Friday, 1 June 2012

PAS and the Pretend Archaeology of the Middle Ages

The Portable Antiquities Scheme has nobody to run a simple forum but does have a resources manager who sends out conference fliers. So this one has just appeared in my inbox:
Portable Antiquities Scheme and Medieval Settlement Research Group Conference 2012
Objects and Landscape: understanding the medieval period through finds recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme
This will be held at the British Museum on 22nd October 2012.  The blurb is interesting (apart from being the first time I recall seeing the PAS use the word  'data'- correctly - in the plural):
This conference aims to highlight how PAS data have been used to advance knowledge of material culture, and outline the research potential of these data for understanding the medieval landscape. In contrast to researchers interested in the Roman and Early Medieval periods (in particular) medievalists have not made as much use of PAS data as they might. Although papers presented at this conference will highlight advances in the studies of dress accessories, papal bullae, pilgrim’s [sic] signs etc., and their distribution, it is apparent that many other artefact types desperately warrant similar academic treatment. Less understood is any sense of the relevance of these artefacts for interpreting the medieval landscape, and it is this which will be considered in the second part of the conference.
The draft programme is telling though. There are two sections on Medieval artefacts - with an emphasis on coins and seals, and a few ornamental thingies. But it is instructive to see what the PAS considers as "interpreting the Medieval landscape" in the context of the relatively high level of development of landscape archaeology as a discipline in British archaeology. One projected paper is about "Contextualising Anglo-Scandinavian Metal-detecting Finds" , and another on "Finds in the Landscape: Middle Saxon finds and their context" (but Anglo-Scandinavian and middle Saxon finds are Early-Medieval, not Medieval!). FLO Anni Byard is going to talk about "Characterising the Medieval Landscape of West Hanney" (a notorious "Weekend Wanderers" commercial rally site "partnered" by the PAS). Dr Andrew Rogerson (real landscape archaeologist) will talk about "Buckles, Brooches, Fields and Farms: settlement and land-use in medieval Norfolk" and the session is ended with a paper on "pilgrim signs". What they have to do with landscape archaeology remains to be seen.

The PAS database today claims to have "503,770 records of 788,813 artefacts". Of these a search reveals just 62303 are medieval finds, and there are another 32031 coins and seals and their matrices. That means 409416 records are NOT medieval finds (including some 240000, nearly quarter of a million, Roman and Iron Age finds). It is clear that collectors with metal detectors are not exactly very keen to search Medieval "productive sites" and when they have hoiked their spoils from them are more prone to report coins and seals from them than finds of other types of metal finds (ironwork for example). Medieval pottery  gets just 272 results in the PAS database. You don't find pot with metal detectors, but the medieval sites which produce these 90000 collectables (at the expense of many more holes in the medieval archaeological record) will be strewn liberally with very interesting surface pot assemblages. It is clear that these are not being systematically documented by the modus operandi represented by the PAS "database".

How on earth can anyone say they are going to "interpret the landscape" from such a biased source of data? That is just nuts, and a complete rejection of the methodologies that have been developed (since the days of OGS Crawford at least) for doing landscape archaeology in Britain. Artefact collectors are not archaeologists. Documenting a random selection of things found by artefact collectors in the course of their collecting is not "doing archaeology", neither - it is obvious - can any real archaeology be "done" with such material. Pretend archaeology can be done with such material, pretend archaeology that maybe might convince people the Scheme is "working" (producing "results") but let us see the papers from thgis conference published and exposed to peer review and the test of time. 

The PAS, like their detecting "partners", call archaeologists "trolls", yet are quite happy to mount a conference where they apparently present an alternative form of "doing archaeology", one in which the normal methodological norms do not apply. So what kind of "archaeology" is archaeology for the PAS - allegedly British archaeology's "largest public outreach"? I doubt we will find the PAS exploring that issue either. After all, after fifteen years, the only definition the public who pay for the Scheme and could find on their website of what archaeology actually is says something to the effect of "archaeology is like a cake". (!)


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