"Metal detectorist" John Winter has just posted up on his blog an essay called 'Metal Detecting – The Hobby and its Detractors'. Veteran tekkie-watchers will have seen it before, it was published in 2005 on the UK Detector Finds Database (originally under the title: "Lies, Damn Lies and the Hobby's Detractors", later changed to the more neutral "Metal Detecting - The Hobby and its Detractors"). The text seems unchanged.
A reader has spotted it and asked for some comments here. Winter suggests that metal detecting is not "depleting the archaeological pool and resulting in the loss of contextual information" because it is fun and a source of valuable information, and "rescues artefacts from hostile environments that threaten their rapid destruction". He also denies that "detectorists are reluctant to record their finds" and that people hunt for artefacts for "financial gain".
1) He says the archaeological record is not in any way being depleted by the taking of objects out of it week after week, month after month, year after year over the past four decades. Unfortunately he does not expand on this rather odd vision of how you can take and take something from a finite non-renewable resource and still have as much afterwards as you did before. Still, you did not expect a tekkie to actually answer that did you?
Instead of bothering about the depletion of the record he draws attention to the PAS "wottalottastuff" model, by hoiking it out of the archaeological record we have a "lottastuff' to gawp at. The loss of the contextual evidence from and for the sites they came from preserved as a resource is a problem below his radar.
The emotive phrase, ‘depleting the archaeological [resource]’, is therefore entirely misleading, because it implies a net loss to our knowledge, as opposed to a net gain.Well, obviously the holes dug in the archaeological record of sites in Mali do not matter, what is important is there are lots and lots of nice dugup pottery figures to gawp at and collect.
2) Then Winter trundles out the "while they remain in the ground they are exposed to a very severe risk of destruction" argument. On this basis he asserts:
"the reality of the situation is far better expressed, if the negative and propagandist, ‘depleting the archaeological [resource]’, is replaced with the more meaningful, ‘rescuing our material heritage’.Note that this argument denies that archaeological sites and monuments and the information they contain about the past are in any way part of the national heritage. The "arteefact hunting as rescue" argument is a parallel to that used by commercial salvage companies to trash historical shipwrecks for the saleable goodies they contain. This argument is trotted out regularly, each time only with anecdotal information, or appeals to "common sense" as a support. The truth of the matter is when you sit down and analyse the argument in the light of its general applicability, it simply falls to pieces. Nigel Swift and I have done such a dissection, with a full literature search and its a whole chapter of our book about "Britain's Portable Antiquities Heritage". At the end of the chapter we conclude that though there are individual cases and situations when such destruction is occurring, this argument is a false one when applied as a generalisation to justify wholesale and hastily hoiking archaeological evidence out of the ground through metal detecting. You'll have to buy the book to read why we do not agree with Mr Winter and all the rest who try to pull this argument into the debate on artefact hunting and collecting.
Winter shows some coins - compare them with what you see on the PAS database, the UKDFD and eBay to see how typical they actually are of what artefact hunters are finding on a daily basis in the fields of England. Mr Winter needs to show bucket loads of coins in such a condition to even begin to make a case. Let's see a bucketload of 1970s 2p pieces corroded in such a manner - and not just surface green dust, to believe in chemical attack I want to see pitting of the original surface. Where is it? (Actually, to make it easier for him, Mr Winter can show me a bucketload of 50+-year old Victorian Edward VII and George V pennies with agrochemical-damage corrosion pitting if he wants. I bet he cannot)
3) Winter asks his reader:"what makes [a] brooch [accidentally discovered by a member of the public] any different to all the other brooches, coins and artefacts that are discovered [by a collector] with the aid of a metal detector?". I would say precisely that, an artefact accidentally discovered and reported is not depletion of the archaeological record on a scale anywhere near comparable to the wholesale stripping of metal artefacts (visible and still buried) from a site by a collector for entertainment and profit. These are two very different things (even though the PAS does its level best to mix the two up in the public consciousness and call it "doing archaeological outreach"). It is the deliberate and calculated removal of archaeological evidence from a site or assemblage which is part of the problem, the manner in which it biases the information recovered is another, and the scale and intent is the third. The fourth is that it is done for entirely selfish reasons. this is not at all the same as a dog-walker spotting a fibula by the edge of a footpath and taking it to the museum.
