Wednesday 5 March 2014

Ancient Heritage on the "Archaeology versus Metal Detecting" Grabfest Challenge

Collector David Knell has another gem on his "Ancient Heritage" blog, and like the text he wrote as a response to Peter Tompa's attack on archaeology (discussed earlier here), it is refreshing to see a collector of ancient artefacts who not only actually understands what archaeology is about, but expresses his opinion in a manner that is concise, logical and articulate. More of this please. Knell's text (Wednesday, 5 March 2014, "Saving history?") addresses the views of a UK metal detectorist who had "made a frighteningly uninformed comparison of Archaeology vs. Metal Detectoring on his sadly-named TonyRobinsonsPants blog".
After stressing the tedious and lengthy procedure of archaeological excavations, he trumpets metal detecting as the winner since it is simply a matter of "Find history. Dig out history. Save history." He then comes to the equally simple conclusion that "This, is why the brats [archaeologists] have a problem with detectorists" (followed by a link to a recent criticism by archaeologists of the way some detectorists obliterated the context of a find).
Knell notes that many detectorists share the same total incomprehension of what history really is and are actively engaged in destroying it. This is why many people have problems with these metal detectorists, not any kind of "jealousy" or "elitism". The isolated artefact is not in itself a "piece of history" but "a tiny component of an assemblage that may have the potential to reveal history if the whole assemblage is meticulously recorded and investigated within its wider context - and in the modern day that involves a team of trained people":
An object in itself is not "history". And "history" is certainly not an insane grabfest of finding, digging out and "saving" as many objects as you can get your hands on, sticking them in museum cabinets and then drooling over how pretty they are. "History" is briefly defined as "the study of the past" and the word stems from the Greek historia, meaning "inquiry, knowledge acquired by investigation". Note the words "study", "inquiry" and "investigation". History is a cerebral concept. You cannot hold it in your hands. You can find, dig out and "save" ancient objects until the cows come home and stuff them into museums up to the rafters but unless the sites where those objects lie are properly excavated (and yeah, that can be tedious and lengthy), you are typically destroying and obliterating any chance of seriously adding to our knowledge of history. And that tends to annoy any person with the intellect to appreciate what history really is, not just a few archaeologists [...].
Excellently said. 


Unknown said...

And metal detectorist don't do this...??? Historical finds (either made through metal detecting or "tedious" and "lengthy" excavations) can be the trigger that fires up a society's interest in the past. History is not simply cerebral. I had no interest in history at school because I could not touch it or feel it. However, I can remember every single detail about the first roman coin that I was lucky enough to recover. The feel of it, the investigation work that I had to do to discover who the ruler was and where it was minted and then providing the information to the PAS to assist with any possible further investigation of the site. This is how I "feel" and "engage" with history and as long as what I do does not destroy or obliterate the chances of adding to the future knowledge of history, then I cant see how this can be an annoyance. The study, inquiry and investigation of any site can and should include evidence provided by detectorists.

Paul Barford said...

It is a shame you did not post this on David Knell's blog rather than mine.

I think your argument falls into precisely the object-centred approach Knell was criticising.

I really do not see the point you are making, you seem (with your Roman coin) seem to be adopting precisely the approach which Knell criticises.

No, metal detectorists "do not do this". That is the point he was making.

"as long as what I do does not destroy or obliterate the chances of adding to the future knowledge of history", so how do you prevent that?

Anonymous said...

Even if object-centred archaeology told the whole story, which by definition it doesn't, the sharing of that incomplete story with the public is sadly the exception not the rule and waxing lyrical about the PERSONAL benefits of detecting tends to divert from that basic fact.

At the same time that Steve is saying "detecting is good for you" another detectorist is saying "Granted a small minority do not report the finds they make but the vast majority do" which is patently not the case but the public wouldn't know. The two statements, when in combination, have brought us to a situation of mass knowledge-loss that the public is quite unaware of.

Paul Barford said...

Well, I was a bit puzzled by the link between "Historical finds [...] can be the trigger that fires up a society's interest in the past" and his OWN personal experience. MOST of Britain's 60 million odd people are interested in the past to some degree, but only a VERY small minority reach for a metal detector and spade to "touch it or feel it". (Go and hug a megalith)

If sixty million people bought metal detectors and spades as a way of "engaging with the past", how long would there be any archaeological record left?

So, why should THESE people, and not the other people (my Mum for example) pinch all the stuff for their personal entertainment? What do they think makes them so "special"? That they are "interested"? So why can they not be "interested" and "touch the past" in some other way? Finds days at the museum for example.

Isn't this all about HAVING, really? And all the rest, the I-luv-the-PAS and the "sharing knowledge" (seen the results of the audience survey?), why is that not just a front?

Anonymous said...

Well I must say that rang a bitter bell with me. Most Heritage Journal members and readers just want to effectively "hug a megalith" yet are blaggarded by the rough end of detecting, people who merely want to "own" stuff.

It's like egg collectors saying ornithologists are mean, butterfly collectors saying lepidopterists need to "get a life" and hunters saying "don't knock it till you've tried it, it's tremendous personal fun and I never knew much about elephants until I started personally engaging with them!" ;)

You learn more by hugging, it's a plain fact. The "it brought me to the ology" never convinces me. You can go STRAIGHT to the ology, ask CBA and the Young Archaeologists Club!

Detectorbloke said...

It occured to me that I think that when talking about 'recording items' detectorists are often only talking about items that have to be recorded via the treasure process not via the voluntary recording scheme. So whilst it might be that the majority report treasure finds these are actually a minority of the total possible finds that can be recorded.

I personally think only a minority of detectorists actually offer up all non treasure yet recordable finds up to their FLO etc.

Well I don't just think it but know it from experience. I do but the majority of people I know don't.

Paul Barford said...

Yes, I got that impression the other day when reading the comments sent to the PAS audience survey. I think you are right.

And of course what you say links very well to what the Heritage Action Artefact Erosion Counter says - big announcement on that today.

David Knell said...

Thanks, Paul.

Steven, I think you missed the point I was making. Since my replies are quite lengthy, I've posted them on my own blog:

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