and archaeologists that is now long out of date". Quite apart from Williams (deliberately or by inattention) entirely missing the point made by Mr Chancellor, this is a typical ploy of the pro-collecting lobby. They claim that those individuals who express concern about preserving the archaeological record from being exploited by artefact hunters as a mere source of collectables are somehow "dinosaurs" out of touch with modern thought on how the archaeological resource should be used. Personally I rather think that those who wish to condone nineteenth century elginistic trophy-seeking modes of exploitation of that record that are the ones left behind.

Mr Williams continues that despite being based in central London he can "work regularly with metal detectorists", now who would have thought there'd be so many of them in Bloomsbury? He chants the obligatory mantra: ""Detector-finds" have been "fundamental in changing our understanding of the past". So actually have roadworks, urban redevelopment and new airports. Second World War bombs on our historic cities and ancient sites too.

He then comes out with the same old "Noble Seeker" model that has become de rigeur in recent British discussion about artefact hunting. With misty-eyed sentimentality he assures us that "the vast majority of finds bring little or no pecuniary reward to the finders, nor are they expected to". (I wonder if he has seen the finds valuation pages of British detecting magazines like "The Searcher", let alone "Treasure Hunting magazine"?) Metal detector users (apparently) search for archaeological artefacts "not in the hope of financial gain, but because they are genuinely interested in history and want to find out more" and collecting artefacts from archaeological sites is the only way they can think of "finding out more about history". A lot of people are genuinely interested in history and do NOT collect in a back room or shed archaeological artefacts taken from archaeological sites.

Museum employee Williams assures us that many of them "have donated items to museum collections without reward, because they wish to make those finds available to the public". In that case, it would be useful if instead of coming out with glib statements like that he could supply some statistics on that from his own museum (indeed his own department), how many recent British metal-detector-made finds have actually been donated to the British Museum since 1999 [and how much they would be worth on the open market] as opposed to how many recent finds the BM has acquired which they've had to buy in the same period.

Williams produces his next trite justification, it is not the bona fide "metal detectorists" that are causing the damage to the archaeological record but ""nighthawks" – who detect without permission, and primarily for financial gain. They do real damage, both to farmland and to the archaeological record, and fully deserve Chancellor's criticisms". Hmm. At least he did not use the other de rigeur words here "minority of".

I really cannot accept this strange argument that metal detecting which is not "nighthawking" is not causing any damage to the archaeological record. That is simply nonsense. With or without the landowner's permission, if items are taken from archaeological sites, they are gone together with any information their position in the ground relative to other evidence may have held if observed properly, finito. The quality of the record determines to what extent any information lost when the finds are removed from context (even if it is a pattern across the surface of a ploughed field) can be recovered. This has nothing to do with whether farmer Bloggs knows who the two guys in combat fatigues in his field are and whether they give him a cut of the proceeds of any sales, or whether the sun is high in the sky or not. It's about the actual mechanism by which the collectable archaeological finds leaves the ground for the collector's pocket, and what information is collected with them, and what subsequently happens to both. To argue otherwise is as simplistic and misleading as it is false logic.

Williams gets even more misty-eyed about the knocks his artefact hunting "partners" have taken from life:
Some, like Mr Herbert, are unemployed, or in low-income jobs. Many (but by no means all) have limited formal education. Rather than assuming that such people must necessarily be greedy and uninterested in history, we should welcome the fact that metal-detecting has generated an interest in history in social groups which have not traditionally engaged with museums.
Come, Mr Williams, you are making our hearts bleed. Note the words "formal education". There is not much of that being provided these days by the British school system, so the trend is to pretend it is somehow not important. Now, what I do not understand is how a museum employee can seriously propose that all the material (many hundreds of thousands of items a decade) that is being taken out of the archaeological record by ill-educated, poorly-resourced individuals is best curated in the personal collections of people in "social groups which have not traditionally engaged with museums".

The views Dr Williams expresses in the Guardian as his own are of course the stock mantras of the pro-collecting crowd, trotted out by the supporters of private collectors of assorted portable antiquities on every occasion when there is a reporter or microphone in sight. Goodness knows why, surely museums in particular (and the British Museum especially) should be educating people NOT to encourage the elginistic exploitation of the archaeological record as a source of collectables. Which brings us back to the point made by Mr Chancellor. Has Dr Williams answered it? Well, not really, he has gone to the other extreme, saying it does not matter because...

I should have pointed out at the beginning that in the British Museum Gareth Williams is curator of Early Medieval coins. I think that is perhaps not without significance.

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