Saturday, 23 August 2014

Antiques Expert Explains Conservation

Conservation -
many forms,
same idea
David Knell, antique furniture expert and formerly a collector of ancient oil lamps, explained on a metal detecting blog the gist of archaeological resource preservation in relation to the general notions of conservation as a whole to which I had referred. What he wrote seems eminently sensible to me and I'd like to share it here. Knell points out:   
Ancient artefacts are best left "in the ground" - where they form only one part of a whole assemblage of assorted evidence - rather than selectively dug up and carted away into some unknown private collection, leaving the other evidence denuded. Keep destroying evidence like that and you'll eventually run out of sites that can be meaningfully interpreted. 
In reply to the whingeing: "They [collectable archaeological artefacts] are buried many inches underground at no benefit to anyone until they are discovered ...", he replies:
The mere discovery of artefacts is only a tiny part of the process. They need to be examined in the stratigraphic context of the site as a whole, in relation to structural and other remains, other objects such as pottery shards, and many types of subtle evidence that require expertise to analyse. In most cases, the only "benefit to anyone" that you will achieve by just selectively ripping the metal bits out of the ground will be to have yet more decontextualised baubles to gawp at. The site itself will have been robbed of much of its evidence and the potential to add to our knowledge of history is likely to have gone forever.
This is developed further:
But do you seriously think that merely keeping a record of where something was dug up is always enough? What I am saying is that regardless of whether the findspot of the metal item has been recorded (even with coordinates), its precise relationship to other evidence (including otherwise meaningless traces) is likely to have been lost. And we all know just how fragile that evidence can often be. The preservation of context is often vital to a proper understanding; my experience with projects such as the Mary Rose made that abundantly clear. I don't think anyone could object to chance surface finds - be they metallic, "worked flints, pottery or other non metalic items". Properly recorded, such finds can be of enormous value and the finders are to be applauded. But let's be honest, a huge proportion of the finds recorded in the PAS database were searched for deliberately by people using a metal detector - and it is those that cause concern. Hobbyist metal detecting is largely incompatible with the aims of archaeology. Limited in both its goal and methodology by its very nature, it is a targetted object-centric approach that typically ignores the integrity of the archaeological record as a whole. 
Knell makes the point that the whole idea of conserving a resource is to allow access to it to future users, who may well have other research needs than our own, simply using it all up and taking from it what collectors select as of interest to them is not a sustainable system. In reply to a common shallow argument applied by these people Knell replies:
I doubt that "every field in this country will be examined by a qualified archaeologist" any time soon but it would be nice if the fields that ARE examined still have a few scraps of evidence left.
Indeed, essential if there is to be any future research.
Apart from situations where land is genuinely threatened by immediate development or whatever (the danger posed by chemical fertilisers appears to be largely an urban myth), why the frantic rush to dig up every bit of metal that has already lain in the ground for hundreds of years? The alarmist excuses to do so sound like they derive from a selfish 'sod future generations, I want the goodies now' motive.
Like the rest of us, Knell is not out to 'ban' artefact hunting and collecting, but to find a way to accommodate it alongside other wider concerns: 
I understand the thrill of finding something and, under certain conditions, I am not against metal detecting if carried out responsibly - but I am convinced that one of the most vital facets of acting responsibly in any pursuit that may threaten a fragile resource (whether it's bird eggs, wildlife or the archaeological record) can be summed up in a single word: moderation. Even if every item really were recorded, the prospect of thousands of untrained and largely misguided amateurs sprawled over England and Wales selectively digging up thousands of ancient metal artefacts as fast as they can grab them is more than a little disconcerting to those of us who value the evidence of history. That is NOT conservation. Not by a long shot. It is the exact opposite.
Now, metal detectorist Andy Baines (on whose blog these comments appeared) has gone on record as saying that, though he "understands" (really?) what Knell wrote, he blurts out that (for some reason which he does not even begin to explain) "I dont agree with them".  Similar sentiments may be found scattered through the detectorists' blogs and forums.

Certainly, I see nothing wrong with the logic of what Knell has written here. Maybe the reader can? Perhaps we could see some reasoned arguments (not the usual trite two-wrongs stuff about an archaeologist who once nicked some pots, wild baseless accusations that they all do, and the we-are-not-nighthawks crap). We really should be discussing conservation, rather than so-called "collectors' rights", we should surely consider this issue in the context of a more holistic approach to the issue of the archaeological record rather than the traditional object-centred one of the collectors and their supporters.

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