Monday, 6 December 2010

The View From "Fortress Detecting"

An article in the Federation of Metal Detectorists (FID) Newsletter by David Wood is worthy of note as an expression of the "Fortress Detecting" mentality in post-PAS-outreach UK.

The fact that the Crosby Garrett helmet slid under the radar of the Treasure Act and within days of coming out of the ground was in a London auction house with the consequent losses to us all was decried by a number of responsible artefact hunters and collectors. There was however another group of artefact hunters who were on the side of the vendors. The article takes an even more militant view. It is interesting to compare the sentiments expressed with those one might expect from a group of (ostensibly) responsible artefact hunters who have been exposed to thirteen years of publicly funded "outreach" intended to instil the principles of "best practice" and through contact with the archaeological establishment instil some understanding of what it is that British archaeology is about and what it is trying to achieve. It starts off notably:
Is my Find a Blessing or a Curse?
We all dream of finding something spectacular, maybe a hoard of celtic coins or perhaps a massive celtic torc. Whatever our personal preference, maybe it is part of the makeup of most detectorists. this familiar daydream that for a special few actually happens. The trouble is that whilst the establishment are always eager to get their hands on anything that is shiny, valuable and old, they resent it being found by ordinary folk and even more having to fork out money, even though the money in question is taken in various taxes from these same "ordinary folk".
Well, of course this is all lies. As we know the metal detectorists of Britain do it out of a (passionate) love of 'istry, and "not fer the munny". They are not - we are constantly assured - "Treasure hunters" at all. Why would one not want to believe that?

More seriously, I really get angered by the anti-establishment claptrap these guys come out with, always trying to make themselves look like the victims of some conspiracy. They are just as bad as the pathetic coineys over the other side of the Atlantic. The British "establishment" (sic) does not "resent" "ordinary folk" taking an interest in the past and finding archaeological remains and recognising them for what they are. Far from it. But are metal detector using treasure finders "ordinary folk" in the same way as the fifty-odd million whose taxes they think should be rewarding them for reporting to the Coroner and handing over to the Crown what by the law of the land is the property of the Crown and thereby the nation? Would they expect a reward for reporting a corpse found in the river or forest to the Coroner too? Also the money which archaeology and heritage gets in Britain does not all come out of "taxes". Wood gets into his stride:
Over the years, they [the "Establishment"] have tried to take over control, of our hobby and the finds we make. They have tried to get legislation in Parliament, used new and existing "special areas" to restrict or licence access, in fact every obstacle they could find to discourage the ordinary man or woman from seeking their own little piece of history".
Let us get this clear. The "special areas" where metal detecting is restricted and which Wood apparently to which wants to have free access are defined on conservation grounds to protect the resources they contain from damage or destruction by individuals (whether they be ordinary men or women "seeking their own little piece of history" or rare birds eggs, orchids or whatever) so they can be enjoyed by present and future generations of ordinary folk. This is - as any truly responsible detector user would have realised - the rationale behind the measures taken to try to prevent the continued despoliation for entertainment and profit of what is, after all, a finite and fragile resource of importance to us all. But then does not tekkie rant like this reveal just how utterly shallow the effects of thirteen years of expensive outreach have been? Responsible detectorists should be leaving the FID in droves on reading such things in its newsletter. Are they?

Referring to the Crosby Garrett Helmet, Wood then continues his outburst:
Problems for the hobby usually start when someone makes a once in a lifetime find like the Roman helmet [...] recently selling for 2000000 pounds. It is hoped that it will not cause the anti-detecting brigade to once again try and interest Parliament in passing legislation to put the hobby in the pocket of the 'Heritage Industry'. Over the years the pattern has had a familiar ring to it. Detectorists make a significant find, the media hype it up (usually exaggerating the importance and value of the find) then the Heritage establishment lobby their friendly MP's and hey presto, the metal detecting hobby has again to battle for its life.
It makes one think that Wood depicts the promised changes in the legislation resulting from the Crosby Garrett fiasco as intended to "put detecting in the pocket of the heritage industry". Does he and those who think like him consider that items like the Crosby Garrett helmet should not be part of everybody's heritage but sold off to the highest private bidder? Does the responsible detectorist thinks there should be a legislational free-for-all on the conversion of Britain's archaeological record into a saleable commodity?

What kind of effects has all this "outreach" been having on attitudes in the collecting community? It seems to me on reading such stuff that the answer is likely to be "not very much", but of course measuring the extent of these changes has not been an interest of the PAS or anyone else, just as long as lots of people keep coming forward with nice items to "record".

[In passing: Is it just those concerned with the heritage in England who can find "friendly MPs"? I bet UK tekkies wish they lived in the US where if recent events reported on this blog are anything to go by, Congressmen no doubt could be found to support their philistinism.]

Wood reminds his readers how, after defeating the County of Kent Bill, the outbreak of catastrophic looting of an archaeological site by metal detector users at Wanborough
resulted in one of the toughest battles waged against the hobby to date. [...] Fortunately, after another tough fight, common sense prevailed and detecting survived. Only time will tell if history will repeat itself. Let us hope things have changed and we will be left to enjoy our hobby in peace.
[Two papers in Suzie Thomas and Peter Stone's Metal Detecting and Archaeology (2008) put those comments into perspective - by Addyman and Thomas].

Wood ends with fighting talk:
However if some spectacular find should once again be used as a cudgel in an attempt to quash the hobby, I'm confident that modern detectorists are just as ready to stand up and be counted, just as their predecessors did in the 1970s and 1980s. For now though, it will pay us all to make sure we do everything by the book so we do not give ammunition to the enemy and keep our eyes out [sic] for anything that looks like the start of an anti-detecting campaign.
Nobody is trying to "quash" artefact hunting, but rather to try and make it as sustainable and non-damaging and archaeologically productive (and thus useful) as possible. Quite clearly we are still a very long way away from achieving that.

Note the motive for appearing to be "responsible" - "so we do not give ammunition to the enemy". Not because they all believe deep in their hearts that this is the right way to behave when collecting bits of the archaeological heritage for profit and entertainment. As I said there is every indication from the unchallenged recurrence of this sort of fighting talk in the UK metal detecting milieu that the lessons and effects of "outreach" have been totally superficial. If there is to be any rationalisation of Britain's laws concerning the preservation of the archaeological heritage we can count on a substantial proportion of the post-outreach artefact hunting community to oppose it as vehemently as the militants of the 1970s and 1980s.

As Wood notes however "times have changed" - such a display of philistinism may well be the last nail in the coffin of the illusion that there can be a "partnership" between archaeology/preservation and artefact hunting and collecting on the basis of the UK's existing legislative norms. This time round the general public - after all also the target of PAS outreach about responsible "finding" - may well see through the façade and start to make their own demands on artefact hunters and policy makers that have let things slide for so long.

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