Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Focus on Metal Detecting: What Are they "Preserving and Restoring"?

US Metal Detectorist "Chinchillaman" in a comment sent to another post seems not really to understand why I have severe reservations about artefact hunting ("metal detecting") in its present form, he says he "preserves and restores" the artefacts he finds, which is basically the same argument used as the coineys who buy and sell ancient artefacts like they were potatoes or baseball cards. It is the "preservation" of the decontexctualised artefact themselves in their eyes (the "Good Collector" model) which justifies their decontextualisation and (in the case of the foreign artefacts their illegal removal from first the archaeological record and then the country - looting and smuggling in other words). I do not think many readers make it to the comments here, so just to have it out in the open, this is what I replied:

I am glad to hear that you "preserve and restore everything I find". Don't you think however that the collectors who pay good money for the stuff these "Diggers" dig up will "preserve" them in their own collections (and also "restore" them to the same standards if the objects need treatment)? ["restore" them to what? What is the artefact hunter's idea of "restoration" and what is his definition of "conservation"?]

The fundamental point here is not really what happens to the artefacts themselves, but the historic sites they come from. Do you "preserve and restore" the latter by digging into them to hoik out collectables? After you've taken away what collectable items you want, what is left for those who come after you, except holes (albiet - I am sure you will tell me - properly filled in)? You are taking away history from these historic places.

Furthermore, it seems to me that you are not only doing that but decontextualising the artefacts you remove. The ones from three years digging that you proudly show off on your other videos. I could not see any numbers of labels visible on any of them, so how can somebody who comes after you relate a pile of loose artefacts on your table with any catalogue and records you may have as to where each individual piece comes from?

What permanent information do you leave behind you for those interested in researching the same sites (perhaps using different - more subtle methods than your spade) in the future. Or do you think that they are exclusively "your" sites (finders-keepers) to do with as you wish? Obviously tens of thousands armed with metal detectors and spades and driven by such attitudes and not bothering to keep more than minimalistic records is highly destructive of the historic resources of your country, and in no way can be considered "historic preservation".

It is no kind of "preservation" of the full historic values of a dugup historical artefact if there is no documentation allowing it to be linked with a findspot.

In removing historical evidence from sites and not documenting the collection properly, an artefact-digger is not creating from them any kind of meaningful historical resource, but merely an accumulation of show-and-tell geegaws.

That is the problem of "the morality of artifact hunting" when it is directed towards the "me-me, all mine" and not, "me and the information I am gathering for and making available to others". That is the ethos of the Portable Antiquities Scheme over in England, and that is why I say that collectors rights' advocates surely should be clamouring to get one set up in the US before they clamour to get their spades into sites currently protected by legislation (the "Task Force" type people I write about elsewhere here). Why aren't they? What does this suggest to an observer about the ethos of dug-up artefact collecting in the US? Together with "rights" go responsibilities. No?
I pass over the "artefacts crack up in the cold" argument. Alaska is hardly Absolute Zero. Vignette: After Ali's Art Adventures (

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