Sunday, 13 November 2011

John Winter on the "Detractors of Metal Detecting"

"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.


kyri said...

im not for banning metal detecting alltogether but the hobby dose need regulating.
when i read comments like
"nothing highlights the ignorance of the hobbys detractors more than their assertion that detectorists are motivated by financial gain"
it dose make me laugh.if you look at the pas own figures,in the initiative to encourage finders ans landowners to consider waiving their rights to a reward only 82 individuals did so,that was only %6 of the total,the other %94 took as much money as they could get.dosent this proove that it is financial gain that drives %94 of them.i dont blame them for this,its human nature but they realy shouldnt come out with these comments as the figures speak for themselves.i think the latest figures realeased last month for 2010 where about the same as these from 2009.
mr.winter,who sounds like a decent bloke,also goes on to contradict himself in another article he writes on the term treasure hunters and why other detectorists disslike the term,he goes on to say himself that really that is exactly what they are doing,"searching for treasure".
its also amusing to see how many "history lovers"fall out with each other or the landowners over splitting the reward.

Paul Barford said...

Yes, even though I do not agree with what he writes here, I can vouch for the fact that Mr Winter - unlike many UK metal detector users one meets on and off their discussion lists - is a decent bloke.

Charles Peters said...

Financial greed does not in my opinion drive the desire to metal detect, it is the awkward reality of the end result of finding something with a commercial value. The chance of someone finding something of real value is so slim as to make it a literal lottery. If people with metal detectors where out to make money, the beaches would be awash with hordes of them digging up all the pound coins and jewellery lost each day/season.

However when a detectorist does find something with a real commercial value, there is then a moral and financial dilema. The simple truth is that we all need money to live, some more so than others. So there is Jo Bloggs with his nice shiny Saxon Brooch worth £1,000.Ultimately it is the landowners as that person owns the land and therefore what it contains but the landowner would never have found it, was it not for the X hours of searching by Mr Detectorist so there is a mentality of "you put the work in, you deserve a share of it". It should be the landowners decision as to how the item should be disposed of, not the Detectorists but if I was a detectorist and the landowner was going to sell the item then I would certainly want my share of the proceeds for finding the item. I would hazard a guess that most farmers/landowners would want to profit from the item.

So, what if the item is then 'gifted' to a museum/state and sits in a display case for all to see. It still has commercial value to the museum and/or state and could be sold/traded for another 'better' item to display in order to get more punters through the door and more funding for the museum. It is that idea of ‘commercial value’ once again.

As much as I ma no fan of the sad commercial world we live in, live in it we do and this is the reality of life sadly.

I really don't see people wanting to spend hours and hours wondering back and forth across a field weekend after weekend in the hope that perhaps, just maybe, they might unearth something of value. It's a lovely idea to find that pot of gold that if we are honest, would appeal to 99% of the population but it is about as speculative as doing the national lottery but with a much lower return. There must be something else that drives these guys to metal detect and whilst for some it may actually be a love of history, I feel it is mans natural instinct to be curious and to be a hunter and then to hunt for something that is hidden from us. The 'thrill of the chase' so to speak. The problem occurs once they have found and captured their prey. I notice that many Metal Detectorists also fish as a hobby so a similar mindset of "what if anything, will I catch today?"

Paul Barford said...

" is about as speculative as doing the national lottery but with a much lower return. "
Ummmm, Mr Peters, did you READ what I wrote before you put pen to paper? Did you understand it?

The first copy of "Searcher" magazine that comes to hand from my bookshelf, from earlier on this year has a section called "Saleroom Scene", a book review which includes a price list, some adverts offering good money for any old finds, and a six page "identification and valuation" desk, where prices for common or garden artyfects start at 15 quid and go on into the low hundreds. Obviously the magazine's editors do not think their readers consider the dosh they can make out of selling common artefacts an "embarrassment". It rather looks like they think their readers are INTERESTED in the money they can make from selling artefacts. Do you go to many rallies Charles? How many of them have a dealer in attendance ready to buy finds from rally goers? Have a look at Timelines originals for examples of the sort of things people are finding and for some reason not keeping in their own collections.

Each of the items in the Searcher valuation desk section was found by a metal detectorist in somebody's field. Tell me, Charles, how much of the estimated value of each of those artefacts you think each farmer got from each finder who took it away? Fifty percent in each case, for every ring, buckle and box mount? Because if they are not getting fifty percent IN EACH CASE the finder is getting a lot of something for nothing, isn't he? Each trip out he's potentially coming home with artefacts worth several tens, maybe hundreds, of pounds. Even if he does not sell them straight away that is still the value of the items they add to their collection, which they or their heirs could cash in at any time. So what do they give the real (as you point out) OWNER in return? A bottle at Christmas? A promise to show all "Treasure" items?

