Sunday, 2 March 2014

Wandering through the detecting minefield (4)

Dr Jervis apparently wanted to "make a wider point" and share information about a "positive project" ('Some Thoughts on Metal Detecting and Archaeology', Archaeological Wanderings 1st March 2014) . He tells an anecdote about a visit to a survey being undertaken on a known cemetery site at West Meon, in Hampshire:
The project obtained a licence from English Heritage to undertake this work, which will be used to further our understanding of this site, and potentially enhance the management and protection of the site. Unfortunately the project detectorist wasn’t having much luck yesterday [...] This project, and a number like them around the country, show how local and national regulatory authorities, communities, professional archaeologists and amateurs, including those who see themselves primarily as detectorists, rather than archaeologists, can work together for a common goal, which enriches our understanding of the past.
Hooray !! Yes, no doubt soon PAS-Bonkers Britain will be starting. It seems to me from what he writes that Dr Jervis primarily sees the artefact hunter in terms of what he can provide, in the way of information about the location of all manner of metallic goodies rather than somebody who is out primarily to exploit the archaeological record for collectables for themselves (to which allowing themselves to be harvested of the information is a wholly secondary aim).

I asked him (on Twitter) what the name was of this member of the archaeological team with whom he chatted, he seems to have difficulty answering that question.  I wonder on what terms he engaged this unnamed team member in conversation. Did he ask about any artefact collection he might have at home, whether he has some Anglo-Saxon objects in it?

This artefact hunter and his fellows when not being patted on the head by Dr J. very probably are out in the fields other weekends, and is what they are doing there actually part of a "common goal" with heritage professionals? I'd like to see that explained by somebody who has some proper experience of what these people themselves say on their forums (for I wager Dr Jervis does not spend much time there, as he confuses a "club dig" with a commercial rally). What "common aim" do ten thousand (or more - we do not know) artefact hunters have with heritage professionals? Certainly, whatever it is in Bonkers Britain, selectively hoiking out the goodies with no regard to context and putting them unlabelled loose in a box in Greg's bedroom is not the idea of heritage professionals in my country of the aim of preservation.

This "common ground" notion is a convenient myth, is never really explained in any detail with reference to what actually goes on in the world of artefact hunting (just a mouse-click away after all). It's function is to bolster an attitude that we do not really have to confront the problem, that we "can" work together to achieve something. Can we?

Suppose the site at West Meols had been done over by artefact hunters before it became known and scheduled. Let's imagine that in the past three decades, several blokes with camo gear, pinpointers, packed lunches and the former landowners' permission came at various times, searched various bits of it and repeatedly took away assorted items, the most diagnostic ones. They might show some of them to the PAS (with six, eight or ten figure NGRs), while other items remain at home in the box, with a vague promise that the finder will bring them along, maybe, later - but never does. By the time an archaeological survey team gets there with their pet detectorist in tow, much of the diagnostic material has gone from most of the area of the site. A metal detector survey of that site is next to useless for determining zonation of site - too many unknowns, too many pieces of potential data missing. The site has been trashed by unregulated metal detecting. The preservation of the site as a source of information from any kind of surface survey has been compromised, right under the noses of the heritage professionals who stood by applauding the fact that some nice new finds were "surfacing" with no great effort from them.

Simply drawing attention to the fact that there are "good" detectorists that actually take part in archaeological projects, and some "responsible' detectorists that report some of their finds is not enough to answer the (perfectly justifiable) concerns  that exist about the effects of thousands of artefact hunting searches annually of who-knows-how-many-and-where sites and the removal of uncounted pieces of archaeological evidence from all of them. That is just brushing aside as inconvenient a question nobody in British archaeology is in a hurry to address. Yet it is one of fundamental importance to the so-called heritage debate.

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