Thursday, 26 May 2011

Britain: "An Amateur Treasure-Seeker's Paradise"

Britain, due to lax legislation is now considered an amateur treasure-seeker's paradise where, according to Stefano Ambrogi of Reuters reporting on another PAS boastfest ('Britain: An amateur treasure-seeker's paradise', May 25th 2011) "unusually, government and museums approve detection and digging by general public" and "detector enthusiasts [...] are able to keep their haul":
Britain is bursting with ancient buried treasure and the masses have been bitten by the bug for digging it up — ironically with the full approval of the government and leading museums. Latest figures released by the British Museum on Wednesday showed a "massive" jump in the number of antiquities and spectacular objects classed as treasure being found by ordinary citizens with a passion for history.
"Highlights displayed at the British Museum" include "a stash of late Iron Age solid gold coins, called "staters," dating from 15 to 20 AD" (that would be the Wickham Market hoard where limited excavations - I think as yet unpublished - failed to reveal much about its burial context). "Of equal importance" (for whom?) "is a unique Roman knife handle depicting a perverted erotic scene involving two males and a female with one of the figures clutching a decapitated head. Only a handful of erotic knife handle designs have ever been found in Britain".

Apparently we are to rejoice that "In 2010, over 90,000 archaeological objects were reported to museums across the country — a 36 percent rise on 2009 — through what is known as the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS)". Well, were they? Is that REALLY what that figure of 90 000 represents? Who says so? Where is the Celtic Coin Index and the Roman Coins of Wales database? What about the Norfolk paper records entered by interns? All these contain information coming from PREVIOUS years, and not 2010 alone, don't they? In the case of the CCI some data going back to the eighteenth century well before electronic metal detectors (well before electricity in fact).

According to the article (is this based on a PAS press release?) the reason why so-called "detector enthusiasts" (why not call them what they are - artefact hunters?) were "derided by archaeologists in the past for their unscientific practices". That rather skips over what is meant by "unscientific", it is not whether they use more sophisticated (depth advantage and discriminating) electronic tools for "detecting" metal collectables, but the fact that the archaeological record is being actively mined as a source of collectables in Britain. That is what the problem is, sites and assemblages are being ripped apart and plundered for collectable geegaws, and all the public is told by an appreciative press is that we've an erotic knife handle and to a set of post-medieval false teeth to show for it. And tens of thousands of utterly trashed archaeological sites.

Along comes Michael Lewis to announce that the scheme differed markedly from the way in which excavation is regulated in the rest of Europe
which he said was "draconian" by comparison.
"Draconian" is the sort of word used by dealers and collectors. The likes of Wayne Sayles and Dave Welsh of the ACCG, William Pearlstein of the ACCP. The ACCG certainly thinks the PAS is on their side. Expressions of disdain for measures proposed by other countries in an effort to protect their archaeological sites from being trashed by artefact hunters and collectors being expressed by the PAS certainly do nothing to dispel this impression. After all as we all know, Roger Bland was a willing recipient of the ACCG "Friends of Numismatics" award.

Those so-called "draconian laws" mean that it is illegal to trash sites and treat them as geegaw mines in most other countries of the world (including on public lands in the USA). I really do not see that Britain has anything to be proud of that it is not in England, Wales and Scotland.

Here's some holes dug by artefact hunters at Wanborough and an excavation of a site after the artefact hunters have been there - do artefact hunters no longer damage sites now Britain has a PAS?

That's like making a virtue of the fact that a country may have (for example) limited anti-rape laws. Fine for male perverts, less so for the women who live there. Britain's legislation is fine for the artefact collector, ideal for the dealer (as long as its not for export) and as we have seen now widely regarded as a 'paradise' for treasure seekers. But its not protecting the archaeology. Filling museum cases with pretty dugup and ripped off geegaws is what nineteenth century antiquaries used to do. Elgin, Layard, Botta and Belzoni for example. But it is not "doing archaeology". It is not protecting sites. Paying for upwards of 800 "Treasures" unnecessarily ripped to a great degree from their (unknown because nobody investigates most of the sites) context of deposition well below plough level on otherwise unthreatened sites loudly applauded by all is costing millions yearly. I really cannot see why Lewis thinks this is anything for the Brits to boast about. What on earth do British archaeologists think they are doing just passively watching on as this sort of thing goes on?

Lauding the scheme Vaizey said: It really is incredibly effective...and it works."
Well, only until you stop parroting what you got on the self-gratulatory press release and start asking other questions. What it is actually doing is providing a platform legitimising artefact hunting, looting, and collecting as well as the antiquity trade. It is not actually mitigating the losses to the British archaeological record to any satisfactory degree, because the token big numbers do not look so impressive when you try to examine the evidence for the overall losses. The PAS (including the publicity given to events such as this) seems actually to be directly responsible for an increase in the number of people taking up this erosive and destructive hobby in Britain. It is also actively eroding public perceptions of the aims and purposes (and methods of) archaeology [and that's worldwide]. In actual fact, closer familiarity with what "metal detectorists" are up to behind the scenes (try looking in on the closed sections of their forums Mr Vaisey) reveal as clear as can be that the PAS is failing to instil "best practice" to any significant degree - and yet that was one of the government's primary aims in setting it up. In fact the PAS seems woefully unaware of the need to do anything about recent developments. Neither - most significantly in my opinion - is it providing any kind of a forum for discussion of the issues surrounding artefact hunting, collecting and the trade (licit and illicit) within archaeology, nor as archaeological "outreach" (ha ha - hollow laugh) to the general - non-collecting - public. A task for which the PAS is showing progressively less interest. I really do not see that there are grounds for the Minister's jubilation that it "works" - did they serve wine at the launch?

Where is the CBA? Where is the IFA? Where is APPAG? Where are RESCUE and The Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers? What is going on? [I can't find my Mad Hatter's Teaparty "doormouse into the teapot" vignette: I'll use this instead]

Thanks to Nigel Swift for putting arrows on my map, it seems to present the central dilemma so well that I decided to use it twice. How on earth can anyone in their right mind say the PAS is "working" faced with something as graphic as that? Beats me. Cue more attacks on the Heritage Action Artefact Erosion Counter I guess...

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