Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Portable antiquities Collecting and the 2001 Foot and Mouth Disease Outbreak

As I pointed out in a post yesterday, Bloomsbury's Portable Antiquities Scheme says the Heritage Action Erosion Counter should take into account the 2001 foot-and-mouth disease tragedy, when the British countryside was closed.

Methinks the Scheme doth protest too much, but Heritage Action have suggested I might like to have a go at doing it and seeing what happens. OK.

The British countryside was closed on 27th Feb 2001, right in the middle of the detecting season. By August 2001 90% of the countryside was open again, and the epidemic was declared over at the end of February 2002. I'm not too clear how the opening of the countryside progressed in the summer of 2001, but then artefact hunting tends not to be done on arable land in the months of maximum crop growth anyway.

Let us say then that the period 27th Feb to 31st August absolutely NO artefact hunting took place and that from 1st September 2001 to to 28th Feb 2002 only 90% of the normal rate was happening. That's 186 days when all metal detectorists in England and Wales were sitting at home watching the burning sheep and cow carcasses on TV, and zero finds were coming out of the ground. That would mean the Heritage Action counter (which in fact was not actually in existence then) should have stopped for 186 days, knocking 147312 finds off the total. Then there were 180 days when only 10% of the countryside was still out of bounds and therefore statistically 14256 finds less would have been made than normal. In total therefore the maximum effect of counting Foot and Mouth into the total for 2001 and Jan-Feb 2002 means 161568 finds should be knocked off the total.

So that means the misery and horrific slaughter of Britain's livestock managed to win the archaeological record a brief respite; 162000 archaeological finds had a few months longer to lie in the archaeological record. But by the autumn and winter of 2001 the slaughter had stopped, but the inexorable decimation of the archaeological record at the hands of collectors had begun again, and went on much as it has since the 1970s, and has continued until today.  

Anyway, to come back to the main topic, if we assume that not a single artefact left the ground for 186 days, on the Heritage Action Erosion Counter webpage, today's figure instead of reading:
 "Since the start of the Portable Antiquities Scheme: 4,473,121"
 perhaps should read:
"Since the start of the Portable Antiquities Scheme: 4,311,553"
Spot the difference. Does that make the 500 000 records the PAS have managed to create in that period look better? It is still just one in (nearly) nine recordable finds.

But then did artefact hunting on archaeological sites really stop completely in this period? An interesting commentary on this is provided by the PAS database. Statistical analysis of the database for the same period in successive years is revealing:
Sunday 27th February 2000 until Tuesday 27th February 2001 -  11744 records = 18464 objects
Tuesday 27th February 2001 until Wednesday 27th February 2002 - 10505 records =  14712 objects
Wednesday 27th February 2002 until Thursday 27th February 2003 -  9281 records, 13359 objects.

[And in the period of the "closure of the countryside" (Feb 27th to 31st August 2001) we find that 5757 records were made of 8176 objects  removed from the ground by 721 finders - the majority of these items being found in 2001 by metal detectorists on arable land: 4973 records of 5625 objects. So how were they getting these then?].

So let's see, pre foot and mouth:
11744 records (18464 objects)....
in the deepest darkest period:
10505, records (14712 objects), so down 1200 reported instances, about a 10% drop overall,
After foot and mouth and the re-opening of the countryside:
9281 records  (13359 objects).
So, despite the opening up of access to hunters who'd undergone a period of "search deprivation", the numbers of reported finds were still dropping !!

It seems to me that the effects of this "foot and mouth episode" on the PAS figures has been vastly overstressed by Dan ("at the sharp end") Pett. First of all the actual drop in detectorists coming forward with their finds is not actually all that much in the PAS database, additionally, the drop seems to be due to other factors too. Secondly even if we postulate that not a single spadeful of earth was moved for 186 days in 2001, it still does not affect the overall picture in any significant way. It is still appalling.

Mad cows and Englishmen have an excuse... (by No48_Semmel)

I stress again that the idea of the Heritage Action Erosion Counter is that it is a conservative estimate. Therefore (at least for the moment) I am not going to take up HA's other suggestion and help set up a second version so it reflects a possible rise in the number of people out there in England and Wales doing this artefact hunting (which it seems to me might have gone up by sixty percent in the last decade or so  and is likely to rise higher after a week-long ITV televised Treasure-hunting special this summer).  Another reason I do not want to see it changed just now as it's going to complicate things awfully (numberwise) when the Welsh PAS packs up, so I think it is best to wait until then before making it more complex. Let us leave it as it is, though it may not worry the likes of English Heritage Senior Archaeologist Sarah May, I suspect there are others who do see the point it makes. There is no need to exaggerate at all.

We - and the British public who pay your salaries - are, Dr Bland and Mr Pett and your fifty PAS colleagues, still waiting for the PAS' own figures.


heritageaction said...

Thank you Paul.

Glad you're around. We are in no doubt that if it wasn't for you PAS would seek to treat the justified concerns of a group of ordinary lay people with even more contempt than they do already.

"We - and the British public who pay your salaries - are, Dr Bland and Mr Pett and your fifty PAS colleagues, still waiting for the PAS' own figures."

Dr Bland and Dan Pett have now publicly dismissed and disagreed respectively with our figures and detectorists report that other PAS employees do so as well. That's OK, they are entitled to their opinion and to express it.

But it's a plain fact you can't assess or validly criticise something without having your own view of what is more likely to be correct. So they DO have their own opinion else they couldn't and wouldn't have said a word about what WE think.

Now that they've said, plain and simple, they disagree with our estimate it is time for them to publicise their own estimate or else run the risk of being seen as irrational or worse.

Paul Barford said...

Well, I'll tell you just how much PAS care. This morning someone was in work at the BM at 7:52 and looked at my blog and read that post. Could have been a bored night security guard at the end of his shift. Nobody else from that server has even glanced at it since then.

I see it is mentioned on the 'Forum-which-the-PAS-say-they-do-not-have' but as far as I can see only the Dorset FLO has today followed the link to read it (and you might recall that this was the FLO that was claiming she had no outside link to read stuff like that).

THAT is how interested the PAS are. Fifty people who take their money each month to do some "public liaison" but who it seems really are not a bit interested in people asking how well they are doing in coping with the problem they were set up to cope with.

I suggest that is how interested they are in actually addressing the question asked.

I am happy to be proven wrong.

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