Sunday, 8 January 2012

Professor Karl, The PAS and the Austrian Denkmalschutzgesetz (VIII): : The Motivations Behind Artefact Hunting?

In the paper by Professor Raimund Karl "On the Highway to Hell: Thoughts on the Unintended Consequences for Portable Antiquities of § 11(1) Austrian Denkmalschutzgesetz", the author does a survey of artefact hunters in Austria, asking them why they do what they do. The answers are unsurprising, very few groups (except urban street gangs maybe) would give answers to such questions which reveals themselves to be total badasses. So it is with artefact hunters and collectors, they all claim to be misunderstood altruistic angels. Karl asks them why it is that finds of collectables made in Austria buy artefact hunters go unreported (p. 122):
What are the reasons for this pattern? It could easily be assumed that Austrian metal detectorists are motivated for financial reasons, concealing their finds so that they can sell them on the illicit antiquities market. Quite to the contrary, however, all those involved in the survey appear to be primarily motivated through historical interest (Figure 8). Hardly any of the respondents indicated they were making any money with their hobby, or indeed, would ever seek to. Rather, all seem to be expending quite a lot of time and effort, while making no money whatsoever and never selling any of their finds.
There is of course the slight problem for them, that – unlike Great Britain – there are not really venues (like eBay) on which such items could be easily disposed. If there were, would the detectorists of Austria not be selling their duplicate finds, the ones that do not really interest them so much (the 24th worn bronze coin of Maria Theresa they have found this year, the bent denar, that squirly-thing and the watch winder)? We see time and time again in other contexts this same “we’re not in it for the money” mantra – totally discredited by the frequency with which detectorists who complain about the amount of cash they are offered in return for them reporting artefacts as the law dictates. Or those who put their finds on eBay the moment they get home from a commercial artefact hunting rally.

Professor Karl then says:
Most of the respondents even seem to be recording the locational and contextual information of the finds rather well,
but inexplicably cites (p. 122) just one example, a database of 600 fibulae which has no locational data in it and no indication of the existence of any contextual information. Has Dr Karl seen any of the records of 2000 odd Austrian metal detectorists which give the justification of that word “most”?

Of course “most” mentioned (p. 122-4) that they:
"would like to collaborate with the BDA […] and archaeologists in general […]; and that they would like to receive scholarly advice […], training in proper excavation and recording techniques […] and in finds recovery practice […], and information on how they could best contribute to scholarly research […]. A majority even asked for more archaeological heritage managers to be employed by the BDA to advise and assist them with their work (sic) […]; and even for harsher penalties for irresponsible metal detectorists to be imposed […]. (* harsher than what, and how to define “irresponsible” in this case? Without a permit?) Thus, it is not that they would not want to collaborate with the archaeological sector, and to report finds. They just — and quite understandably — cannot report finds if that essentially means reporting that they have broken a law which prohibits them from searching for such finds in the first place.
These poor misunderstood artefact hunters give as a reason why none of the finds they have plundered as collectables from the archaeological record have been reported is because, what they are doing is illegal (p. 122):
those who did give reasons why they did not report finds mentioned the law as the first main reason, and the negative attitude towards them by professional archaeologists […]
Karl notes (p. 122) that his respondents “were not simply aware that they were carrying out illegal searches” but , illogically (p. 123), “they also clearly expressed the wish that their hobby should be decriminalized”.

As I say, it would be naïve to take any of these declarations at face value (though - despite hies denials - it looks like Karl does). These guys are saying the only thing that detectorists all over the world, seeking legitimacy, would and do say. UK detectorists were telling Denison and Dobinson much the same before the PAS was set up. Only after it came into existence did it transpire how deep was the resistance to anything like it in parts of the UK “detecting” community – and still exists today for those who have eyes and ears to see it.

For Professor Karl (p. 124):
“It is not that metal detecting is bad in itself; it is only if and when metal detectorists dig up finds without properly recording them that we have to be concerned”.
I would disagree on two counts. First let us stop calling it “metal detecting” and call it what it is, artefact hunting and link it to the collection of archaeological artefacts. Now we know from other comments of his that Karl does not disapprove of collecting per se, but it is quite clear that the problem with exploiting archaeological sites merely as a “mine” for collectables is not just a matter of whether the “finds” (individual objects) are recorded or not. Setting up a PAS at Isin (Iraq) would not magically solve the problem with the looting of that site, would it? This is not about “ownership” of portable antiquities, it is about conservation of the archaeological record. Again, Dr Karl’s argument is getting tangled in the PAS-led trap of artefact fetishism.

Then we have another bit of “it does not really matter” (p. 124):
But what are Austrian metal detectorists really digging up? Do they typically dig sizeable trenches, and do they dig down into stratified contexts? As far as can be ascertained from the results of my survey, they normally do neither. Rather, the overwhelming majority restrict their activities mostly to digging just the topsoil (Figure 10) and to digging pits of less than one-quarter of a square metre (Figure 11).
So gridded fieldwalking has never been done in Austria to determine anything about a site from surface evidence? Perhaps not, but then Professor Karl works in England where such things are a standard technique (Our Portable Past talks of it). Hoovering out all (or an unknown and spatially random selection) of the collectables disturbs the intra-site patterning of artefacts for such purposes, and certainly if done with any persistence destroys it. Then we have some pure tekkie reasoning (pp. 124-6):
Yet, the topsoil is that part of an archaeological stratigraphy that is usually removed by a mechanical digger on the vast majority of Austrian excavations. […]Thus, most of the activity of metal detectorists seems to be limited to those parts of archaeological stratigraphies neither observed nor documented in systematic archaeological excavations. […]Thus, simply ignoring the finds (and contexts) in the topsoil, if anything, is bad archaeological practice. If we usually remove such contexts with a digger, yet subject metal detectorists to the blanket accusation of destroying archaeological contexts, this starts to smack of hypocrisy and misplaced academic arrogance.
But this ignores the fact that archaeology is not done solely by excavation. Surely we should be preserving archaeological sites as a resource to which more than one method of future research can be applied? Is that not the idea behind archaeological cultural resource manangement? Even at Bangor?

He goes further:
“it seems as if metal detectorists are protecting quite a lot of the archaeological heritage that we usually destroy during systematic archaeological excavations”
Pure UKDFD. Protecting the archaeological record by digging holes in it willy nilly and taking stuff away - perhaps Professor Karl has read Tokely Parry's book, same stuff, same ideas. Again, artefact fetishism, the archaeological heritage of this statement consists of loose artefacts, the fact that their removal by artefact hunters is eroding the in situ archaeological record is ignored in these arguments.

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