Thursday, 29 January 2015

Thoughts on a UK Metal Detectorist's "History is for all of us"

"There's a story to tell. I feel like
I'm adding to a huge picture that is history".
Kris Rodgers

On a metal detecting blog w-a-a-y down the Alexa ratings, an artefact hunter has a go at me, deliberately makes some false allegations, threatens he's sending his "legal team" after me for some imagined slight, and then a day later complains I do not come running to his invitation to have "a friendly chat, legal wrangling aside" on Skype with him. Lunatic. Anyway, I suspect he wanted to make the same points there as they always do, and a portion of which we have in an earlier post on his blog ('History is for all of us', Friday, 16 January 2015).  Let's have a look at it.

He of course starts off by playing the victim. There is a "negative opinion of Metal detecting from certain elitist groups within other communities". He argues that artefact hunting deserves support "[due] to its contribution to the historical record" (PAS database, finds in museums, tekkie show-and-tell talks to groups). He goes on playing the victim:
Now, we are hounded by the aforementioned elitist groups quite often, because they feel they have the monopoly on historical preservation. In most instances, this is purely down to the subject of education. [...]  The elitist among them are closed to discussion. Rude, and feel a sense of entitlement because they formally studied for many years so they could involve themselves in historical preservation. They feel the layman should have no right to do this, as their way is the only way. In some cases it is pure bitterness.
Well, is it, and who is "hounding" whom? I suspect Mr Rodgers, too busy feeling victimised, really has no inkling of what the issues are. The metal detectorist searching for sympathy argues that "elitists" (archaeologists and others) want to control what he calls "historical preservation" as though old houses, postboxes and churchyards were the problem. But then it is the preservationists, including this blogger, who also say they are concerned with historical preservation, but of the information in the sites from which the collectors' collectables re extracted. So do both sides want the same thing?

We may surmise that Mr Rodgers is here conceptualising "historical preservation" in an object-centred manner. He 'preserves' in his personal collection the nice collectable objects that are "lost" in the soil. He takes them out of the ground so he and perhaps sometimes others can touch, see, talk about them. But then the object of preserving ecosystems and rhinos is not to put them all in zoos, or stuff them to put in a museum case. And whether anybody actually "sees" Rhino 26456 ever in its lifetime is not the point of wildlife and environmental preservation.

The medieval Murano Gradial, [pininterest] cut up by collectors and
bits scattered. Many of the cuttings can be traced to the sale of
William Young Ottley (Sotheby's, 11 May 1838)
I would say Mr Rodgers' object-centred approach is the equivalent in another field of collecting to the people who collect the pictures from old illustrated books or cut the illuminated initials out of manuscripts. They are scattered ('preserved from loss') decorating the walls of a number of people, giving a man-cave an 'erudite' or 'period' feel (and perhaps evoking the antiquarian spirit). Yet they originally formed an integral part of something else, they went with the text and cannot be understood fully without that text, and the text cannot be understood with the missing bits now on the back of a cut-out fragment (reconstructed in the figure above). That in these dumbdown days not everybody is interested in laboriously reading through the liturgy written in bookhand, but can immediately and effortlessly appreciated the 'art' of the nice colourful and decorative pictures is no excuse. I imagine those "preserving a little piece of the past" in the form of framed bits of book page on their wall did not think twice about the fact that there had once been a text accompanying them which has something to tell us about the times in which that collectable 'art' had been created. Or that by encouraging the dismemberment of that text by buying the products of cultural vandalism, they are contributing to the destruction of information, knowledge, about the past.
Now, I think most people would recognize that taking scissors to an otherwise intact book to sell the cutout pictures individually is vandalism for profit. Trashing the book is the result of greed, pandering to the desire to accumulate. This is not "preservation".

In the same way we may see an archaeological site as a 'text'. A trite metaphor, but in fact one appropriate in several senses. It is sheer vandalism to go around hoiking out individual collectable items from an archaeological pattern or assemblage in a way irreversibly decontextualising them and divorcing them from the information provided by other pieces of evidence not collected (Mr Rodgers can hardly deny this is what happens even in his own case, see the piece of lead in one of his recent videos - an artefact which is archaeological evidence, but not felt collectable by Mr Rodgers). Mr Rodgers does not understand how or why this is important, but goodness knows it has been explained time and time again. We have a seventeen million pound PAS set up to do that job, are metal detectorists capable of learning the lessons it should be teaching them?

