There is a self-congratulatory article in the latest issue (Jan-Feb 2012) of British Archaeology which presents (once again) the argument that "the British Way" is a "good" way forward for dealing with archaeological looting. It does not say who the author is, we are left guessing, which is perhaps just as well (let's just call him "BA"). I am a bit of a disadvantage discussing this short readable discussion piece as it refers to a text which has not reached Poland, so I have not seen Raymund Karl's article to which it refers. I would therefore like to make it clear that this is a discussion of the BA text and not the original research. I bet though many people will be drawing their conclusions from the BA article too, rather than the original, hence my addressing here what it says (and what it does not).
In summary, after reading it very carefully it transpires that this text seems to be the same twisty-turny stuff that we see from the supporters of artefact collecting all over the place. It muddles concepts to a degree that is breathtaking, to draw conclusions one feels were predetermined and influenced by political expediency, and for which it was set out to find "evidence". Nowhere is there any hint that there was a questioning whether hoovering of sites by collectors for collectables is a "good thing" for the preservation of the archaeological record.
What, surely, is important is the degree to which we protect the archaeological record from destructive interference. That is what - at least from the archaeological, heritage "management" point of view - the whole looting debate is about, no? This text however bangs on (nota bene Peter Tompa-like) about what a lot of recording is or is not done. I would say merely listing the number of reports of sexual assaults of minors, or car thefts in central Birmingham, or road accidents on the A412 is a statistic which is totally unrelated to the practical on-the-ground actions taken to remove sexual predators, organized car thieves and reckless drivers from the streets. A report of an occurrence like this is a report of the FAILURE to do something about these things. The same goes for the mining of archaeological sites for collectables, does it not?
Throughout the debate about British policies we are hampered by the lack of proper statistics about the patterns of activity. This would not be strange except that in England, and at times in Wales, there has been a thirteen-million quid programme which has been running for coming up to a decade and a half which "partners;' and liaises with artefact hunters. So why have we no proper facts and figures about the activities of these people? All we have are the "look wotta lotta stuff we got" figures of the PAS and TTU annual reports and the tedious flow of good news media reports telling the public how much money they could be making out of Britain's archaeological record were they only to go and buy a metal detector.
Not deterred by this, the BA account makes use of the chalk and cheese approach so beloved of the supporters of collecting. This includes a bit where Austria is compared with Scotland (and just before somebody says it, I think in Scotland the number of metal detectorists is only slightly lower than Karl's estimate for Austria). Two entirely different legislative systems - but what is carefully NOT said is how many of those Scottish reported finds are made by archaeologists. If you look at the Annual Reports of the Treasure Trove Unit north of the Border, artefact hunters there are no more forthcoming with reports of their finds than those of Austria. That is despite that "open approach" to reporting, that is despite every finder in Scotland handing in something which is retained for the national collection getting a market-value reward (which is discretionary, but seldom refused). There is a discrepancy here between what the author says and the model he is trying to prove.
Then we go off on the well-trodden path of how many Treasure finds are 'reported' in England and Wales (PAS-land) and how exciting it is that the numbers are going up and up (well, not this year they are not, could it be that the resources are running out?). The creation of the PAS was followed in the later 1990s, BA says, in an increase in the numbers of treasure items being reported. What BA does not say is the year the PAS was formed coincided (how could it not?) with the change in the law, and the definition of Treasure was changed. That to some extent accounts for the quantitative leaps seen at this time (the same thing happens in 2003 when again the definition changed).
Austria has a different system of 'denkmalscutz'. England has no "schutz" for most of its denkmals. In England any Tom, Dick and Harriet can traipse over one million archaeological sites and dig up and take away whatever they like with just a nod from the landowner. Probably many people think that is just how it should be, everything up for grabs. That however provides no protection for the archaeological record (and let us think in broader terms than single sites, but in terms of landscape, surface evidence, surveys too) which is being progressively, randomly and unmanageably depleted at a rate that would probably be considered alarming if we knew what it was. The reporting and non-reporting of "Treasure" is not the only index of this, the number of recordable artefacts (lost archaeological evidence) which are NOT getting on the PAS database is. The evidence for this being very high indeed is dismissed by supporters of artefact hunting, but they have never tried to say what the true figures, according to them, are - and why they are not worried about the long term effects of this activity.
It is not true to say artefact hunting ("metal detecting") in Austria is illegal, it can be done (like other disturbance of archaeological sites) with a permit. All those who have not obtained a permit before going out with their machines are like the teenage joyrider who tears down the motorway before he has obtained his driving licence. It is illegal. In other words, the 2-3000 Austrian "metal detectorists" who according to BA are not reporting their finds perhaps include a number who are not getting the permits, and therefore cannot legally do what they are doing (in other words "nighthawks" in the imprecise British terminology). That is what would make their detecting illegal. Perhaps we should seek clarification from the PAS whether they would accept and record information from reports made by evident nighthawkers? I am pretty sure that the PAS would have to differentiate between data obtained legally, and those produced illegally, are there any of the latter on the PAS database? I would hope not.
Here then, we come to the fundamental difference between the two systems, it is not one of "openness and tolerance", but one of legality. So what is BA suggesting Austria do to get "more recording" resulting from archaeological looting? Remove the denkmalschutz completely and make Austrian archaeological sites a free-for-all like in England? Abolish the permit system for archaeological intervention? (Why?)
Is recording of some of what is looted from archaeological sites a substitute for their protection? Is gathering fragmentary statistics of how many young boys and girls are sexually assaulted by adults in Britain a substitute for dealing with the predators? Frankly, I do not see any difference (at least when treated solely on the level of a strategy for dealing with the problem of protecting something). In what way would liberalising Austria's denkmalschutz help to protect the denkmals?
It should be recognised by BA and others that Britain's dotty social experiment (the PAS) is the result of (and not as some collectors' lobbyists would see it, the inspiration of) the country's particularly useless archaeological resource protection legislation. This derives from elitist Victorian ideals and leaves the vast majority of Britain's archaeological sites and an even more vast segment of the archaeological record (seen as a historic landscape) totally unprotected. The PAS is a "better than nothing" cop-out by the British establishment, it is not enlightened and progressive, but a botch-job attempting to paper over the cracks in a broken system, and like much else in British public life, presented as something which it is not (and as doing many times better than it really is).
[UPDATE 8/12/11: I stumbled across Karl's original paper online here, I'll update this post accordingly when I have time this evening, it is quite interesting to see the same problems as we have in Poland but here discussed in a context heavily influenced by PAS arguments]