Sunday, 15 December 2013

PAS's Michael Lewis on "Metal-detecting and its Contribution to Archaeology"

Michael Lewis (Deputy Head of Portable Antiquities and Treasure, British Museum) talks about the "contribution to archaeology" which artefact collecting makes.
Many people [...] have probably found archaeology (sic), albeit not necessarily recognising it as such, be it a bit of pottery from the garden, a coin on the beach, or a piece of worked flint while out walking in the countryside [...] together they help paint a picture of the past, helping archaeologists understand where people lived, and how they worked and played. It is this public contribution to archaeology, through recording their finds with the Portable Antiquities Scheme, that is transforming the archaeological map of Britain. To date over 900,000 archaeological objects have been found by the British public and recorded. Many of these have been discovered completely by chance, but most have been found by people proactively looking for archaeology, such as through field-walking or metal-detecting.
Let us stop using fluffy talk. These people with metal detectors are not looking for "archaeology", but the collectable part of the raw material, archaeological finds, with which archaeology works.  These people are not archaeologists, for they do not do archaeology, using the methodology of that discipline, but are collectors. In addition, what they collect does not comprise only archaeological material in its narrower sense, but also what would be termed 'bygones', relatively modern relics. The PAS is already responsible for a confusion in broad sectors of society between collecting and archaeological research. Here Mike Lewis is perpetuating this damaging myth. Artefact hunters with metal detectors are not "pro-actively" looking for archaeology, but pilfering archaeological evidence from the surface archaeological record in order to collect it. Throughout his text, Lewis uses kid-glove language because his metal detecting partners are in earshot: 
It is probably fair to say that archaeologists and metal-detectorists have not always seen eye to eye. 
This of course is followed by absolutely no reasoned
explanation from the Portable Antiquities Scheme of the underlying reasons why some archaeologists are uneasy about the current mode of treating archaeological sites and assemblages as mines for collectable portable antiquities. There is no definition of this "problem of metal-detecting". And should there not be, from a public scheme, financed by public money to inform the public about portable antiquities (sic) issues? Of course there damn well should be. Instead Lewis waltzes away from that problem, embracing his metal detecting "partners" and twirling them round the ballroom:
Over time it has been understood that most metal-detectorists have a genuine interest in the past, though of course there are a relatively small minority of individuals who metal-detect just for financial gain or have little interest in archaeology. An important observation is that most metal-detectorists search on cultivated land, where objects and coins are generally already dislodged from any archaeological context by agricultural work, such as ploughing. Indeed, it may be argued that recovering these items ensures they are saved from being completely destroyed by agriculture and natural and artificial corrosion processes. Once disregarded by many archaeologists as of little interest (the plough-zone was often machined off in archaeological excavations of the past) it is apparent this layer holds many objects that can offer clues about any underlying archaeology.
So basically Dr Lewis is trotting out the same self-serving and one-sided arguments and what-ifs as the artefact hunters he partners.  The demonstration of the number of UK artefact hunters who oppose and totally ignore (not merely 'have no interest in') archaeology has never been made. The number of artefact hunters digging stuff up to sell much of it on eBay has never been quantified. But Mike Lewis assures us it is "a relatively small minority of individuals". At the moment of writing, there are 8356 artefacts (including coins) of probable UK-dug-up origin on sale from British sellers on eBay - hardly evidence supporting the PAS fifteen-million quid assessment that there is only a very small number of people digging stuff up and flogging it off.  Perhaps it is time the PAS started to try and find out for the public that pay their salaries the real facts and numbers. After sixteen years, not before time, eh?

Those sites on cultivated land, Lewis deliberately does not say that archaeology investigates such sites by gridded fieldwalking, studying the distribution of surface evidence, precisely on ploughed sites. A metal detectorist can (maybe) be forgiven  for not knowing this, if nobody tells him, but the PAS is the organization which gets millions of pounds to be the organization which tells him this. Do they? Of course not. That's be too much like "doing outreach". They just keep pushing out the dumb-down junk science and take the money.

The same goes for the  "saved from being completely destroyed by agriculture and natural and artificial corrosion processes" argument. PAS have been pushing out that crappy "might be" argument for over a decade now. What they have not done in that time is adduce a shred of evidence to support it. All the objects on eBay mentioned above have been "saved" from precisely that imaginary threat. Can anyone show even a single one of them that is in a state showing it needed "saving"? Where is the evidence of this destruction of metal objects on such a scale that it merits wholesale hoiking? PAS, it is about time you produced your facts instead of superficial what-if "commons sense arguments" no better than those the metal detectorists and coineys advance.

Lewis blunders on regardless, again regurgitating the detectorists' own salving arguments.
Unless someone spends a reasonable amount of money on a metal-detector (several hundred pounds) they are not likely to find much archaeological material; cheap machines are nothing more than toys, with which you might find some lost change or ring-pulls at the most. Therefore it is a hobby people invest in and become quite serious about. Whatever the initial motivation to take up metal-detecting, most acquire an appreciation for history and want to learn as much as possible about the objects they find. They share the same buzz we archaeologists get about discovery. 
Do they? The "same" buzz, brought about by the same factors?  Or are the factors involved in obtaining information for research the same as a collector filling in a hole in their collection? I suggest that the way detectorists discuss their feelings on finding a "hammie" or "first stater" on the forums (do please register with a few and take a look for yourself) are very different from the way an archaeologist would describe that find. As for the "ringpulls and lost change", how odd that a metal detector that only finds metal is dismissed by Mr Lewis. What nonsense is this? What he is not saying is "metal detecting" is not about detecting metal, but specific kinds of metal with more value than "lost change or ring-pulls". So why not call a spade a spade and say what these people are rally doing, which is artefact hunting and artefact collecting? Why so coy for fifteen million quid? And of course there are many people in the UK who are perfectly happy going down to Bournemouth beach, and finding that loose change. Some of them, day after day.

Another odd statement follows.
On the public site precise findspot details are protected, to ensure archaeological sites are not damaged by looters, sometimes called nighthawks. 
What archaeological sites Mr Lewis? In what way is a metal detectorist removing archaeological material from an archaeological site not looting? Because it is done in daylight? Because he's agreed to split the money from any sales with the landowner? What is the general public to learn from Mr Lewis' statement?

But so as not to end on a negative note, let us note that Lewis says:
It is nonetheless important that metal-detectorists take care to avoid sensitive archaeological sites [...] Only once a find is recorded is it truly discovered, and through recording finds with the PAS metal-detecting can make a truly positive contribution to archaeology.
The PAS has never defined the term "sensitive sites" and it is hard to find evidence of them adopting a judgemental tone in any case where that principle is ignored. I do wonder whether it is "only" through collaborating with the PAS that artefact hunters can "make a truly positive contribution to archaeology". I would say there are a whole range of things they can do, like taking up beach detecting or hang gliding, or join an active archaeological group.

Michael Lewis, ‘When a find is recorded, it is truly discovered’: metal-detecting and its contribution to archaeology' PAS blog, November 28, 2013

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