Then we have individuals who organize commercial artefact hunting rallies, or metal detecting holidays. Are they not in it for financial reasons?

How many metal detector manufacturers produce (and advertise) metal detectors specifically to go on 'token hunts"?

Charles Peters said...

There is no denying that there are those that do sell thier finds and therefore gain financialy, but the crux of the matter is whether the profiteering is the driver behind why people detect or whether (more likely in my opinion) it is a by product of the act of detecting?.

I was given an old gas blow torch by an elderly friend who no longer needed it and passed it on to me as a curio.I liked the blow torch, I cleaned it up and made it look like new but the simple reality was that I had no need or desire for the blow torch so it sat in my garage for many months gathering dust. What was I to do with it?. In the end I sold it on eBay on the rationale that I could turn it into money that I could then use to buy something I actually wanted/needed and also, more importantly, it sold to someone who I presume collected old Blow Torches and therefore it found a good home. Having never metal detected I cannot question whether or not dealers attend a rally (I am sure they do) but this would appear to be a case of a symbiotic relationship whereby the finder can pass on things he/she no longer needs or requires after the thrill of the chase/find.

I am not defending metal detecting one iota but I do feel that the driver behind the activity is misunderstood.

As for the genuine commercial metal detecting rallies, well that is deplorable if it is organised by someone purely for financial gain by way of an entrance fee. However, this does not mean that those that attend do so to profit. I would hazard a guess that like any hobby activity, the notion of meeting up with others, discussing the hobby and the general social interaction is as much of the desire to attend as is the excitement of possibly finding something of interest.

I have no idea what a token hunt is, please explain?


P.S - it just occured to me that I sold al my Action Man collection from my childhood on eBay a while back after finding it in the loft. I could have held on to it as nostalgia (pointless) so what did I do, sold it as job lots of sets for a total of £270 to people all over the world who collected Action Man memorobelia. This does not mean that as a child I assembled my Action Man collection to profit from it later in life. The return to cash was a by product of my collecting habit of my youth.

Paul Barford said...

Charles, I had assumed you were a metal detectorist from the tone of your comments here and on Heritage Action's blog. I apologise if you are not.

I do not think anyone is saying that all "metal detectorists" do it ONLY to make money (though there are some who do, I've discussed at least one case here), but what is the issue is precisely this commercial value of the dugup artefacts and the fact that they are dug up from archaeological assemblages (thus trashing them for further study) and sold. The point is that instead of being preserved and researched, sites are being trashed all over the country for entertainment and profit.

So this "symbiotic relationship whereby the finder can pass on things he/she no longer needs or requires after the thrill of the chase/find", they are passed on for free, like the old man and his blowtorch? Or do they come straight out of the ground and into a dealer's pocket for cash do you think? If "metal detecting' was just about the thrill of the chase/find, then after uncovering the source of the "bleep/screech' made by their box on a stick, they'd cover it up again, to let others find it too - like geocaching. But they do not, do they, they hoik it out of the ground and put it in a box in their sheds.

If somebody wants to collect antiquities, why don't they buy them from a dealer (you know, all those artefacts that have been kicking around since Plutarch's day)? Isn't part of the answer that it's cheaper in the long run, if you want lots and lots of them, to buy batteries for a metal detector? Is that not, too, part of the financial motive for artefact hunting in Britain? The cheapskate's way to emulate Leon Levy and Shelby White?

It seems to me the examples of things you have sold (Christmas present ActionMen and blowtorch) are things you were given, not gone out and actively sought and then sold. I think there is a difference, especially when a finite resource (one which we tend to think belongs to us all) is being exploited to provide the things that are sold.

This is not a box of old toys in an attic, but a precious resource. Like Meg Scruiggins going into the Bluebell Wood and ripping out armfuls of the flowers which she then sells in the market. So what that she picked them because they were beautiful and interesting ("Oi lern a lot about nature picking flawers")and they go (for money) to a good home where someone will put them in water and not leave them to wilt? The point is the place for wild flowers and their seedheads is growing in the wild where more than one person can enjoy them, not somebody's drawing room. Frankly it does not matter if Meg Scruigins sells them for 5p or 50p a bunch, or gives them away; they obviously should not be in a vase on a market stall. Just the same as tens of thousands of freshly surfaced and undocumented metal detected artefacts yearly should not be passing through eBay.

Paul Barford said...

And when the metal detectorist tires of his collection in the same way as your Action Men?

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