Thursday 18 September 2014

Focus on UK Metal Detecting: "Not interested in your biased arguments"

Ebola, little thing, let's ignore it,
maybe it will go away
Metal detectorist "Supernova" (James Oliver) cut and pasted onto his blog (in a text he titled: 'Dodgy Metal Detecting?' June 27th) a Heritage Action text about the inclusion of metal detecting and dowsing in the "Days of Archaeology" festival events (pointing out that neither has any right to be there because they are not really any form of archaeology). Instead of taking up that subject, however, Mr Oliver went off on a tangent onto a totally different topic. He accuses the conservation group of being merely "rather negative in their in their opinions" and castigates them for ignoring what artefact hunters have to offer archaeology. But that was not the point of what Heritage Action was saying. Then comes the "we are not all nighthawks" mantra (ditto) and ended with the question "why can we not discuss this issue that stands between us?"

Well, why can we not? That is what the Internet, blogs like these are for. So what stands in the way? Is it a lack of information about what the issues are? Hardly. In the English speaking sector there are blokes like David Gill, Nigel Swift, SAFE, the Antiquities Coalition, the Glasgow Trafficking Culture people, myself and others perfectly articulately rehearsing the problems and issues surrounding antiquities collecting. I'd like to say the CBA, PAS, IfA and others are too, but they are not, it's not the professional bodies doing this, but mostly people like myself devoting their own time to doing this. But the information is there fully in the public domain, in black and white at the click of a mouse (not to mention additional material in various professional journals). The issues that stand between archaeology/ preservation and artefact hunting and require discussion and resolution are clearly visible and available for those that care to read them and think about them. 

There, however, is the problem. We see from his initial reaction that Mr Oliver had not actually read what Heritage Action wrote with any understanding or empathy. No, he simply saw that it mentions metal detecting and automatically and immediately dismissed it as closed-mind negativity of people allegedly too superficial to understand that not all artefact hunters are nighthawks. He has made no effort whatsoever to address the actual points made, or even understand them.

Neither is he at all interested in discussing the actual reason for the 'gap' as he put it, between the different uses of evidence for the past, by archaeology through the methods of the discipline and those who merely want some geegaws to collect. I briefly summarised the issue in a (perfectly civil) comment responding to what he'd said (02/09/2013 at 5:58 am):
and did you get around to discussing “this issue that stands between us” with the archaeologists and conservationists in any detail? Where, please? Artefact hunting and collecting happen in many corners of the world, can you give an indication how this is adding “a positive contribution to our heritage” in Egypt, Syria, Peru, Greece, Italy, Bulgaria and NW Russia and everywhere else this is going on at the moment?
He dodged the question, it seems he wants us to see what artefact hunters with metal detectors and spades do to the archaeological record in the UK as in some way substantively different to what artefact hunters with metal detectors and spades do to the archaeological record in other countries. For him and those who think like him, Britain is apparently some magical fairyland where the gaping wounds done to the archaeological record by artefact takers are magically healed by the Bloomsbury Elven folk.  He tried to deflect the argument away to machine use by the TV reality show "Time Team" (whatever that has got to do with anything) and the Staffordshire Hoard fiasco, and then says: 
I will not be provoked, cajoled, insulted or belittled by you, slandered by your unprofessional and confrontational attitude and your derogatory comments, in short therefore, I do not wish to speak with you further and you are no longer welcome on this blog. My work is important to me even if it’s not to you. No wonder there is conflict between certain groups of archaeologists and detectorists therefore, you may now speak about me on your blog but you are not welcome here any more.
He then calls me a 'troll' for trying to discuss the issue he himself had raised about the gap between artefact hunters and preservationists. This is a typical dismissive tekkie attitude to questions to which they have no coherent answer.  We see this in Mr Oliver's reaction to the comment Heritage Action made ():
My work is important to me even if it’s not to you.” “Work”? Helping yourself is not work. It’s helping yourself. Why not join the tens of thousands of amateur archaeologists who DON’T help themselves. THEIRS is “work” and they don’t feel the need to ban critics from their websites as they don’t have critics. You can criticise Paul Barford till you’re blue in the face but what he doesn’t do is do something that would get him locked up in nearly every country and tell the public and farmers it’s valid “work” and himself it’s morally justified because it’s legal. Perhaps you’ll ban me too now. Shooting the messenger again on the grounds the messenger is rude, eh?
This is the same issue, the difference between artefact hunting and archaeology. What was the metal detectorist's response? Well, of course precisely the same dismissive approach (), a curt:
Not interested in your biased arguments.
This is tautology in an incomplete sentence. All arguments approach a subject from a particular point of view and are intended to express and support that point of view. Heritage Action's, like mine, is that artefact hunting is not archaeology. Mr Oliver first expressed an interest in discussing that issue and then decided that he was not up to it, and has resorted to simple dismissal.

The root of the problem is that metal detectorists in the UK have a paradoxical attitude to archaeology. On the one hand they see this very much as a "them and us" situation - the archaeologist is the Other with reference to which their own individual and group identity are forged. Only by acting aloof and dismissive of the archaeological milieu ("they need us", "they use topsoil-stripping machines", "they steal stuff", "they're so stupid they think we're all nighthawks") is this identity upheld.

On the other hand (and at the instigation of the PAS), artefact hunters seek to be treated as equals as history-makers by the very same professional for which they express such disregard. Equally they expect that [all] archaeologists will validate and legitimate their hobby - irrespective of everything ('cos it's legal innit?).  Furthermore they expect their glib arguments in favour of the status quo to be accepted unquestioningly, in the same way as they themselves accept the glib anti-archaeological slander put out by certain of their number. The moment anyone expresses a contrary view, they gladly play the victim. The interlocutor with the decent arguments is (see above), "elitist",  "provoking", "cajoling" (eh?), "insulting", "derogatory", "belittling", "slandering", "unprofessional" and "confrontational" (and a "troll" to boot). The notion that others might think they are simply wrong, seems not to have crossed his mind. The idea that what other people are saying about the hobby might be worth thinking about and at the least formulating a sensible argument or two against (instead of glib parroting of mantras heard on a forum) to address what is actually being said also seems to be the furthest thing from the metal detectorist's mind. The metal detectorist is happy insulting and dismissing the Other side, less happy when they criticise him and his mates. It's a group identity thing again.

Mr Oliver may not be interested in Heritage Action's arguments, but then at least let him not protest "why can we not discuss this issue that stands between us?" when it is he and his attitudes towards robust, free and open discussion of the issues which constitute the main reason for the gap between the two groups.

The problem is that while the artefact hunters and collectors attempt to ignore the issues and pretend they do not exist for as long as possible, the political situation around them is changing. This is in part happening because of what the other side are saying. The longer they refrain from taking part in the wider heritage debate, the more excluded they become.

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