Sunday, 2 September 2012

Focus on UK Metal Detecting: The PAS and the Turbulent Priest

Paul Brazinski is an MPhil student at the University of Cambridge, and he's published a text in "Posthole" called rather grandly: "The Archaeology of Thomas Becket: Portable Antiquities Scheme Badges". Closer inspection reveals all he's done is taken off the Internet "data" about forty pilgrim badges from the PAS database and dished them up as a piece of "archaeological research". Typically hand-wringingly wimpishly he is forced to admit that "the PAS has limitations". Ooo-er:
In a perfect world, one would assume that all counties are equally represented with medal (sic, heritage heroes no doubt) detector users or avid history detectives who seek artefacts for the same amount of time per year, although such assumptions are false. It is also unlikely, given human nature, that all artefacts are reported to the PAS, although one cannot make this claim with certainty.
What? All artefacts are certainly NOT reported to PAS, you see them on eBay daily. What's with this "or avid history detectives"? Does Mr Brazinski think the "finders" will get upset if he calls them "metal detectorists"? Some confusion here I fear. Mr Brazinski seems also to be forgetting that the PAS gets data from all members of the public, not just artefact hunters, but accidental finders too.

Yes, the PAS database has a whole host of severe limitations as a research tool, and Mr Brazinski has missed the main one. Artefact hunters are not so much "history detectives" (ersatz archaeologists) as collectors. Then we have the whole issue of what these people take along to where the PAS meets them, most often club meetings and rallies these days. So the distribution of FLO-friendly clubs needs to be taken into account.

Then we have the issue of making inferences based on just over forty random finds. Now when I was a young lad and doing my research into briquetage, I got on a train, or in a car and travelled to museums and archaeological units all over the country. Tucked away in their stores was lots of unpublished (or published in another way than I needed it) material. That's what we used to do, my corpus was built up by searching out the stuff and handling myself. I even ended up writing up some of it.  Does this paper mean that the mode in "research" today is not to bother seeing the stuff, but just to restrict yourself to what is available in the internet and nothing else?

Mr Brazinski makes the facile interpretation that where these badges are found was the home base of the person wearing them. That assumes that having gone to the Becket Shrine, one kept or maybe wore the badge for the rest of your life. I really do not know how with such a small sample, and not taking into account the context of deposition of them all, you can say anything at all about them. Equally, surely,  there is every reason to believe that they were also lost on the way home - if so, its not surprising that "more" are found closer to the Shrine. I imagine having traipsed all the way from Canterbury to London on foot or on donkey/mule/horseback, or jolted around in a waggon, your pilgrim garb was a bit sweaty and smelly by the time you got to London (where he finds 14 examples were found). Could not the areas where they are being deposited mark the stages of the journey you changed out of one outfit for another? London seems a jolly good place to me to buy some new clothes on the way home. Maybe the badges were sewn onto new clothes or stored with the old ones in the travelling coffer, but for whatever reason they did not continue their journey? Maybe the badges were dispensed with as the pilgrim groups split up and different bits of it went their separate ways? Maybe readers will remember the sequence in the PAS edutainment special "Britain's Secret Treasures" about the pilgrim badges thrown into the River Stour at Canterbury (not in Brazinski's corpus?) which were interpreted by the PAS as some kind of good-luck rite as I recall. That is quite apart from the unwarranted assumption that everyone who set out actually returned to where they came from and did not settle down somewhere else on the way, like in the vicinity of London (how many people move out of the provinces into Warsaw where the jobs are each year?). There are several other reasons why one cannot simply equate dots on a map with the place of origin of the traveller, especially when not having access to the data of the precise taphonomy of the findspot. 

In any case, I'd suggest if Mr B. wants to study the "archaeology" of the Becket pilgrimage, he goes to the choir of Canterbury Cathedral. He should squat or kneel (more appropriate in a place of worship) down and look across the floor at the light from the windows reflected on the floor, can he see the wear patterns on the slabs? That wear was not produced by a few people in a fortnight. Then, he should turn round and look at the plinths of the Purbeck marble columns of the ambulatory. He ought to look at the wear patterns there too. What caused that? Was that caused by a gaggle of a few hundred visitors from the London region? No. If you study it carefully, what's clearly happened is there were huge crowds in the area around the shrine and people were standing on the plinths well back from the Shrine itself to get a better view. I do not advocate doing it except in imagination, but one can imagine standing on the slippery, sloping marble where the floral scrolls have been worn away. The only way you'd stay on is if there was a huge crush, pressing you against that column. I'd say any attempt to draw any conclusions whatsoever about the composition and motivation about the huge crowds of people thus evidenced from a mere forty items in an online database, and without taking anything else into account, is simply misguided.

I only mention this as I think this is a good example of the sort of superficiality that the "this is an interesting object"-centred approach of the PAS is encouraging. Where is British "archaeology" going?


heritageaction said...

Mr Brazinski kindly says it can't be known for sure if PAS get to see everything?

Is that what's called a funding fallacy?

Paul Barford said...

more like "I don't want to upset the PAS, maybe they'll give me a job when I've done my PhD".

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