Wednesday, 11 July 2012

New Section on "Treasure Shame" Webpage

Yesterday I posted a link to the ITV1 webpage to the "Britain's Secret treasures" programme. Today I see it has a new section-  Best practice:
Here, Dr Mike Heyworth, the Director of Council for British Archaeology, gives a list of the most common best practises that you should be aware of before you set out looking for Britain's secret treasures. 
What the phrase "most common best practises" is actually supposed to mean is anybody's guess. Now Mike Heyworth is a great bloke and clever with it, but with all due respect he has taken a great risk getting involved with this project. In present conditions, the result can only be ambiguity. The text published here is to my mind muddled and fragmentary. Is this actually the text he submitted, or has it been 'got at'? First of all it is not at all clear to whom this all-too-brief text is addressed. Is it addressed to members of the British public who are not collectors but want to learn about the issues connected with artefact hunting and collecting, or artefact hunters only? 
Responsible metal detecting: The Council for British Archaeology accepts responsible metal detecting undertaken in full compliance with the law which adds to our knowledge about the past.
And when IS that? Full compliance with the law, that's fairly easy, but when does artefact hunting [let's call a spade a spade]  add (in archaeological terms) to our knowledge of the past as much as it erodes our knowledge about a particular part of it? Just when some ooo-ahh-now-that's-interesting OBJECT is found? But archaeology is so much more than just finding 'things'. Isn't it? *

I assume that what the good Doctor has in mind is reporting stuff found to the PAS. But what about if only a selection of stuff is being recovered and kept and then reported? Is the PAS really an adequate (by 21st century standards) record of the scattered individual objects AND the full details of their context (rhetorical question I would submit, on both counts, of course not). By the nature of the material on which it is based, the PAS database certainly holds inadequate information about the site producing and context of discovery of the individual artefacts. Yet, surely both are the fundamental units of interest, not individual decontextualised objects from them.

Surely "best practice" in removing such objects from the ground is more than making sure you show a handful of your best finds to the PAS every year. What about, for example, keeping OFF sites with the thin topsoil where "archaeological remains are near the surface"? Is that not best practice? What about when you have a signal, what if its an archaeological object you do not want to collect, a broken iron knife blade for example - what is best practice? Chuck it away? What about treatment of the objects you find, their proper labelling, storage and curation? Best practice or not? It's not even mentioned here.

This (right in the middle of the text) is confusing:
"Treasure hunters" are not welcome: Individuals who seek out archaeological finds for personal financial gain or to amass a private collection without reporting their discoveries inevitably damage our potential understanding of the past. Once lost, this information is lost forever and the Council for British Archaeology deplores damaging activity by "treasure hunters" and criminals which is highly detrimental to the safeguarding and understanding of our heritage. 
So hoovering an archaeological site or sites to amass a personal collection of objects is perfectly "acceptable" as long as the  collector trots along to club meetings with the goodies to show the FLO, and when they find a treasure waive the award? What about individuals who seek out archaeological finds for personal financial gain but report their discoveries to the PAS (to get some legitimation of the objects)? Are they "welcome" to exploit the archaeological record like that as far as the CBA is concerned? Is that what the position of the CBA is? I really do not understand how anyone can write this.

I would say the interested member of the public reading that might well ask also whether we can extend that to all personal collections of artefacts, for example Cypriot pottery or Southeast Asian Buddha heads, as long as it is all published and no laws are known to have been broken in buying them from a London auction house?  I do not see how you can treat the exploitation of the British archaeological record as a source of collectables as something quite separate from the exploitation of the archaeological record anywhere else as a source of collectables.  That seems to me a totally abstract concept.

But of course there is another point here. back in 1996 another organization was set up to "instil best practice among finders" as it was put. It has gobbled up huge amounts of heritage funds, ostensibly to do that.  It tells us it has been doing that, it maintains it is capable of that. So how is it that when that organization is right behind a TV programme like this that the PAS does not write the section on "best practice", but it is left to Dr Mike Heyworth of the CBA to do it? What is going on here? Why cannot the PAS set out THEIR definition of "best practice" the one they have been (they say) instilling all these years? Just what is the barrier to this happening? Indeed when they learnt that Dr Heyworth was writing this section of the webpage did they not call a halt to it, as encroaching on what is (in the current set up) their field of competence? Or are they not competent in this field after all? 

*Digging through the tell at Isin in Iraq produces new artefacts which might be said to "add to our knowledge of the past", so why is one OK, the other not? Would changing the law of Iraq allowing digging to take place (and making a voluntary recording scheme which makes a website of what takers have taken) solve the problem?

1 comment:

heritageaction said...

"So how is it that when that organization is right behind a TV programme like this that the PAS does not write the section on "best practice"

Ah, spot on!
"Best practice" is left to fall-guys who can be safely demonised - Dr Heyworth - and you and me!

It ought, by all that is fair and sensible and appropriate, to be on PAS's front page, in red. And of course it oughtn't to pull it's punches like Dr Heyworth has.

I wonder, if you and I and Dr Heyworth and Dr Bland were in a soundproof, no-consequences room together whether there would be the least disagreement between us? I'm betting not!

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