Thursday, 25 October 2012

Focus on UK Metal Detecting: Ask a Tekkie - Suzie Thomas Searched for Answers

Despite what might be thought, there is not in fact a lot of literature about several aspects of the way artefact hunting is practiced in the UK. The PAS and its supporters concentrate on pushing out a certain genre of texts, all aiming to demonstrate/suggest/prove that the PAS is the best thing since sliced bread  and the "only way forward". It is not of course, but they don't want you - or the people that fund them - knowing that. As a result of the concentration on those same certain aspects of "metal detecting", the whole question in the UK has tended to become separated on teh whole from the other cultural property/heritage issues. So it is nice to see one of the premier specialist journals on the latter carrying a text on the nitty-gritty of "metal detecting". Suzie Thomas' (2012) text, ‘Searching for answers: A survey of metal-detector users in the UK’ [International Journal of Heritage Studies 18 (1), 49-64] is now also available online here (alternative link here). This is great as we can all use and discuss such open-access texts. Here's my take on this one. 

In it, the author points out correctly that "the relationships between archaeologists and metal-detector users" are often more complex than is usually considered "partly because little has been published to date on the dynamics that exist, though there is more about the artefactual information that has been gleaned through these relationships" as depicted by the PAS. That is illogical because if we are to use the latter as any kind of data for research, we have to know a lot more than we do about how they are collected. I am not sure however that the main topic of importance from that point of view is "relationships between archaeologists and metal-detector users", but that is what Dr Thomas is herself most interested in.

Nevertheless, what Thomas has written is of great interest for the wider enquiry. She collected information from the participants in several commercial artefact hunting rallies in England (Snape, Thornborough, Water Newton I and II) - sample size 262 tekkie. Here are some of her conclusions (I round up or down the percentages given in the publication):

Most detectorists are men (92% - p. 51)

Most are middle-aged (35 or more - fig. 2) or senior (65 and older 13% - p. 51)

A significant proportion of the respondents had been detecting "ten years or more" - p. 51. [if that tendency has existed since detecting begun, by now most of the metal detectorists that there have ever been will be dead - where are the finds they found?]

Thomas uses these figures (p. 53) to suggest that the hobby may be "in decline" (or about to be), though I am not really convinced by her argument here.

She then approaches the question of "motivations for artefact hunting" (p. 53, fig. 5). No surprises there, most (54%) said that they were interested in the past, while another 28% said it was "discovering things" that attracted them. Predictably only a small percentage (8%) admitted to the survey team that they wanted to find "things of value". [Later on the researcher admits that the participants may have been saying what they thought they "ought" to say, or what the researcher wanted to hear].

The same mechanisms operated in the questions concerning reporting non-treasure finds to the PAS (p. 54). Most (66%) said they "record their finds with the PAS", though - disappointingly - the proportion of their recordable finds reported was not a question asked.
Few (1% p. 54) reported directly to a local museum or the HER, while 5% used the UKDFD (but again data are missing whether this means only the UKDFD, and what proportion of these reports are duplicated on the PAS database).

As many as 16% of finders asked admitted they never reported finds. Thomas gives some possible reasons "excusing" this, but without exploring which are the most prevalent, or real.

Selling of finds: 83% assert they "never sell" finds (though the researcher caught one such respondent out when their family asserted something different from the artefact hunter -p. 55). Thomas' survey suggests that only "17%" of artefact hunters who were present at these rallies sell their finds - but she admits (p.55) that the respondents may have been saying what they thought the researcher wanted to hear - connected with the stigma attached to artefact hunters who did up stuff on archaeological sites to sell.

Interestingly (bearing in mind the presence of dealers on most commercial rallies) many detectorists (41% of the artefact sellers) admitted that they sold their finds directly to dealers rather than through internet sales (<10 p="p">
I found rather comical Thomas' attempts (p. 56) to explain away why a detectorist taking money from museums when a Treasure item is acquired is not a "sale". Of course it is. If the museum does not raise the cash, the find goes back to the landowner and finder who then flog them off to somebody else.