None of the techniques required to make proper observations of what a (surface) site is composed of, where the material is within it and with what densities and associations are at all difficult to understand, apply and master. That's why we say "archaeology for all", archaeology, good field archaeology, CAN be done by amateurs. Of course it can. But the issue is that to "be" archaeology - and not just a treasure hunt, an archaeological methodology has to be applied to creating and then analysing the data. Amateurs can do it (Shakenoak showed they can even do and then publish good quality excavations, Little Oakley was another example).* The question is then, why we get situations like the Holt Hoard Hoik which I discussed earlier, the bloke concerned had a few weeks earlier been out with archaeologists, watched them in action, and then calmly went and trashed a site with a digger, a metal detector and two mates - and proudly filmed it.    

Mr Rodgers may object to me pointing out that a large number of metal detectorists one 'meets' online on the forums, contributing to discussion lists, sending comments to newspapers and even this blog are clearly not the sharpest knives in the drawer. They demonstrate it with everything they say and the way they say it and react to the reply. There are of course other metal detectorists with A-level GCEs, one I know is doing a doctorate at Bristol. They are not so much a problem as the ones ("challenged by formal education" as a PAS annual report put it not so long ago) who are quite simply capable of none of these things. These are the people whose effect on the archaeological record through ignorance and carelessness (and, yes, lack of responsibility) is tragic in its consequences.  PAS attempts to brush this problem off by insisting that since most metal detectorists are "history enthusiasts" (we even had "citizen archaeologists"), that they are "doing the same as archaeologists, they are the same as us". Well, no, most definitely they are not and in a number of areas. They are collectors and collecting does not actually have the same aims or approach to the evidence as archaeological research. There is no escaping that, which is why the PAS refuse to discuss it with us. 

Mr Rodgers apparently begrudges professional archaeologists all that 'training' they have to do their job. A group of people have spent some time training, getting experience in a series of techniques and the application of a methodology. It stands to reason they are going to be better at it than a group of C2s and Ds who not only have not, but have no intention of trying to learn. Mr Rodgers seems to think (along with most detectorists it seems) that to watch "Time Team", or whatever, replaces all the training in diagnosis, technique, observation and analysis an archaeologist can have, that "digging up stuff ("historical preservation") is easy" ("You don't need a good exam grade to use a spade"). But there is more, much more, to archaeology than hoiking artefacts out of the ground and putting them on display somewhere.

If my kid or dog is sick, I take it to a specialist to look at it and advise me. Somebody who has training and experience in diagnosis and treatment. I do not think taking her to the butcher's wife who's watched all the episodes of "Dr House", "Emergency" and "Nurse Jackie" is in any way helpful, and the butcher's wife would hopefully recognize a situation where it would be irresponsible to even try to apply any irreversible and potentially damaging karaoke  treatment to either. Again we come back to that definition of what it means to do artefact hunting "responsibly", responsible for what and to whom?

As for the "history belongs to everyone", the Kris Rodgers apparently wants to interpret that to mean, "if it belongs to everyone, it belongs to me, so I can help myself to it". What however it also means is that the historical record belongs to the other sixty-four million people in the country who are not Kris Rodgers and that Kris Rodgers (with his one-sixty-fourth-millionth ownership states) has a duty of care to what belongs equally to others too. Rather like the flower beds in a public park. A duty of care of the archaeological record is not to just trash it for the few collectable bits that take somebody's fancy. and which they can add to a growing personal collection which accumulates in worth as they do and deprives the rest of us of not only the appropriated object, but the associated knowledge that derived from its context in the ground and in relation to other information at the findspot. In the same way as it is not exercising a duty of care to pick the wild orchids, shoot the rhinos or cut illuminated initials out of a fifteenth century manuscript. If the collector wants to demolish part of the finite and fragile archaeological resource, let it be done in such a way that creates and preserves knowledge, and that means doing it by a learnt methodology that allows that. Otherwise artefact hunting becomes knowledge theft and knowledge destruction, even though the pretty decontextualised geegaws are kept in somebody's collection.

