Monday, 24 December 2012

Metal Detectorists: "Who we ARE"

In putting down here since the summer of 2008 on this blog my thoughts on the current state of artefact hunting and collecting and the antiquities trade, I may well  have said something at some time or another which has conflicted with the opinions of many involved in, or supportive of, all three. Not only artefact hunters, collectors and antiquity dealers, but their "partners" in the archaeology world will probably find here much with which they do not agree. Nobody however is preventing them from engaging with the arguments offered, the issues raised, after all open public debate is (supposedly) the basis of current English Heritage conservation policy. There are some attempts to present some sort of a rationale of a particular position (here and here for example).  Most who disagree on principle with what is written here however take the easy way out, and instead of making the effort to justify their positions in more detail, try to ignore and dismiss the points made.

Of all the groups concerned however, one of them stands out due to the nature of the 'engagement' its members attempt to adopt. Current British policy entrusts the exploration and curation of parts of the archaeological record to the group of collectors that roam the countryside with metal detectors looking for things to add to their personal ephemeral collections. It places great responsibilities on them, and assumes that they are all able to understand and meet those responsibilities. It is these people that experience has shown are the least fitted however to engaging in the public debate about the heritage.

Back in 2000 I began to attempt to engage fellow archaeologists in debate on British policies on artefact hunting on the CBA's JISC-run internet discussion forum (then called an 'academic' one). Very soon this came to the attention of metal detectorists who started using that forum to argue their side of the issue (as was their right, the CBA takes a very pluralistic view of what 'archaeology for all' is). The trouble is the manner in which they did that as hardly conducive to continuance of the debate there. This was of course their aim. The archives of 'Britarch' are permanently archived and open, which means that the points were raised and the manner in which it was phrased are available for inspection, as is the manner in which I and anyone who expressed similar views was treated for even broaching the subject. My attitudes about the milieu as a whole were strongly affected by these exchanges. The same thing happened on the forum of the PAS archaeological outreach scheme, the forum associated with the archaeology programme Time Team, and the short-lived forum of the conservation group Heritage Action. All of these were disrupted by metal detectorists, not coin dealers, not artefact smugglers, not museum curators or (with one shameful exception) pro-collecting archaeologists. Sadly, these displays of past tekkie aggression can only now be seen in the 'Britarch' archives. 

After more than a decade of this sort of behaviour, nobody is therefore much surprised by its continuance. The milieu as a whole seems to take pride in being seen as - in the recent words of one of their number - "foul-mouthed, uncouth, tasteless individuals". Interestingly this is one of those that has a page on his webite ("metal detectorists - who we are"), attempting to persuade public opinion through selective news items that artefact hunters with metal detectors are all benign jolly individuals who do no damage, but find lost wedding rings and give generously to charity. Digging a little deeper into other pages of the same website will soon reveal another, darker side to the activity and those who are engaged in it.

It was on this website that after he has been subjected to several threats, Nigel Swift's home address was publicised with the comment 'throw him to the dogs'. Now I know for a fact that Nigel Swift has never done anything to this particular individual to justify such treatment. Metal detectorists' names are kept out of the public record by the PAS due to concerns with the Data Protection Act, the vast majority of them use a variety of pseudonyms to hide their identity on internet forums and websites. Yet a British metal detectorist has no qualms whatsoever about publicising where, should an aggrieved fellow collector wish to encounter the chairman of Heritage Action in the flesh, they can find him of a dark evening. And yes, UK metal detectorists are not all the nicest of people one would like to meet in the dark. The British police warn farmers not themselves to approach those found detecting on their property without permission, they are known to have been armed with metal rods and worse. Many metal detectorists know exactly who the 'nighthawks' are and where they are going and what they are doing, but are afraid to report them. Metal detectorists have reportedly had their car tyres slashed at rallies for less. Colleagues in Oxford Archaeology took the unprecedented step of publishing a report anonymously since it was about metal detector users breaking the law. If a metal detectorist in the UK is afraid to confront a fellow metal detectorist, and the police warn members of the public to stay away from them, and archaeologists writing about them hide their identities for fear of retaliation, how much of an "imaginary" (sic)  threat is it publicising their home address in the internet and saying it is Nigel's own fault for saying things about metal detecting, implying that in a metal detectorist's eyes,  he deserves what he's got coming to him?

This, for most people would be considered totally unacceptable behaviour, yet it has passed without negative comment from a single member of the UK metal detecting community. For them, such thuggish attitudes are clearly well within what they would consider acceptable. Even such a generally reasonable and articulate blogger as John Winter, for example, considers that the antics of detectorists of this type is worthy of recommendation

The same metal detectorist three days ago as a Christmas present to all the tekkie Thugwits (and others) out there also publicised in the same place my address, with house number and postcode to boot.  He says "it's my own fault" for discussing artefact hunting and collecting under my own name, and not anonymously like the authors of the Oxford Archaeology "nighthawks" report. But hiding behind pseudonyms is exactly what I want to avoid, I see no reason why we cannot have an open public debate about artefact hunting, collecting and the antiquities trade. Given the message put out by British policy and government acceptance, in what way is that unreasonably idealistic? [UPDATE Christmas Day 2012: I am assured by the contrite blog owner that the post containing the latter address has since been removed, but no mention was made of the one with Nigel's]

Readers might notice a new sidebar panel, down near the bottom on the left: "False "Barford" Blogs, Not Actually by Paul Barford". It seems there is now a move among some in the milieu to try and discredit the present writer by impersonation. Since these pseudoblogs began, several thousand people have read what is written there and associated it with the name of the present writer. This includes a discussion of how I allegedly 'sell on eBay" (which, if it concerned archaeological artefacts would be an illegal act where I live). The other one contains insulting texts, among others attacking the memory of my mother and father. These of course have produced huge amusement in the artefact hunting community, and if there has been a single disapproving comment from among their 16000-strong number, I have yet to see it.

Then of course there is the puerile song with its inane lyrics: "If we get enough hits and links on this site we will out blog him, and put his blog in the gutter where he belongs". Obviously it never occurred to these individuals that the way to "outblog" a preservation-oriented archaeoblogger is simply to refute the points with which one is in disagreement. Once again, over a thousand hits, one single dissenting tekkie voice registered. It is notable however that the author of the song has already threatened to retaliate against "Muddy Mick", the author of that single dissenting voice.

Dissent is pretty rare among so-called "responsible detectorists" when it comes to matters of best practice, preservation and the public image of artefact hunting. Anyone who as much as peeps a word of criticism of the group mores can face the sort of intimidation and harrassment which is endemic in this milieu.  There is a huge difference between who tekkies want people to think they are (in line with the propaganda obligingly - and to their shame - pumped out on their behalf by the PAS), and who they actually are. To some extent the tekkies are shielded from public scrutiny by closing off their forums to public view (like most artefact collectors do). That is why I propose making 2013 a "join a metal detecting forum" year, and will be posting links and suggestions how to do that. Let us get as many people as possible observing the goings-on behind the facade, making up their own minds just who these "metal detectorists" on the whole are, and precisely what they represent. Let us have some transparency, and then some proper, informed, debate.


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