Monday, 24 March 2014

British Archaeologists: "Looting of Site Surfaces is NOT Damaging the Archaeological record"

In relation to the currently ongoing discussion in UK metal detecting circles of the treatment of artefacts in the topsoil, we are at last appraised of what questions were posed to British archaeologist David Connolly which when he'd written the answer were then removed.

After repeated requests for this information, detectorist Baines, the co-instigator (with an anonymous "Steve") of this controversy, has set out the initial question which was asked here. Now we can see the context of what the archaeologist said in reply.

I must say I am shocked. Look at what artefact hunters are being told by their British "partners" (oh and before I am accused of taking what Connolly said "out of context" I urge readers to read the whole context, compare all of this with all of this). Mr Baines commences, addressing me:
I explained how the question started, which was because of you saying detectorists are taking important information from the archaeological record by only taking metallic items from with (sic) the top layer
True enough, but look what a UK archaeologist is telling detectorists. He starts off discussing how archaeologists machine off the topsoil by comforting them in answer to precisely that comment by Mr Baines:
and one should not put too much import onto Paul Barfords way of... shalll we say reporting his truth. His attempts to goad [...] are not going to work.*
Incredible. A British archaeologist specifically said that metal detectorists are not 'taking important information from the archaeological record by taking metallic items from with the top layer'. Does he mean that to be read as "never"?  So, what on earth does Mr Connolly think the point is of setting up a sixteen million quid Portable Antiquities Scheme to record at least some basic information about those objects removed from the archaeological record? Of what, for goodness sake, does this "archaeological record" consist for this archaeologist?  Does he really think it comprises just the deeper parts of excavated sites? It it the case that surface sites in Britain (and, for example, the Jordanian desert - where he's worked) are for him not "real archaeology"? I would say that is a very debatable concept, and the legislation of many other countries go along with supporting the concept that surface sites (and the artefacts they contain) are very much part of the  archaeological record and are, with the rest of it, to be protected from just such exploitation. From what he says here, Mr Connolly apparently thinks otherwise. Artefact hunters can fill their boots with artefacts as long as they are gathered from within the top layer. Take the lot (just leave the Treasure).

But it seems from what Mr Connolly is here saying, and is now being quoted in metal detecting circles, that to point out that artefact hunters are taking important information from the archaeological record by only taking metallic items from with[in] the top layer. may comfortably be dismissed as a deceit ("Paul Barford's way of reporting his truth") and mere "goading". Well, with attitudes like that towards conservation, I trust Mr Connolly will not be in line for a SAFE award.

* He mentions some emails I sent that day - among them two concerning the correct form of citation in a bibliography of a piece of grey literature Connolly authored in 2008.  Hardly an example of 'goading'.

UPDATE  23.03.14
I see this text is currently being quoted on metal detecting blogs as some kind of an "attack" on Mr Connolly. On the contrary, the guy accused me of lying (not the first time he has adopted such tactics to dismiss my point of view, it must be said), and in the circumstances I think my response above is pretty civil. I think Mr Connolly is wrong, but unlike him I do not accuse him of deceit. Mr Connolly or his like-thinking pals (including the anonymous character who goes by the non-specific name "Steve" on metal detecting forums) are welcome to respond, here, always, or if they like over on the BAJR forum. I note though that the thread to which I refer has not expanded beyond the first three posts - nobody seems particularly keen to take up the baton from Mr Connolly and run with it further, which rather suggests that I am not the only one who finds it difficult to agree fully with the sentiments he expresses there.  Please, do go on and enlighten us further how metal detectorists are not 'taking important information from the archaeological record by taking metallic items from with the top layer'.

UPDATE 24.03.13
P. Prentice "Seneschal" comes along to rescue the BAJR thread from being a three-post one for ever, with these words of wisdom which are going to please the metal detectorists no end and set back the PAS mission about a decade when it gets around:
[T]he old loss of context argument that is regularly trotted out by people who neither understand archaeology or metal detecting is mostly falacious
Really? If he really believes that and is not just saying what he thinks will win him a free beer from a BAJR-reading tekkie, or just trying to be stir up trouble for the hell of it, why does he then say: "metal detectorists could be of more benefit if they gridded fields and recorded where they have been and not found anything"? If finds have no context from their position within an assemblage in the topsoil, then what is the point of making artefact hunters grid fields? In any case, on the frequently detected pasture, including that with visible earthworks, I simply do not accept that there is no context for even the shallowest of finds. The archaeological stratigraphy on sites like the area metal detected at Crosby Garrett begins just below the grass roots. Why is that so difficult for PP to understand?

Crosby Garrett excavation at reported helmet findspot,
note shallow depth at which the top of the archaeological layers
appear, and the depth of the detectorists' hole 

Frankly, I wonder just how much somebody who writes "if you want to be useful then learn to recognise and record ceramic flint and c[eramic] b[uilding] m[aterial] and search blank areas" understands about the aims of artefact hunting and collecting. Metal detecting forums are not exactly full of discussions about ceramic building material, and Mr Prentice might like to ask his pal Dave Connolly how many potsherd were picked up at the Water Newton rally from fields chock-full of it, and why that is.  But then, such is Mr Prentice's desire to "understand" metal detecting that he does not see any sense in trying to demonstrate the degree and manner a metal detectorist collected assemblage from a site will differ from its actual archaeological content.

I look forward to a better explanation than "but it is" (which is all we have from this milieu so far) of why it is fallacious to say that finds discovered by any kind of artefact hunting with metal detectors (or without) have recordable context.


Paul Barford said...

At what would have been about nine in the evening, a collector over the far side of the Atlantic browsed/read a dozen or so texts on this blog, and then sent a comment to one of them. The account name gives the gentleman's full name, he's a real person and the post is very honest and candid. For that reason (and to give me freedom to reply as I wish) I have decided to hide the gentleman's identity. I'll call him "Mr Respect":


I recently discovered your blog and have been reading your posting with interest. I am a private collector of antiquities and unfortunately, began collecting before fully forming a rounded perspective on the potential negative effects of that practice. Now I am frankly a bit ethically torn. My intention has always been to expose the inexpensive and rather common artifacts to the people in my community, my friends family etc. as a way of broadening their perspectives, but this somehow seems a bit misguided, as I have limited the potential scope to only my local community, and possibly am in fact reducing the impact of these object to historians and scientists. That much said, the stuff I have is rather common, and it's uncertain to me what more could be learned from another example of a roman evil eye ring (just as an example of a relatively commonplace artifact of which my collection is entirely comprised). Everything has been purchased from supposedly reputable dealers that claim legal provenance - acquired before 1970 etc. which while perhaps legal is also perhaps morally wrong?

It has me thinking about private collecting in general and I think I understand your general perspective from your posts but I wanted to get your opinion if you would be willing:

What is your perspective on private collecting of artifacts? Am I wrong for doing it at all?

My intention is that eventually ii would pass on the collection on to a museum, but I have been reading that donating to museums has become very difficult without proper export paperwork that establishes the items as having been legally acquired, or that document the item as being from an old collection in a way that is very credible.

So what do you think about that and will making it more difficult to donate these items so that they can become part of the collective knowledge of historians have negative affect of the recovery of these items for posterity? And should I rather be orienting my thinking towards just returning them to their country of origin? Would I encounter problems from authorities for this? I am unfortunately not very knowledgable on this point and welcome your clearly experienced perspective on these things.

Respectfully, [name withheld]"

My response HERE:

Paul Barford said...

DB - thanks

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