Sunday, 23 January 2011

Negligence Writ Large

Travellers along the busy A14 dual carriageway in Cambridgeshire got a good view last week of The Central Searchers' Keyston Metal detecting Rally taking place on the earthworks of Medieval field systems under pasture. This is the sort of thing they saw, British archaeological heritage protection in action:

Commercial rallies like this are extremely damaging to the archaeological heritage, hundreds of individuals descend on an area of the historic landscape (the more historic, the better the tickets sell) and strip anything collectable out and take it away for collection or sale, and strip anything not collectable out and throw it away. If at any stage in the future a landscape archaeology project would be contemplated it would find the dataset skewed to an unknown degree by the localised effects of this activity. Rallies are not discussed much in the pro-collecting propaganda, they are in fact an enormous weak point in the fluffy-mouthed airheadedness that passes for justifications of a "partnership" between archaeology and this type of archaeological asset-stripping. There is supposed to be a "code" of practice. Heritage Action ("Running detecting rallies: it’s a living, innit?") has a few comments on that:
Only two rally organisers agreed to the official guidelines. Central Searchers wasn’t one of them (and one of the two has pulled out). We can’t help thinking that if this landowner had been given a full official account of the implications this event might not have taken place. So all in all it seems high time (and a duty owed) for PAS, CBA, EH and DEFRA to make it crystal clear to landowners, detectorists and the tens of thousands of people that travelled along the A14 last Saturday that what was going on was damaging and that such rallies are against all professional advice and wishes. After all, those thousands of landowners and motorists may well think that since rallies are obviously not nighthawking (and are often dressed up as “for charity”) they must be beneficial – for that is the broad message that has been constantly delivered to them for years!
Well, of course when PAS (though I do not think they attended this one) relies on commercial artefact hunting rallies for achieving its 'aims', they are not going to speak out about them, are they? Commercial artefact hunting rallies concentrate hundreds of artefact hunters in one place busily engaged in hoiking hundreds of luvverly 'recordable' artefacts out of the archaeological record, and then line up at the PAS tables in the beer tent to show them. The FLO does not even have to get off his seat to add hundreds of new records to the PAS database ("that field over there? Right mate"). After all, the PAS presents itself to the public only in terms of ""whattalottastuff we've got"; the number of zeros after the number on the "number of objects on the database today" statistic is what is supposed to convince the stakeholders that the PAS is saving the past for the public. It is not. This is artefact fetishism, not a holistic process of heritage management. The PAS database is a sorry record of just part of a process of the denudation of the archaeological record by artefact collectors, day after day, week after week, month after month. It is not even honest enough to actually say that in those terms. The PAS is not "preserving sites" (Gill 2010), its not even talking about it as part of its so-called "outreach", far from it, it is watching on as this depradation goes on and the expansion of its database is a result of this activity. When are the British public going to be told by British archaeology what the rest of the world knows. What is happening in the fields out there is NOT archaeologically justifiable, it is NOT sustainable, it is simply wanton and largely unmitigated damage by selfish exploitive individuals of the archaeological record which (archaeologists say they regard as) the common heritage of an entire generation and the generations that will come after them. Except individuals are brazenly pocketing bits of it under the noses of the entire approving archaeological milieu. Now let those same archaeologists turn round and tell the public and purse-string holders that they need to fork out lots of cash for real archaeology because the fragile archaeological resource needs protecting from damage, what kind of arguments can they offer? None, I would think. Not honest ones.

Photo: This is the way the British "protect" the country's archaeological heritage (courtesy of an A14 motorist who reads this blog)

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