Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Focus on Metal Detecting: Simpletons

Part of a 2012 metal detectorist's 'haul', showing the variety of objects hoiked.
The problem of non-reporting is not purely a figment of the imagination
of "simpletons" (sic). Part of the collection had been sold through
the English antiquities market by the time this photo was taken (BBC)

On a metal detecting forum very near you, "Liamnolan" (Re: Percentage of 'Keepers' - Tue Aug 26, 2014 3:04 pm ) is another one who attempts to explain away the doubts some of us have about the relationship between what metal detectorists in the UK are showing the PAS and what is actually being hoiked out of the archaeological record. He's decided to go for the name-calling tactic:
[...] There is always the chance that a simpleton =)) browsing this topic will not have a clue about metal detecting realities and thus not realise that the 99% of finds that are not coins etc are in fact RUBBISH such as tin foil, blobs of molten lead, shotgun cartridges, fragments of all sorts of domestic appliances, hot rocks ... the list is endless [...]

Simpletons are the people that write such crap, imagining that it will end the debate. Simpletons are the people who listen to them too. Mr Nolan does not name the "simpleton" whom he is addressing, but perhaps should be aware that in some of our cases (my own for example) we've been looking at metal detecting since the 1970s, when it started, have been to club meetings, out with detectorists on a number of occasions in more than one country, and have made a close study of the problem for a decade and a half. Anyone who's ever been involved in fieldwork of any kind (fieldwalking, earthwork surveying, hedgerow dating, excavation) in the heavily-littered English countryside is well aware of what gets into the fields in dirty Britain. I would say the accusation that people like that still "have not a clue about metal detecting realities" is clutching at straws. Certainly, I know enough about metal detecting argumentation to know that this very same argument has been trotted out regularly over the years.

This was the case in March 2005 when on another forum, the tekkies decided to put their money where their mouth is. They actually set out to demonstrate it. Thirty of them did, in different parts of the country. a total of 112 detecting hours, they turned off their discrimination and determined to "dig every target", ostensibly for a three hour session and log the results. They were going to show that - as Liamnolan puts it, "99% of finds are in fact rubbish".

They dug 1521 "hits". Of these only 493 were very modern finds (so to list the categories mentions by Liam Nolan: tin foil 61 pieces, ringpulls and drink can pieces 111, shotgun cartridges 173, fragments of domestic appliances and electrical waste 14). Hot rocks accounted for 14 dug hits.  There were 15 very modern coins (plus '14p in coppers').

The 'blobs of molten lead' may be "rubbish" to a collector, but could equally be archaeological evidence, deriving from reuse of Roman bath house fittings, roof lead flashings, medieval came manufacture, silver refining waste and so on (dating it would depend on the recording of distribution pattern taken with those of other artefact types). The 2005 survey found 262 pieces of lead 'scrap'.

Apart from that there were 456 artefacts falling into the group categorised by Nigel Swift and myself as 'Old Timey' (collectable - and saleable - items between c. 300 and c. 90 years old  but not recordable by the PAS). Among these were 71 coins.

What is significant is that there were 55 PAS-recordable finds found in this exercise (one 'keeper' per two hours' detecting in this case).* Of these 30 were coins.

Those figures break down to
Recordable collectables: 4%,
Old Timey collectables, 30%,
Very Modern 32%,
Unattributed and scrap (by the finders) 34% 
 This is a far cry from the "99%" rubbish claim. If we are talking about modern items, the figure shown by this survey is actually 32%.** I am sure that had the items not attributed by the finders been examined properly more archaeological items would have been recognized among them.  (See also: PACHI  Detecting Under the Microscope 13: Finds or Portable Antiquities? What is Being Thrown Away?).

These are the sort of "metal detecting realities" we are talking about. The ones that induce detecting forum moderators to delete posts or entire threads when they are pointed out.

*Actual rates will be higher, these people had discrimination turned off and were deliberately spending time digging signals they knew were duds. 

**"Oh, what about Green Waste?" you can almost hear them screaming. What's the betting the next such survey will be done only on "Green Waste fields" to boost the "Very modern" category - you know, the fields the detectorists would normally avoid for that very reason

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