Thursday, 23 April 2015

Campaign For Metal Detecting Change in Irish Republic

Screen shot from video "Please bring
the English Disease to Ireland I:
The PAS in England
A wholly tendentious film has just been released by a group called "Green Light For Change" that want to see Irish heritage protection legislation changed to see artefact hunting and collecting made legal. It seems to be led by Liam Nolan. Tellingly, the film concentrates on "The PAS in England" (scil. Norfolk) and involves a number of talking archaeological heads saying what a jolly good thing artefact hunting is and how super we have a PAS partnership with them. All well and good, but:
1) Why is the PAS in Bloomsbury not interviewed saying what a good thing pilfering archaeological sites for metallic collectables is? Would Roger Bland not go on camera to say that?

2) The PAS was not set up so UK laws could allow metal detecting, it is the symptom of bad laws which allow pilfering of sites for collectables - something the laws of all those "other countries without a PAS" attempt to protect sites from. These laws are broken by greedy collectors, just as England and Wales have their illegal artefact hunters - who do not generally contribute to the PAS (and if they do, report false information about where finds came from).

3) Tim Pestell should be aware that the PAS was NOT set up just to record artefact hunters' finds, but finds made by the public in general (I think we have a clue as to the identity of one of the archaeologists mentioned earlier as being involved in trying to get pressure put on Ireland to change its heritage laws). The narrator too gets confused calling the PAS a "government funded scheme that records metal detectorists' finds".

4) No mention is made in the film of the costs of the Scheme, including hidden ones (still less the cost of the fallout from the Treasure Act).

5) In Norfolk, the changes in our knowledge from metal detecting began well before the PAS. Work on Viking finds by Sue Margeson are a case in point.

6) Liam Nolan says he is "standing in a field that has a lot of Roman history"  - translated into plain English that means he's on an archaeological site and he's about to hoik out some artefacts using the crude methods of artefact hunters and collectors (he'll not find many ten thousand year old metal objects).

7) He says he's going to "responsibly extract them from the ground" presumably using the methods displayed by the PAS FLO at neighbouring Lenborough. Frankly, more responsible treatment of an archaeological site than hacking archaeological evidence out of context to be randomly scattered among the ephemeral personal collections of the "detecting buddies" would be leaving it there to be properly studied within that context. That's what is called conservation (it's like not shooting all the rhinos).

8) Nolan says artefacts are in the museum "as a result of the metal detectorists waiving their financial reward (sic) for finding the items out in the field". There is typical tekkie total rejection here of the issue of to whom all of those objects actually belong. The landowners have waived any payment - the finders are incidental.

9) Note that not a single of the hundreds of items shown displayed loose in the trays is shown with anything that looks like a label saying where they came from. They are treated as trophies and not evidence. How many of them are, in fact, in the PAS database, how many are in museums, and how many simply disappeared into scattered private collections. Take the ansate brooches - like the ones shown in the video at 3:31. I did some research on them and wrote a post on them, but nobody is too keen to follow this up and explore tekkie claims and it seems the lessons are slow to be learnt. Metal detecting is primarily about the creation of private collections - a fact the film skips over.Why should Ireland encourage the unregulated private collecting of antiquities in a period when the rest of the world (Britain excepted) is trying to discourage it?

10) It is not true that all the important metal detected finds from East Anglia are in the museums. The Icklingham, Bronzes for example are in a foreign private collection. Despite the claims of an excellent partnership with "responsible detectorists", Norfolk was also a place where illegally-excavated finds from Ireland ended up ('900 looted artefacts recovered in Norfolk' Monday, 20 May 2013, see also 'Focus on UK Metal Detecting: Criminal gangs Trafficking Stolen Antiques Between Ireland and Britain' Sunday, 14 July 2013).

11) The latter case illustrates all too well that many metal detectorists are not hunting for history, but things to sell. The Campaign to Bring the English Disease to Ireland forum  says members do not sell artefacts, but they can correct me if I am wrong, but was not one of ther members actually involved in the above-mentioned case?

12) The film equates "learning more about our past" with hoiking decontextualised stuff and putting some of it on the PAS database and some in museums. The PAS was originally set up to convince finders that this was not the case, and context is important for research. From this follows that the most effective way to learn new things about the past is not blind and selective hoiking but methodological investigations of archaeological sites, and you cannot do that if they've previously been ripped apart willy-nilly in the search for collectable and saleable artefacts.
In any case to use a metal detector per se is not against the law in Ireland, to use it without a permit to dig up artefacts to collect and sell is. The whole of section two of the National Monuments (Amendment) Act, 1987  sets this out quite clearly, and below that, the procedure for obtaining a permit and reporting finds thus made. Section 20 and 23 set out the measures for dealing with those not reporting. Since a measure to get chance finds and (both legal and illegal) metal detecting finds reported is already in place in the legislation, instituting a PAS is clearly superfluous. I am sure responsible detectorists everywhere will be joining me in expressing the hope that when it comes to illegal artefact hunting and knowledge theft, the Irish authorities do everything they can to catch and punish those breaking the law.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme was not set up to legitimise metal detecting, it was set up to attempt to mitigate its negative effects by introducing best practice. That has not been achieved as Mr Nolan's targeting of a Roman site to get collectable goodies out for his collection demonstrates. That is not 'best practice' by any measure. Also the degree to which detectorists are failing to report their finds is downplayed (and Norfolk is the exception rather than the rule). The PAS instead of sitting back and letting all their hard work to be used to argue for extending to other countries the destructive activities it was set up to combat  should speak out and protest. Have they the courage to do their colleagues in other countries that favour? 

I look forward to the response of the Irish archaeological community to this film - 'Red Light to Looting' which will compare the effects of the English disease on the sites which are mined for collectables - huge numbers of which are never reported to the PAS - to that of sites mined for collectables in Syria, Iraq or Egypt, Guatemala and the Four Corners area.

Here is the metal detectorist's campaign website. Note they want a phone app to tell them where archaeological sites are "to avoid breaking the law" and what is to prevent them being used by those who want to break the law?

UPDATE 24th April 2015
The narrator of the pro-collecting film extolling the PAS is uncredited. Somebody has pointed out to me that it sounds awfully like Dan Pett's voice (as here, the British Museum's infamous "trolls" presentation) and if so this would suggest Bloomsbury was in fact involved in its production. Listen and see what you think.

UPDATE 25th April 2015
I am not the only one disturbed by the employment of archaeologists Tim Pestell, Andrew Rogerson and Adrian Marsden by the "Bring the English Disease Here" campaign: The Heritage Journal ‏'A shambolic, UK archaeologist-backed call for metal detecting to be legalised in Ireland!' 25th April 2015.
It seems a bit like someone being manoevered into appearing to say “shoplifters don’t come in my shop so it can’t be a problem elsewhere and laws to control it should be ripped up in an adjacent friendly independent country!”

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