Friday, 13 June 2014

The Intellect of Detector Users and its Implications for "Partnership"

David Knell hits the nail on the head with his post on what makes artefact hunters irresponsible (Thursday, 12 June 2014, 'Detectorist sighs "I just don’t get it"...'). He writes of the reaction of a rudderless detectorist on reading a text quoting Jeff Altschul (President of the Society for American Archaeology) expressing dismay at the damage done by metal detectorists and other treasure hunters on public land in Idaho and elsewhere by just hoiking stuff out to put on a shelf or flog off. Knell comments on the detectorist's objection to the notion that the ripping out of finds from public lands in the US without a permit is not only knowledge theft, it is actually theft. Knell comments:
It all seems patently obvious to me but an American detectorist cannot understand: "I don’t know about you but I am damn tired of hearing this. It gets old real fast! ... Jeezus I just don’t get it." I gather he is 73. I'd hazard a guess that if the penny still hasn't dropped by now, there is a strong chance that it never will. He appears to be under the weird impression that his treasure hunting is really some kind of frantic rescue operation, a sort of self-appointed one-man task force in a desperate race against time. Even though some of the artefacts have already sat quietly buried for at least over a hundred years, he seems to think that he is saving them from some imagined catastrophe about to strike any second - all for the public good of course, despite the fact that the artefacts will have now been forever robbed of any context that may have given them meaning and instead are likely to end up as just another piece of useless bric-a-brac in his private home. In addition, the sites where the artefacts were found will have now been devastated too - thoughtlessly stripped of evidence that may have helped to interpret them.
 A few weeks ago I discussed ('Some Questions About Detectorists' Sharing of Information in the States', PACHI Friday, 2 May 2014) the case of the artefacts that this same detectorist admitted he had recovered from stratified contexts ("in a layer of sawdust") from an old colonial homesite he had discovered and hoiked finds from, one of which he later old for 900 dollars. Somehow he neglected to pass on the information of the existence of the site and the finds he'd recovered from it to the authorities, with the result that when the site was up for development, nothing in the local HER indicated that any kind of archaeological intervention was necessary. If the detectorist had reported his finds, this would not have happened. It is a bit galling then to see this same person belly-aching about how detectorists don't get any recognition for "what they do". In this case a site could have been earmarked for investigation before redevelopment and we'd all be the richer in information as a result. As it is the only person enriching themselves were the detectorist and the previous landowner who presumably got the lion's share of the $900 raised by flogging off the finds.

Knell surmises that:
 Meanwhile, the ongoing battle of people like Altschul to preserve what remains of the archaeological record - so that future generations will have the chance to know a bit more about their past than they can ever discover from denuded objects scattered in private hoardings - continues. The battle would be easier if many other people were not so utterly clueless about what "saving history" actually is despite having it carefully explained to them over and over and over again. (Clue: discovering history relies on context, NOT just objects.)
This is where the 'love-cuddles-respect' model applied by British archaeology to the problem of artefact hunting falls flat on its face. It presumes that the people they are dealing with are fundamentally-good-chaps who one can reason with and bring round to best practice by persuasion, tolerance and a good deal of back-slapping and other-eye-turning.

Such a model neglects one important element in the equation, the actual ability of these people to understand the arguments, even if they listen. Anyone who paid closer attention to the utterances of artefact hunters and collectors on their forums, blogs and websites will easily perceive that cognitive difficulties like those exhibited above are not restricted to a few in the artefact collecting community. This kind of problem, together with deficiencies in basic literacy and ability to articulate an argument, is a pretty widespread characteristic of those who take up artefact hunting.

Unfortunately, 'turning the other eye' too often has demonstrably led the fluffy bunny idealists in British archaeology away from a recognition of the degree to which totally ignorant (and utterly self-centred) oikism is rife in the artefact hunting and artefact collecting community. No idealistic model can have any hope of success when it labours under false premises.


John Schmidt said...

What a terrible and difficult read that was. Any and all points were lost by the writers pompous attitude and terrible choice of words to get his point across. Felt like I was reading an 1800's novel.

Paul Barford said...

Didya manage to git thru skool wivvouit reding anyfink wrote B4 1900 then? No Dickens or Shakespeare then? Not my loss that you do not understand. I am not writing for metal detectorists and their ilk, but about them.

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