Wednesday, 17 September 2014

'PAS Milliongate', Scheme Records Finds for Commercial Unit on its Database? Why?

The PAS database was set up in 1996/7 to attempt to mitigate the loss of archaeological information due to the fact that members of the public finding ancient artefacts were only required to report a certain group of them ('Treasure' - basically hoards and glittery things of gold and silver). The database was set up as a state-funded resource created through the voluntary reporting by members of the public of non-Treasure items which were normally returned to the finder's own collection rather than going to a public collection. The number of items reported by metal detectorists (artefact hunters and collectors) relative to the number of items being removed from the historical record by collection-driven exploitation has been the subject of intense discussion since 2006 and the PAS has done everything they can to avoid answering that question directly or allow others to use the public database to answer it. In addition, since the televised "Britain's Secret Treasures" fiasco, it has been unofficially claimed that there were "nearly a million objects" in the PAS database reported by members of the public. That number was actually only reached at the beginning of September (in fact the actual number of objects is less important a statistic than the number of records).

The countdown to that "millionth" object was abruptly discontinued at around the 998890 mark with the dumping by Dr Vincent Drost of the British Museum onto the PAS database of a single record referring to a round "22000" objects. This record obviously refers to a substantial coin hoard (if Roman, the fourth largest in the country it would seem). This highlighted that in fact what had been happening, and escaping comment, was that since 2006 at the latest the PAS had been placing increasing numbers of records of Treasure items (reporting compulsory - many destined for public collections) among the voluntarily reported non-Treasure items from scattered and ephemeral  private collections which the database was supposed to be forming a permanent record of. When I looked into the scale of this phenomenon (Wednesday, 10 September 2014, 'Focus on PAS: Trying to get to the Figures' ), it could be seen to be of staggering proportions, and producing a wholly misleading picture of the degree of voluntary reporting by members of the public. Interestingly, the moment this record of "22000" objects began to be discussed, the tab on the PAS website to the objects recorded by Dr Drost disappeared from his personal page on the website, and it is impossible to inspect this record which led to the "millionth find" being entered onto the PAS database. Why the PAS are hiding these data is anyone's guess (but please, go on, try).

More to the point, why is what is clearly an estimate ("22000") being used as the basis for calculating official database figures?

Why are Treasure finds being entered onto the database in the first place? What actually are these "data" and how are they comparable within the database? What is the function of this "database"?

On examining the questions raised by this event ("PAS Milliongate") I came across an even more puzzling data entry. Look at the record for the Beau Street, Bath hoard: GLO-40A9B6. (record created Thursday 12th February 2009).  This is another Treasure case, an estimated 17,500 silver Roman coins buried in or after 274 AD. That'll boost the figures. But this hoard was not found by members of the public. It turned up in a developer-funded archaeological excavation by Cotswold Archaeology Ltd in advance of building work for the new Bath Spa, 16th November 2007.  So why has it been included in the database of non-Treasure finds voluntarily reported by members of the public? More to the point, why has an FLO employed by the Scheme, instead of liaising with and getting through the backlog of artefacts reported by metal detectorists and other members of the public spent a considerable amount of Scheme time sorting, studying and counting 17500 artefacts from a commercial unit's excavations carried out in an adjacent county and adding this information to the PAS database? Who paid for this, or was the service provided  by the PAS to the contractor for free (that is, at everybody's expense )?  Are there any other portable antiquities from the Cotswold Archaeology excavations of Beau Street Bath lurking (under one of their cagey "to-be-known-as" names) on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database?

What on earth is going on here? Just what do the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and do not, record? Or are there no real principles at all, anything goes? What kind of dataset is that, and is the British public getting what the British public, like it or not, is paying for? This is yet another case which shows the urgent need for more transparency and accountability from the PAS.

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