Sunday, 2 March 2014

Archaeowanderings on "Metal Detecting" (2)

Dr Jervis ("Some Thoughts on Metal Detecting and Archaeology" 1st March 2014) feels that
"rather than being divisive and condemning detectorists, archaeologists should surely do more to show amateurs how important the contribution that they can make is, and to try to work with them, rather than against them. On the whole, it should be said, we are good at this, and are getting ever better. Rather, the professional sector should focus on promoting and enforcing standards within professional archaeology, leading by example, whilst engaging with interested amateurs to ensure that they to understand the value and context of their efforts. 
Right, yes. Wonderful. There is one problem I see, this is precisely what was said in 1996/7 when the PAS was set up. That is what British archaeology has been doing since then (in fact in areas like Norfolk, since before then). And what actually are the effects? A database full of largely isolated decontextualised artefacts pulled out of the ground and reported randomly from a larger assemblage which have come from nobody-really-knows-what-kind-of context of discovery. And that basically is it. The PAS has gone from an organization that was supposed to instil best practice (ie doing what Dr  Jarvis offers as a postulate) to the detectorists "partner". To a large extent the Scheme has devolved into a group of yes-men (and women)  standing shoulder-shruggingly by as old pasture with earthworks is dug into, known sites are plundered for collectables, and the Code of Practice is ignored. 

Dr Jervis probably knows we have a CoP for Responsible Metal Detecting, such as it is. He perhaps knows there are other ones. Like the NCMD one. One Code says responsible detecting is reporting all recordable items you find to the PAS and if you find something like the so-called "Sweetman Hoard", you don't dig down into it hoik everything out in a hurry, and stomp around on it in the bottom of the hole. It says, call the archaeologists . The other code says nothing of the kind. I invite Dr Jervis to do some clicking on the websites of the very many metal detecting clubs of England and Wales (all of which call themselves "responsible") and see which of them require of their members the one Code, and which the other (and which none). Then let him try to say that the PAS partner approach is working. Because I think if, after sixteen years and many millions of pounds spent on fostering a partnership, we still keep getting abysmal results like this, it means something is wrong with the basic assumption that what the PAS postulated in 1997 is at all achievable.

Yet, it stands to reason that the PAS is going to be the last organization on earth to actually admit that.  They keep pumping out the "good news" stories, they keep pointing journalists to a photogenic and articulate detectorist who can be trusted to make all the right noises. A Treasure is found, out comes the next press release on how well we are doing getting all these treasures out of the ground, and what jolly fine fellows these metal detectorists are, encouraging all to get involved. They are in no hurry to engage with those who say that there are serious issues with the way this heritage is being treated. In fact, they totally ignore these questions, and try their best (like labelling those who pose these questions "trolls") to dismiss these people and what they are trying to say. It's an uphill battle, despite the fact that the treatment of the common heritage is supposed to be the result of public discussion. This however is part of the public (and this part of the debate) which are being systematically excluded in a manner which would be is incomprehensible to an archaeologist in any other country where (in accordance with international conventions such as New Delhi 1956) this type of exploitation of the archaeological record is strongly opposed and combated by legal sanctions. We non-metal-detectorists are also the "audience' of the PAS, and there are far more of us than metal detectorists, and yet the issues we have with the PAS are dismissed, while the PAS continually bends over backwards to pander to the detectorists. "You done well" they are told, even when a twelve year old kid could see they have not.

This, is why some of us feel that the public deserves to be told the other side of the story. If that is "divisive", then so be it. I think a state funded archaeological organization providing a politically motivated (and jobsworth) one-sided picture of the complex issues surrounding artefact hunting and collecting in Britain is what is causing a division. In archaeology there are those that believe the official pro-collecting and pro-partnership propaganda, and (increasing numbers now) of those whose eyes and ears tell them that this is a fragile façade, and if you scratch below it, another picture emerges, one which many interests want to keep hidden. This is why when something like this happens you get two sides emerging, in which the other side insists on treating those who can only be characterised (in reality) as 'preservationists' as the bad guys. Why? Because it is comfortable to live in a world of make-believe where nobody rocks the boat of illusion, and the problem of artefact hunting has (almost) "been solved - or can be very soon". It is not, a number of problems still exist in the UK, and day by day we are all the losers.

This kind of erosion, this kind of pilfering information is indeed "desecrating history" and I think it is something archaeologists should (all) be concerned about and use every method available to us to oppose (including highlighting the problem by speaking openly and frankly of those that do it and what they have done).  In fact, I would go so far as to say those who shrug shoulders and walk on by, or -  without properly examining what the realities are - make up excuses why we should not be bothered, should be castigated along with their "partners" (in what?). 

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