* The PAS record suggests this site and its environs are now being looted for collectables by artefact hunters (I imagine using my report as a guide to where to target). What archaeological information are they generating compared to what the amateur archaeologist recovered and to what degree is the damage caused being mitigated?


Brian Curtiss said...

I have seen you characterized on other blogs as a elitist academic, but your statement that good archaeology can be done by amateurs seems to disprove that. Some may think archaeology is the domain of the university trained only. As you point out, it need not be so. And ease forgive me for asking before seeking out the answer myself but I thought your experience would be helpful - what are good resources to learn about archaology? I realize no web sources would be the same as actually university training, but as I write this, I realize that as much time as I spend reading about various antiquities related topics, I knkw very little about proper techniques and what the proper handling of a site reveals, and how it's done. What would be some good sources of information to learn about how that's done? I realize there is a reason people pay good money to learn this at universities. But I'm sure there must be good resources on the I ternst to at least become somewhat knowledgable? I know some, but not much, and I think I and others would benefit if you could post some links that describe proper excavation, how it's done, the process, what is learned and how, mistakes that could be made and their impact. Sometimes people do things, that if they knew better, they wouldn't. And actually seeing the proper way, theres little excuse for not knowing better except not trying.

What are some good resources, online or otherwise, for your readers to educate themselves about fieldwork and the arceological process?


Brian Curtiss

Paul Barford said...

Thanks for the comment. My first response to your question is bound to be: How about addressing this question to the seventeen-million pound "Scheme" you have paid for which aims to: "Increase opportunities for active public involvement in archaeology and strengthen links between metal detector users and archaeologists". Where is their booklist and list of resources?

Of course it is no use chasing rainbows, the professional "Scheme" has done bugger all real outreach in this area for coming up to two decades, it sacked its education officer years ago and is unlikely to suddenly wake out of two decades of torpor and produce that resource in its declining years.

Time Team used to have a page of resources that put the PAS to shame. It seems to have gone now.

As I repeatedly say, Britain is extremely well-served by its archaeologists with books of the "how to do amateur archaeology" ilk. You are spoilt for choice, and it is difficult to choose from them depending on what a person needs). Just go to a big second hand bookshop and/or library and browse, see what 'speaks to' you. I give a booklist for surface survey here:

There are a number of general textbooks (some now a bit out of date) but for a general well-written and kosher introduction I am a great fan of Tony Robinson and Mick Aston's book "Archaeology is Rubbish: A Beginners Guide" (Channel 4 Books ISBN-13: 978-0752215303) as a starting point.

Join an active amateur archaeology society, pay the subscriptions and try to go along to every talk, meet people, talk with them. That's what they are there for. Many are little old ladies, tea-and-cakey, but have among them knowledgeable members too. Treasure the opportunity, Britain has a specific tradition in these, they don't exist in many countries.

"I have seen you characterized on other blogs as a elitist academic, ...

Yes, it is easy for the airheads to suggest that there is criticism of bad practice in artefact hunting and antiquities collecting (or the trade) because of ..."bitterness", "jealousy", "frustration at personal failure in life", that I'm "mentally ill", a "hater", allegedly a "communist agent", a and several dozen other things (some libellous) which the Black Hat Guys say about me on metal detecting forums blogs and websites. That is how they interpret posts like the one above and comments like this one. I suggest their interpretations tell us more about their own inability to analyse and think (and debate something honestly) than being a measure of what I do say or think.

As always, listen to the bellowing airheads at your peril, checking things out and thinking things through for yourself is what intelligent enquiry is all about. Many metal detectorists and dugup antiquity collectors really do seem genuinely unable to do that which is why you get them glibly parroting the same old conveniently self-serving and substance-less guff they heard from a "M8" on the forums and passing it off as incontrovertible 'fact'.

Brian Curtiss said...

Paul. Thank you for the resource information. I'm from the states but being near DC I'm sure there is a local society I could join to learn more. I will also check out the reading list and see what is available at my local used bookstore. Hopefully on my next visit I'll have a little more knowledge under my belt thanks to your thoughtful reply. Thank you again.

Paul Barford said...

Ah, yes, the fact that you are stateside slipped my mind. The societies was rather more addressed to a UK-based one, I do not know how they look over there.

A booklist of how-to literature on the US market would be interesting to see, if you get one from somebody, please share it.

Good luck (archaeology is fascinating)!

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