Monday, 1 October 2012

Focus on Metal Detecting: Some Comments on "Metal-Detecting Ethics"


In a comment to a previous video, Marc Stavast the Dutch detectorist gives a list of his ideas about the ethics concerning metal detecting and asks for my reactions. I would like to thank him for that contribution (it is a welcome change from the mail I got from him yesterday threatening to "have the law on yer" because I discussed here something he'd posted elsewhere). Since he explicitly asked for my comments I give them here. His original listed points are in green, my comments are in black.

1 - Is it ethical to detect on land you don't have permission? NO
No, I do not think there is anyone who would say it is,  it is also illegal. 

2 - Is it ethical to detect on land at night when you have permission? NO
Well, I do not see why not, it is not just the lack of light which makes a so-called "nighthawk" a trespasser and illegal artefact hunter. If the farmer is informed and you are not going to disturb wildlife and livestock, and only taking loose finds out of loose ploughsoil. It is not the amount of light that matters, all you need is a torch to note down the GPS co-ordinates on the finds bags. It would be easier to do it in daylight, but not necessarily unethical to do it at other times of the day. It would however be unethical to do anything that needs proper observation in the dark, like starting to explore a group of finds.

3- Is it ethical to sell coins/artefacts you find? NO
Why not? If they are rightfully your property (see below) and their ownership is legal, then why not if certain conditions are fulfilled? What IS a problem is digging up archaeological artefacts in order to sell (some of) them. I would also say it is unethical to sell finds without supplying te new owner with the documentation concerning the findspot and the artefact hunter's rights to the object (I'd like to see the transfer of ownership accompanied by the PAS number, detailed information on the identity of the finder and precise findspot, as well as a copy of the search agreement with the landowner)

4- Is it ethical to detect on heritage properties (protected by law)? NO (unless you have a written permission from the head of archaeologists).
Well, it is illegal. In Britain that would be the Secretary of State. But every archaeological site is also a heritage property, with heritage values. Is it ethical to hoik archaeological finds willy nilly out of any of them? I'd say even in situations where it is legal, it is not ethical, because mining sites for collectables destroys information and is contrary to the principles of sustainable management.

5- Is it ethical for archaeologists who have the detecting hobby to detect on heritage properties (protected by law)? NO
Eh? I'd drop it down a step. Is it ethical for archaeologists to be artefact collectors? It is not illegal, it is not against the current IFA code, and I know some archaeologists who do have collections. Of course it would not be legal for any archaeologist to do anything intrusive on a protected site of any kind without the appropriate permit - which would be unlikely to be given for anyone's private metal detecting. 

6 - Is it ethical to leaves holes open after detecting? NO
The old "unfilled holes" trope. It actually has nothing to do with the ethicality of treating the archaeological record as a mine for collectables. This is the Countryside Code stuff, which is a separate issue, Mr Stavast mentions digging holes, but not starting fires, talking loudly by nesting birds, shutting gates, letting dogs worry livestock and defecating in the bushes or leaving empty beer bottles there. 

7- Is it ethical to film dealers his selling items? NO. I always ask for permission.
I am sure they are very grateful. So its OK for me to discuss your film of dealers selling finds at the Burton rally. But again, this is nothing to do with the ethics of artefact hunting.

8- Is it ethical to hit the owner if he ask you not to come back? NO
This would never have crossed my mind for a moment as anything specifically to do with the ethics of detecting. 

9 - Is it ethical to buy items from dealers? NO
Why? If they are licitly acquired and it is not illegal to own them in a given country, then provided certain conditions are met, buying artefacts on the legitimate market is not unethical. That's the whole point, there is an ethical way to collect, and one which is not. Nobody here is fighting the former, and what we need to do is to make the division between the two crystal clear and gain social condemnation of the latter. [but here Mr Stavast is contradicting what he himself said about dealers yesterday] Also I am unclear why he thinks it is OK to take and keep items from the archaeological record when he does it himself, but when somebody else has done it, it is somehow less ethical to have those artefacts. Why?

10- Is it ethical to keep the coins/artefacts you find? YES. Because when the owner gives you the permission law states that the finder is keeper (in The Netherlands). Does the finder sell the items, he must give 50% of the collected money to the landowner.
This is illogical, Mr Stavast says it is unethical to buy finds, but OK to sell them if you split the profits with the landowner. But in point 3 it is not ethical to sell finds. But then this brings us back to the point with which this discussion started, how can one give a "present" to a landowner consisting of items which if the detectorist would sell to somebody else, half the value goes to the landowner? That is precisely the point I was making about giving back to a landowner what was his in the first place and calling it a "present" from the finder to the owner.

