Thursday, 6 March 2014

Focus on UK Metal Detecting: The Depth of Misunderstanding

'The Gorge' at low
tide (the History Blog)
UK metal detectorist Andy Baines has obviously decided that one way to attract readers is to provoke what many of them see as "enemies of detecting" such as that Mr B over in Poland. His blog and the comments are full of references to the guy. So a story (Tuesday, 4 March 2014, 'Canada- coin find could change history') of a coin find in Canada is presented in the following manner:
This story may rattle Mr Barfords cage. It seems a metal detectorist has found a coin that may rewrite what we know about the discovery of Canada. Yet more proof of what we do and how we find history.
The story is that in mid-December last year, metal detectorist Bruce Campbell (from Victoria, British Columbia) found a 16th century shilling of Edward VI (thus struck between 1551 and 1553) buried in clay on the shores of Vancouver Island, on 'the Gorge' at Curtis Point (48°26'40.81"N 123°23'40.87"W). It was found along with a rare 1891 Canadian nickel, a penny from 1900 and a 1960s dime. This is being hailed as evidence "that English explorer Sir Francis Drake travelled as far north as Canada's Pacific Coast during an expedition to California in 1579", a trip hypothesised by Samuel Bawlf: "The Secret Voyage of Sir Francis Drake".

Mr Baines' provocative promotion of this tekkie feelgood tale did not 'rattle my cage' for two main reasons. The first is the story was over a month old when Baines spotted it, and I was not very interested in it when it first broke (Lindsay Kines, '16th-century English shilling found in Gorge', Times Colonist January 8, 2014). This find seems to me to be at least suspicious, fitting neatly into a local amateur historian's theory about the founding of the "first English colony in North America" precisely here (the bones of the theory itself may have been pinched from somebody else and adapted to fit the author's own country rather than Oregon).

The second reason that I was not too impressed with the claim of "how we find history" is that it represents just the sort of wonky logic of the artefact collecting numpties, and how they envisage the whole question about the methodology of historical enquiry. If I were to find a coin of Edward VI lying in the surface exposed by turf stripping in a park here in Warsaw along with 1960s coins, I do not think I'd be postulating a 'secret' sixteenth century English invasion of Poland. For Mr Campbell's coin to mean that Drake sailed up the coast here, it would have to be securely stratified in a site, perhaps associated with material that could be carbon-dated to the period around 1580. Mr Cambell however hoiked it out of some mud on a stretch of the river that has seen dumping in the past and at the same time he found much later material. The tragedy is, as the comments section to another, older article on the find showed, Mr Campbell had been asked to keep off that stretch of the foreshore as there were ancient stratified sites there. There are lingering doubts in my mind about the actual story of the way Mr Cambell found this coin and presented it on a forum.

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