It is an interesting phenomenon of our times that Joe Public thinks that, without any reading up on the matter and finding out what the situation is, they can easily "outsmart the experts". You have those that question whether the Giza pyramids were built by Fourth dynasty rulers instead of interstellar aliens or some undiscovered lost civilization of Mu, or some hills in Bosnia are artificial structures, the Da Vinci Code is true, "the stupid C14 experts" got the C14 dating of the Turin Shroud wrong, or whatever. These people see a conspiracy in what archaeologists are telling people about the past, we've got it wrong, we are bluffing and deceiving people. None of the people making these claims, it is clear from the way they present their arguments (I use the term loosely), has ever gone to the trouble to go more deeply into why the academic argument goes in another direction. For them, reading and research can be replaced by dismissing them unseen as likely the arguments of "ivory tower" weirdos whereas common sense suffices to "show" they are "wrong" ("stands to reason, don't it?"). Yesterday on one of the blogs, UK metal detectorist Andy Baines published the remarks of an anonymous commentator ('JC') who was holding forth about "where Barford is wrong"
Barford bangs on about context and the minute detail of what could have possibly been with the find. Take for example the recent hoard found by the A20. Perhaps, just perhaps, a detailed excavation by a forensic archaeologist 'could' have revealed a context that the items were buried in a hessian sack because detailed analysis of the soil under an electron microscope and isotope analysis revealed this - Who CARES???. Yes that sound harsh but to the public, this doesn't matter at all. If the items were on display in the BM would the fact the items were buried in a hessian sack be that important or even feature on the all important signage? NO. So the detail is not that important at all... unless you are an archaeologist heel (sic) bent on your own interest for minute detail.Wow. Let's take the most obvious fact first. Hessian is a cloth produced of jute, several species in the genus Corchorus - mostly Corchorus olitorius, which is a tropical plant, native to India. If remains of a jute fabric were present in the late sixth/seventh century AD "Near-Maidstone A20" feature, then it would not exactly be a "minute detail", unless I am mistaken (and stand to be corrected), it would be the first time such a thing has been recorded from NW Europe. Unfortunately here the opportunity was lost as the finds were hoiked by untrained Treasure hunters, and by the time we see them in Greg's bedroom, they'd been scrubbed. This comment illustrates very well indeed exactly the core of the problem. If people are hoiking out what they do not understand (this guy JC obviously knows next to nothing about ancient fibre use), then they do not know what to observe, record and preserve. This is why the investigation of untouched stratigraphy and associated objects should not be undertaken by uninformed individuals, like those who think garnet insets are "roobies" and a "Coroner" is a conservator.
Secondly, "in a hessian sack" is not exactly what an archaeologist means by the word "context". Nevertheless, taking "JC's" argument at face value, it actually IS important information whether these objects were laid out on the body of a female inhumation in a barrow cemetery in acid sandy soil or loose in a bag hidden round the back of a barrow by an old route leading down to the Medway.
This is not an insignificant "minute detail", but a fundamentally important piece of information not only about the context of deposition of these objects, but about the use of the landscape at the time of deposition of these objects.
This comment is appended to a UK detectorist's response to my observation of the fact that there is very clear evidence from the manner of interaction one may observe in the public domain and social media that artefact hunting attracts people who (in the words of a former Labour Minister of Culture David Lammy) are "challenged by formal learning" ('Focus on UK Metal Detecting: It's not just snobbism', Thursday, 27 February 2014). Metal detectorists have reacted predictably to my observations and their interpretation, one of them (the one who published JC's comment) suggests this was Paul Barford's "most cruel and bullying post to date" (rather over-using the term bullying I feel). In his outrage, he misses the point entirely which concerns the logistics of "outreach" to this milieu. Moreover, in one of the few comments following that text that actually attempts to make a point, "JC" gives a prime demonstration of exactly what I am talking about.
I assume "JC" is a detectorist. In an unfocussed text of just 44 lines on a variety of topics, he conclusively shows that sixteen years of PAS outreach costing untold millions has failed to make much of an impact in fulfilling its aims laid out a decade and a half of "liaison" and "partnership" ago:
- To raise awareness among the public of the educational value of archaeological finds in their context and facilitate research in them.
- To increase opportunities for active public involvement in archaeology and strengthen links between metal-detector users and archaeologists.There is no "awareness" here, and certainly no evidence that "JC" has benefitted from any "links". Why is this? The PAS has been pumping out information (and oodles of goodwill), but "JC", though no doubt "passinitly intrestid in the 'istry" is totally unaware of just what this "context" is, and why it is important. For him, sixteen years of expensive outreach on, instead of being knowledge well-internalised, it is a "mere "minute detail" only of importance to obsessives.
Now, I am not the one paid to tell "JC" what is what. That is the job of fifty odd people specifically employed to do that (though some of them seem to limit their interactions with some sectors of their audience and do not seem from what their "partners" say to be giving out the sort of information one might expect in the circumstances). Nevertheless, the PAS exists to do a job, and I am not going to do it for them.
It seems to me that the PAS are currently utterly failing to make use of the opportunities to utilise social media to spread information and counter misinformation (like responding to idiot posts like this on detecting blogs). So people like "JC" write nonsense, it is read by other detectorists who, if they are too lazy to check it out, will go away thinking "context is just a minute detail" and not important, and that archaeologists who talk of a loss of context, "well, there arguments are wearing a bit thin, innit?" (Where is the Kent FLO in this thread?).
This is precisely where the question of the degree and manner of manifestation of the intellectual curiosity, and the ability to obtain, handle, analyse, relate and absorb facts by the detecting community is of fundamental importance to the manner in which they can be treated by anyone wishing to make some kind of "partners" of them. If forty percent (say) of UK metal detectorists are, not to put too fine a point on it, as thick as planks, that's forty percent (4000 individuals) who are going to go out and uncomprehendingly cause irreparable damage to the archaeological record, and no amount of "outreach" is going to prevent that because they are beyond "out"-reach. But is it forty percent, or more or less? What is the scale and nature of this problem? Can the PAS give an answer? Dare they?