Is it ethical to keep what you find? On the one hand responsible curation is a responsibility, on the other, certain objects should be in a museum, and others still should never have left the ground.

11 - Is it ethical to give the owner a few double items you found on his land? YES. More ethical than selling the items. And the owner mostly like it and appreciate it. We don't have to.
Nobody said it was unethical to return finds to their owner. The point was made about the attitude of entitlement which was betrayed by the way the description of the video which I was discussing was phrased.Also of course let us not pretend that the motivation here is altruistic, it's about maintaining access to detecting land.

12 - Is it ethical to report the items you detect? YES. But only if it's significant to the arrchaeologists. It depends on where you found it and from what time the other items are (from the same land)
Now here we have the problem of a detectorist (not trained as an archaeologist) selecting out what information he or she thinks is "important for the archaeologist". This is the point I have been making, that this imposes a filter on the data which means they cannot be treated in any way as 'pure' but ersatz archaeological data as the PAS in England (and Wales at the moment) does. Of course it is responsible detecting to report EVERY piece of archaeological information found (that's what the Code says), anything less than that ceases to be an ethical way to treat the archaeological record. But there are thousands of such "grey" detectorists even in England, and they imagine that despite that, they have the "right" to be treated in the same way as those who report what they find.

As for it being "important where you find it", I am of the opinion that it is unethical to do ANY artefact hunting under conditions where you cannot report what is found. So, if a landowner does not agree with you reporting your finds,  the responsible artefact hunter would look for a search area elsewhere. 

But let us take a step back, is artefact collecting with reporting always "ethical"?  Is reporting alone what makes artefact hunting "best practice" or are other factors involved? I would say most definitely there are, and none of them are mentioned by Mr Stavast.

13 - Is it ethical to throw away items that doesn't concern archaeologists? YES. Only items that has an archaeological meaning shouldn't been thrown away.
What is archaeological meaning? Who decides that and on what grounds? Is it ethical to take things out of the ground (the archaeological record) and because you personally, because of the way they have been extracted and the purpose for which these items have been removed, cannot see the potential significance of them, just throw them away or send them to be melted down for scrap? More ethical, surely would be to leave what you do not understand alone.

What does it mean "only items that have archaeological meaning shouldn't be thrown away"? That presupposes that artefacts have ONLY archaeological values, and that is not true either. Some for example are lost property and should not be "thrown away" but the ethical approach would surely be (as artefact hunters sometimes do) to make an effort to find the owner.

14 - Is it ethical to film your detecting sessions? YES. I like when people comment on my videos. If they have questions, I'll answer them.
I think transparency about all aspects of artefact hunting is not only ethical, but essential to allow public discussion. So-called "metal detecting" deals with something that belongs to all, we all should have the right to see it and discuss as well as assess it. That, in part, is what this blog is about. Mr Stavast seems to be in the position of regarding it as ethical for him to film his exploits, but unethical of me to discuss those films without his "permission". How so?

15 - Is it ethical for England to have rally's? YES. As long as there is an official liaisons officer there to fill in the "Finds Recording Sheet" and take pictures of the finds that they are interested in. 
No.  Commercial artefact hunting under the conditions under which they are currently organized and held quite clearly are NOT an ethical or sustainable use of the archaeological record. The presence there of the PAS in no way changes a pig's ear into a silken purse. Who pays for the liaison officer to be there to make what would (he says) otherwise be "unethical" into an event which for them is "ethical"? Is it ethical to ask the British public to fund such a public-relations exercise? Should not the detectorists themselves be paying for this service? [If Mr Stavast thinks dealers selling finds are unethical, how can a rally be ethical in his eyes if the PAS are happily recording finds in a tent next to the one where a dealer is selling finds? The two simply do not tally.]

Well, its a pleasure not to see the "rotting in the ground" argument for once. But I rather think that "not hitting landowners" and "filling in all my holes" is rather missing the point. There are other issues, such as permanent pasture, earthwork sites, targeting known (but unscheduled) sites, selective removal and retention of archaeological objects, and a whole host of others totally missing here. And once again, what about the items taken out of those holes? What about their proper curation (no olive oil), storage, documentation, publication and disposal? Do these not belong in the ethics of artefact hunting and collecting? Mr Stavast seems to concentrate just on the aspect of what happens in the field, surely just as important is what happens in the collection made as a result of all that hunting.  But he can hardly be blamed entirely for that when this whole aspect is missing from the official code for England and Wales.

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