Thursday, 25 September 2014

PAS Narrativisation: Death by Metal detecting

Now that's what I'd call 'ritual killing',
Korytnica, Poland.
In a "million finds" feelgood flurry, the Portable Antiquities Finds Spinners are going into overtime flinging out trite narrativisations of selected objects in the database for all they are worth. Like a Penard phase, Bronze Age, pointy-stabby thing found in September 2012 by metal detecting in 'River Alyn', near Wrexham:
45 min.
This Bronze Age weapon was deliberately 'killed' before being 'sacrificed'
Hmmm. "ritually killed"? The database actually says: HESH-4CD185 "complete but recently broken" - death by metal detecting? Perhaps the PAS would explain how archaeologists know this one was ritually killed, instead of being hit by a plough. Otherwise metal detectorists who gather from PAS outreach that "archaeology is all guesswork" would have a good deal of justification for thinking precisely that. What is the evidence from this loose decontextualised artefact that it is one that has been ritually killed? Why not use the opportunity to show how archaeological interpretations are constructed, on the basis of this find? It could be used to explain about "the educational value of archaeological finds in their context" to artefact hunters. So tell us about that context from the finder's own recording of the context of deposition.

UPDATE 25th September 2014
Sadly, as part of their seventeen million pound outreach to 60 million people, the best PAS can offer is evasive e-bookery: 
Portable Antiquities ‏@findsorguk 4 godz. You can find out more about deliberate damage to Bronze Age swords in Garrow and Gosden: … #PASmillionth 
You did understand the question did you? We all know about "deliberate damage" to some deposited objects in the Bronze Age and later. What was asked was how you know in a decontextualised find  this is one of them. The description says the break is recent.

And, my comment politely requesting a bit more intellectual honesty sent as an answer to your tweet seems no longer to be visible there. Why? In fact, all the earlier ones too seem to be no longer visible. Either some mysterious technical gremlin, or an interesting display of the degree of openness in archaeological discussion which exists in the United Kingdom today. Can one discuss metal detecting and artefact collecting properly in the UK? PAS, I think you have the answer to that one.


David Knell said...

I imagine the PAS interpretation that the weapon was "deliberately 'killed' before being 'sacrificed'" was based on the pronounced bend in the blade (apparently caused in antiquity since the patina is uninterrupted) rather than the recent break in the blade (caused by "it being recovered / lifted from the ground by the finder"). Their conclusion was a bit more than mere 'guesswork' and reasonably valid but the 'evidence' derived from typological and analytical comparison with other finds rather than the archaeological context of the object's deposition in this specific case.

But yes, I see your point: the PAS missed a great opportunity to demonstrate "the educational value of archaeological finds in their context". If they had chosen another example of recorded finds to highlight their 'milestone'. they could have made an excellent argument for the value of context. Instead, they chose an object which apparently had very little.

Paul Barford said...

David, do you see any kind of discussion of when the bend took place vis-a-vis patination in the PAS description? No. The object could have been bent when a tree in whose roots it was entangled blew over in 73 AD. There is a statement there that it had been deposited "in a river", is there any record of a band of alluvial deposits crossing that field dated by C14 analysis of reed fragments in it recorded by the metal detectorist? It could have been lying in a ditch fill and klonked by a plough, a thousand and one possibilities, they chose one. Apparently arbitrarily because it sounds good (I noted their predilection for the 'ritual' explanation in BST 1).

Art history relies on typological and analytical comparison with other items, archaeology looks at context and associations, two different things. The PAS gets public money as "archaeological outreach", so let it do some.

David Knell said...

On examining the images, I see that in fact the patination IS interrupted where the bend is but the recording FLO simply notes the loss as "a combination of corrosion and lamination" and still concludes that the blade was "deliberately bent". I imagine that in many cases a ribbed bronze blade would tend to break rather than bend unless intentionally heated - certainly in cases where the bend is more extreme (David Fontijn, "Decorated and ‘killed’? The bronze sword of Werkhoven", Leiden 2012, p.207) - and I suspect that the FLO based his conclusion on the sheer frequency of similar objects with a blade *demonstrably* bent before deposition - a kind of "looks like a duck, swims like a duck" reasoning. The conclusion is reasonable and likely - as is the ubiquitous 'ritual' explanation for pre-depositional damage - but yes, it does stray into the realm of supposition rather than proof and it would have been ideal to take the opportunity to eliminate other causes for the bend.

"Art history relies on typological and analytical comparison with other items, archaeology looks at context and associations, two different things."

I'm not sure there is such a sharp division; there tends to be a bit of overlap in the methodology of both fields nowadays.

What strikes me most in the PAS choice of highlighted object is the double whammy nature of their PR disaster. Not only have they missed a great opportunity to demonstrate the value of context, they have chosen an object that amply demonstrates yet another reason why amateur excavation is NOT a good idea. A perfectly intact object was clumsily broken in two because it was dragged out of the ground by a careless detectorist instead of being excavated properly.

So, that's TWO strikes against their choice. Or perhaps someone in the PAS is trying to send a subtle message? ;)

David Knell said...

I have to admit that the argument for the PAS blade being "deliberately bent" is nowhere near as convincing as that for the Korytnica sword shown in your image!

Paul Barford said...

PAS "subtle"? Hardly.

Yes, and there is a whole series of this sort of stuff which I am very familiar with across northern central Europe and I ask again what the evidence is for their public-funded dumbdown junk about this imagined British example.

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