4) In the same way Winter enjoins us not to "blur the distinction between hobbyists and criminals that use metal detectors". But why? The metal detector is a tool used for a purpose, and that purpose (in the case we are interested in) is to take as many collectable archaeological artefacts out from under the soil's surface as possible. Whether for collection or sale, with or without the landowner's or Secretary of State's permission is immaterial to the depletion of the archaeological information the land where this was done. This is the problem, the effect on the archaeological record, not the precise legal setting in which it happens. The use of a metal detector for artefact hunting is the use of a metal detector for artefact hunting. This "we are not nighthawks" argument is a smokescreen when we are talking about the preservation and sustainable management of the archaeological research. Somebody tearing up the turf on the ancient Ridgeway in an offroad jaunt in a gas-guzzling roaring monster 4x4 is still churned up turf whether or not the driver of the vehicle has a licence, or has been drinking or not. The turf can be repaired, holes in the archaeological record never can.
5) Mr Winter says archaeologists "usually focus their attention on sites of intensive past human activity", he has obviously never heard of landscape archaeology or regional survey. He assumes then if artefact hunters strip artefacts (archaeological evidence) from areas which are between "sites of intensive past human activity" it somehow does not matter. He enjoins us not to "blur the distinction between archaeological sites and land that has no known archaeological significance". What are the characteristic features of this anything-goes "land which has no archaeological significance" (yet contains enough artefacts to be considered "productive" to an artefact hunter)? In the same way as 'seeding' areas for 'finders' to have something to "find" does, emptying an area of a landscape which contained artefacts in a pattern of deposition of some or all of those artefacts is indeed altering the pattern of evidence. Unless the reporting and recording are done to the highest standards, evidence is not only being lost, but a false picture is being created. Try, however, and find even three words on the PAS website about any of that, and you'll be looking in vain. The most the general public will learn about archaeological aims and methods as far as portable antiquities goes is Ladybird-book level and barely coherent fluff. Where IS this archaeological outreach if after a decade and a half even the brighter metal detectorists are just not getting the picture from the PAS?
Mr Winter also has no idea about how archaeologists can gain information from the archaeological evidence which ploughsoil contains. He assumes there is no information content in ploughsoil, which simply shows his ignorance of over forty years' accumulation of archaelogical literature on that subject. Again should not the PAS be "outreaching" with precisely that information for "metal detectorists" because as Winter points out: "The vast majority of land searched by metal detectorists is cultivated agricultural land, and the objects recovered are from the ploughsoil"? Winter is 100% wrong when he says that the precise position of the objects in the plough soil vis a vis each other and other features (such as linear cropmarks) "are very unlikely to have any significance". Like the collection of evidence at a crime scene, in order for that significance to be determined, however, one has first to collect and document the data, not ignore the need to record anything on the assumption that the pattern has "no significance". Certainly the precise position in a field something came from has no significance for a collector of dugup bric a brac, but it is a different matter if those items are to be treated as part of a pattern of archaeological evidence. This is the problem, artefact hunters are not archaeologists, they are not "doing archaeology", they are hoiking things out to collect (and/or sell), and even if they trot along to meet the PAS with an x-marks-the-spot for a handful of the items they hoik, that is not even ersatz-archaeology and it is debatable how useful is the "information" that we get as a byproduct of this collecting activity.
6) Mr Winter simply denies that there is any evidence that there are substantial numbers of metal artefacts being removed from the archaeological record that are not being reported or recorded. He alleges:
The hobby’s detractors are not concerned with considering relevant facts or evidence; they are concerned only with achieving their objective of seeing the introduction of legislation to restrict the hobby. Accordingly, they fabricate ludicrous statistics to support their aims and mislead those, particularly legislators, who are not conversant with the facts. Nowhere is this more apparent than in their claims regarding the numbers of ‘recordable finds’ made by detectorists.Hmm, ignoring for a moment the "Fortress Detecting" overtones, after spending thirteen million pounds on a liaising "partnership" with artefact hunters over coming up to a decade and a half, one might expect that Mr Winter (and myself) would have access to an official (and verifiable) presentation of those facts and statistics. The fact is that we do not. We know how many objects are recorded, we are not told anything at all substantial about how many it is estimated are not. Heritage Action has made its own estimate of the number of PAS-recordable items being taken out of the archaeological record of England and Wales and just disappearing without record into scattered ephemeral personal collections. It would suit Mr Winter's case to call this model "ludicrous" no doubt. But by how much would it have to be WRONG to make the situation acceptable? But is it at all wrong? It is in fact a rather conservative estimate. In just the last couple of days we have heard comments by a metal detectorist (from Wales, so not an artefact rich area like Norfolk) about the poor show of recording his fellow detectorists have made when he has been out and found (and reported) 190 recordable artefacts in the first ten months of 2011 alone. Even if the average (statistical) tekkie (like Mr Winter himself perhaps) has an achievement just one sixth of that a year, that is well within the scope of the HA counter's algorithm. Is "Chef Geoff" in the Polden Hills an exceptionally good, or lucky, detectorist? How exceptional? Several of his fellows on the "Detecting Wales" forum are announcing they are annually finding many more objects each than is being reported to PAS by individual detectorists. The same goes for finds made per person per hour on rallies where proper records have been created. There was a survey done by members of a UK detecting forum who all recorded precisely what they found in a three hour detecting session (the results seem - sadly but perhaps predictably given their implications - to have been deleted from the web). The initiators wanted to show how much 'junk" was found, but in the process showed that the number of PAS-recordable artefacts recovered alongside that was well within the HA counter range. In fact, the problem is these are not "ludicrous" made-up statistics, they are pieces of information recorded in black and white on the detectorists' own forums and they all point to the fact that the HA counter is an entirely believable model of the shocking rate of unmitigated erosion of the archaeological record of England and Wales through artefact hunting.
