Thursday, 26 May 2011

From Cockspur Street to Coventry: What the British DCMS does not Want you to Think About

British Culture Minister Vaisey appears terribly impressed that the PAS now has more and more objects in its database and apparently expects us to be too. Indeed the "dadah!" self-advertising toolbar on the PAS website excitedly announces today:
443,102 records * 700,306 objects * 19,053 people involved * 2,986 accounts
There is a problem in getting very excited about these figures, and that is a worrying little thing called the Heritage Action Artefact Erosion Counter. Never mind the vast number of finds that are accidentally being made by ordinary members of the public and not being reported, many many more are being found and deliberately dug up by artefact hunters for personal (private) collection and sale. The HAAEC purports to be a
running total of the number of recordable archaeological artefacts removed from the fields of England and Wales by metal detectorists (mostly without being reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme).

Today: 43
This year:114,883
Since the start of the Portable Antiquities Scheme: 4,196,418
Overall Total since 1975: 11,068,211

Mr Vaisey, like the rest of us, might have difficulty visualising those figures. Let us consider it in terms of the length of a chalk-line (or Bloomsbury pigeon flight) along the Edgeware Road from Marble Arch. Let us say one centimetre represents one record on the PAS database. Our chalk line today would go from the foot of Marble Arch 443,085 cm to Kilburn Tube Station (Iverson Road, where co-incidentally I used to live for a while when a student). If we take the number of "objects" represented by those records, we come to somewhere like Cricklewood Road. So still in comfortable biking distance from Cockspur Street. Very impressive? Well its the combined work of many people over thirteen years and it has cost the Brits thirteen million quid in direct funding alone.

But... the HAAEC says the number of (records of) recordable finds removed from the archaeological record would be about 4,196,418 since the PAS started. How long a chalk line is that many centimetres? It is a line that starts at the foot of Marble Arch, runs up the Edgeware Road, past Watford, St Albans and ends somewhere on the south side of Luton, more or less at the distance between the end of the runway of Luton Airport and Marble Arch. That is one centimetre for every missing find. One centimetre for every recordable archaeological find deliberately removed for personal entertainment and profit from the archaeological record which is a common resource, and vanished without trace. A line from Cockspur Street to Luton Airport. If it cost the Brits thirteen million pounds to get enough finds to get a line a little way up the Edgeware Road, how much would it really cost to get a scheme that would be coping with the rate of erosion to get a line as far as, say - St Albans, about three quarters of the way to Luton Airport?

Obviously, too much. So the answer most British archaeologists apparently adopt is to shrug their shoulders and say it's "better than nothing" and call it a "partnership". And the metal detectorists who've got all the stuff taken from between Cricklewood and Luton Airport are laughing.

Of course there are some who say the HAAEC gives a "false picture". They are right in two regards. The first is that it suggests we (so in other words, the PAS) actually know how many finds are taken, when - even after a thirteen-million-thirteen-year "partnership" with these plunderers of the past, the PAS simply does not. The HAAEC counter is a model, an estimate - but its the best we have. We have to ask by how much it would have to be "wrong" to make the figures acceptable. The second area where it is wrong however takes it the other way, because it takes the UK's population of active metal detectorists as a stable 10 000 (meaning slightly more than 8000 in the area covered by the PAS, which is the figure used in the HAAEC algorithm). I have been doing some thinking about that figure recently and while I feel it was correct (though a conservative estimate) for the period when the Counter was created, several pieces of evidence converge to suggest that the number of metal detector using artefact hunters in Britain has been growing at an annual rate of between 6 and 8% since that time. So the HAAEC should have been ticking away at quickening rate increasing by that amount each year, and it has not. The model is therefore an under-estimate of the number of finds now being lost annually through laissez-faire British policies concerning this activity.

Readers might be interested to know that the chalk line that represents the recordable finds lost to private collecting in England and Wales alone due to metal detecting from 1975 when the hobby really began to take off (one find: one centimetre) stretches from the north wall of Marble Arch to the outskirts of Coventry. But after throwing thirteen million quid at the problem, we only have a record of the ones as far as Kilburn tube station to show for this so-called "partnership".

Vignette: Visualisation of PAS 'achievement' on a map of southern England: red line = PAS records. Blue line = what their 'partners' have taken and PAS has not been able to record, Green line, what metal detectorists have taken since 1975.

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