Sunday, 8 January 2012

Professor Karl, The PAS and the Austrian Denkmalschutzgesetz (VI): Artefact Fetishism


Continuing my comments on Professor Raimund Karl's text  "On the Highway to Hell: Thoughts on the Unintended Consequences for Portable Antiquities of § 11(1) Austrian Denkmalschutzgesetz" and how "unfair" this law is to all those "blameless amateur archaeologists" who want to use their metal detectors in the fields over there, I'd like to comment on the author's clear focus in that text on artefacts rather than sites.

I think this is part of the problem with a lot that is written about "partnerships" with artefact hunters, a lot of archaeologists are focussing on the artefacts which it brings to light. In the process, where they come from and what is lost when they are removed from their original context of discovery seems to me almost to be of secondary importance to them. Some of the rudest comments made about me by my "professional" colleagues (both to my face and behind my back) are from finds specialists. This is quite ironic really, as this is primarily how I myself was employed in my younger days in British archaeology in the 1980s, and still dabble nowadays too. I have a lot of colleagues over here who spend their working life fussing about things like "fibulae of Group A.233a var x with an inverted foot knob and their relation to the Marcomannic wars" [one of the archaeologists I used to work with also reputedly has a collection of them, but he'd not be so stupid as to show it to anyone]. A lot of continental archaeology between about the last few centuries BC right through to the seventh/eighth century AD when mercifully they (except 'the Vikings') stopped wearing them is basically "applied fibulology". If you study Polish archaeology of the "Period of Roman Influences" you have to know every nuance of the typology by heart or you don't pass the exams. You don't need to know anything about archaeology, just a lot about fibulae and the way their catchplates and footknobs twist and turn through the subphases of the Eggers-Godłowski chronological scheme and other such stuff.

Dr Karl seems to like fibulae too. So, on pp 122-3 of his text, one of the factors mitigating the erosion of the surface archaeological record by artefact hunters with metal detectors is that they:

"on a number of occasions have produced spectacularly good records of their finds and those of others. Two respondents,  for instance, have been spending several hours per day for several years producing a database of brooches collected by several metal detectorists in one part of Austria. This database, which currently contains c. 600 brooches from an area of c. 10 by 15 km, contains many data. Aside from solid locational and contextual data (where possible), it also contains a proper typological description of each find, including all required measurements and relevant references to secondary literature; a photograph of each brooch; and a high-quality technical drawing showing at least front, top and side view of each brooch (Figure 9). The quality of this documentation is clearly of a standard equal to any professional archaeological finds catalogue; and in its sheer numbers it clearly exceeds anything comparable produced by professional archaeologists for the same or comparable regions of Austria.

Karl's "Figure 9 Sample page from the finds database created by the Austrian metal detectorists Christoph Baumgartner and Norbert Achleitner. The database currently contains descriptions of c. 800 brooches, mostly of finds recovered by now retired metal detectorists. Of these, c. 600 are from the main research area of Baumgartner and Achleitner, an area of c. 10 by 15 km. Locational data (FO) is being suppressed (only shown as code number) to prevent nighthawks identifying the location of sites. Reproduced with the kind permission of Christoph Baumgartner"

Since this example is used to justify the notion of calling artefact  hunters and collectors “amateur archaeologists” it is odd that a  question which remains unanswered is “what for”? What is the use of such  a “database”, and do the unspecified uses to which it can be put  justify the trashing of sites, hoovering up the more collectable bits of  archaeological metalwork with no publishable locational data and  discarding the rest? What research questions can Baumgartner and  Achleitner now address on the basis of these “data” (in the absence of  the other data not recorded when these finds were hoiked out by  themselves and fellow detectorists)? Also the degree to which one is  justified in calling the milieu as a whole “amateur archaeologists”  doing “metal detecting surveys” is the quality of the cataloguing and  research not of just two guys in a total of 1-2000, is it? Where is the  evidence that the case Karl highlights is the rule rather than the  exception in Austrian artefact hunting (“metal-detecting”)?

Vignette: Fetish artefact; Figure from the paper by Raimund Karl disussed here.

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