7) Finally Winter alleges:
Nothing highlights the ignorance of the hobby’s detractors more than their assertion that detectorists are motivated by financial gain.It is not "ignorance" to point out that bulk lots of "Roman grots" are sold, not given away on eBay, artefacts too. The two main UK "metal detecting" magazines (The Searcher and Treasure Hunting) both have "what's my find worth" sections (NB: Polish metal detecting magazines do not). It is worth noting the rather high values even totally mundane artefacts can be sold for if the finder does not want them for their collection. We have seen that detectorists have a nice little earner selling publication rights of photos of "their" finds, apparently this can be many times the sale value of the artefacts themselves. How can it be said that detectorists demanding that sort of money for a mere small format digital photo (in the case drawn to my attention even without a scale or label) are not motivated by financial gain? The overall cash value of a garden shed-full of ancient artefacts (most of which are surrendered by farmers who may not be fully aware of their true market value) could reach a considerable sum - either realised by the finder or his heirs. The precise values assigned a Treasure find by the Treasure valuation Committee is a constant topic of conversation (ie criticism) on UK metal detecting forums - usually that this or that detectorist feels he was "ripped off" because he's not getting as much dosh as he wants for handing the stuff over (as the law dictates) . Certainly it would be wrong to say - and I do not know any "detractor" who would say - that all "detectorists" are wholly motivated by the cash they can make by selling artefacts (and the non-collectable artefacts they get rid of by the bucket-load), but they are certainly not oblivious - or averse - to it. Also it stands to reason that many people coming into the hobby today are doing so because of the get-rich-quick-by-plundering-the-nation's-heritage stories that fill the newspapers every time the PAS announces a new Treasure find. With 800 a year now being found and reported and (let's say) 8000 detectorists in England and Wales, it is obvious that statistically in 20 years of regular artefact hunting, most active detector users are likely to find two Treasure hoards apiece. Certainly the odds of making money - potentially big money- from metal detecting are considerably greater than doing the National Lottery. I bet there are not too many "metal detectorists" in England and Wales that can work that out on their fingers.
And how many landowners actually see anything like "50%" (even) of the total monetary worth of the finds removed from their land and (whether or not it is sold now or later) added to somebody's collection? A shedful of coins and artefacts could potentially be worth tens of thousands, and many of the tekkies just shelled out for the batteries for their machine.
8) Mr Winter then concludes:
In summary, the portrayal of metal detecting by its detractors is one that few informed people, inside or outside the hobby, would recognise.Actually it more true to say that it is a picture to which supporters of the British policies on artefact hunting and collecting will not admit.
My own conclusion considers something he said earlier. Mr Winter alleges that the "detractors of metal detecting" he has set out to challenge are concerned only with achieving their alleged objective of seeing the introduction of legislation to restrict the hobby. It is to this alleged "aim" that Mr Winter accuses them of deliberately or through "ignorance" of harnessing what Winter represents as false arguments. A question he sidesteps is why these "detractors" want the regulation/restriction of this hobby. Is it because they are just nasty control freaks? Or is it that they see the effects of artefact hunting (the ones Winter wants to present as "false arguments") as extremely worrying and that is the motivation for wanting to see some kind of resource-protecting change? The starting point of Mr Winter's discussion is that the "detractors" are control freaks out to trample his hobby. The starting point of mine is that Winter has failed to see where this discussion has its origin and what it is about. Taking the holistic preservation of the information value contained in the sites and assemblages exploited as a source of collectables (an "artefact mine") sites and not loose collectable artefacts as the starting point, places an entirely different perspective on the issue. Collectors like Mr Winter steadfastly refuse to acknowledge this and the longterm effects of their activity on this finite and fragile - and vanishing - resource.
Vignette: The damaged turf is - to some extent - repairable, the damaged archaeological record is not.