Donations to museums, a majority asked have never donated anything found to a museum (p. 56). The figures were 167, or 65%, had not donated finds to a museum, and 90 (35%) had. But then it is revealed that in these figures are 9 who hadn’t really (as they were Scottish, with rewards).  So actually, we can take those 9 out of the total which means 69% have not donated any finds.

There is not a lot of interest in the 'general observations' bit (pp. 56-8) until we get to the researcher's attempts to address the issue of how many metal detectorists there are in England and Wales. It's a bit convoluted, but she takes the number of metal detecting clubs, assume (based on her own thesis) they all have "50 members" and comes up with numbers that first range from 9750 to 10550 (p. 58). She notes the PAS prefer smaller numbers [and ignores the fact that I too published a while back a similar estimate based on metal detector sales].

But then she notes that a problem with using club membership as a criterion is that her survey showed that 40% of the people she was interviewing are not club members. She dithers about whether rally-goers might be more prone not to be club members (and none of her questions addressed that complex issue).

She concludes that if her first estimate was 60.2% of the total, in the UK (pp. 58-9) there would be between 16,196 and 17,525 detectorists (so for England and Wales she suggests a figure of 15,449 to 16,777 - which actually is the sort of figure which my own more recent work is suggesting).

Oddly though, without saying precisely why she comes to the figure she does, she then postulates that since people belong to more than one club, for the whole of the UK there must be a lower total (12000 to 14000). She then for some reason points out that this was half the earlier estimate of Denison and Dobinson (taken as more possible evidence of a "decline" - p. 59). In reality, the 1996 estimate in part based on NCMD mystification was probably way-off.

Although her final conclusions might be trending towards what would make the pro-collecting/pro-PAS fluffy bunnies happier (reducing the numbers of tekkies ignoring the Scheme), she then notes that less than half of the total number of detectorists of her conservative estimate actually record any finds with the PAS (p. 59) as opposed to the number claiming to (66%) in her survey.*

Sadly here she apparently mixes up the number of detectorists in the UK ("12000") with the number in the region covered by the PAS [on page 60 she claims only 340 detectorists live and search in Scotland]. Still, the figures are not at all good - that's even before we get to the question she omitted to examine, the proportion of the recordable finds extracted each year are actually reported to the PAS (or anyone else). It is this of course which makes up the "grey zone" indicated by the Heritage Action Artefact Erosion counter (based as it was when set up a few years ago on an estimate of some 8000 artefact huunters in England and Wales).

The rest of the discussion (pp. 60-62) basically repeats points made earlier, including again the suggestion that the hobby might be "in decline". She then touches on the important question of (even if the latter is NOT the case), what happends to all those finds all those old men have been accumulating steadily over their "ten years or more" each hunting and hoiking out artefacts. More to the point, what happens to the documentation of the information associated with each of those finds? Who is going to archive it, how and where? [An additional function of this part of the text seems to be to cram in references to some "literature"].

Thomas, whose primary concern is for some reason (building?) "relationships" between archaeologists and artefact collectors, suggests at the end that if archaeologists go along to artefact hunting events such as commercial rallies, where " ideologies differ", then there will be "more understanding" of the two sides - without really addressing the point whether archaeological ethics actually allow them to take part in commercial artefact hoiking rallies. Neither does she address why artefact hunters would really be at all interested in archaeological "ideologies" (which is amply documented in a large numbers of books published by archaeologists each year) - or indeed why anyone would be all that interested in understanding the "ideologies" of the collector. Surely more important than "understanding artefact hunters" - which you can do eavesdropping on their forums - is preserving the archaeological record from erosion?

Anyway, we may be grateful to Suzie Thomas and the Glasgow team (and the journal's publisher) for putting this thought-provoking text online where it can be more widely accessed and discussed.

* let us note that it precisely at rallies (and therefore from rally -goers) that the PAS get a lot of the "records" they so assiduously log - though they are a bit coy about actually releasing any statistics which allow the scale and scope of that phenomenon to actually be studied. Therefore Dr Thomas' results are going to be skewed by asking rally-goers whether they have "ever" recorded anything with the PAS. Put a pretty female FLO with a low-cut blouse at a PAS table at a rally and the (predominantly male and getting-on-a-bit) punters will oblige by bringing them lots of finds

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