Thursday, 21 May 2015

Local Authority Numismatist and Archaeologist on Norwich Detecting

Dr. Adrian Marsden (professional numismatist) and Dr Andrew Rogerson, both of Norfolk Historic Environment Service and both participants in the film by the campaign group 'Green Light For Change - Metal Detecting in Ireland' have at last got round to replying to my enquiry of 25th April 2015.

In connection with their participation in the film, I asked about their thoughts on the rescinding of the National Monuments Acts 1930 to 2004  in the Republic of Ireland (in particular section 2 of the 1987 act which makes reporting of finds compulsory) in favour of unregulated artefact hunting. Characteristically of those who 'partner' artefact collectors, neither was willing to share any thoughts on the legislative change the film they took part in was advocating: "this is not our concern and neither myself nor my employer has a view on it". That is rather sad, I would have thought heritage policy is indeed a matter of concern of all professional archaeologists and something about which balanced and informed discussion should be encouraged rather than avoided.

The film in which both took part presents the case that unregulated metal detecting was in some way "better" than the current system of compulsory reporting, and led to many finds being reported by metal detectorists and donated to museums. I was primarily interested to know the archaeologists' view on that. What I learnt was that the finds from the Norwich Metal Detector club which were shown laid out (without labels) in 19 trays on a tabletop in the film "have now been recorded". They did not feel qualified to say how many had "been donated to a museum". What they did say however was:
In March of this year 225 finds were recorded by us from that club and in April 307. We record all finds at a club that are pre-1700 in date (or pre-milled in the case of coins). Of course a significant number of finds on the table are not of recordable age. Some of those recorded will be awaiting the addition of photos and so will not yet be live. The rest you can view now by going to the Portable Antiquities database and, using an advanced search, search under the Other Reference of NMD032015 (for March) or NMD042015 (for April). I [...] hope you enjoy looking at them.
Well, let's have a look at them. I do not know what the links which they supplied are supposed to be, but the majority of the 200 (not 225) records for "March" are without any images at all. Only 19 objects (all Roman coins) currently figure as having "images taken". The rest have no images by which they could eventually be identified if they turn up, for example, on the market, or verified (Kershaw 2013, 17). The objects break down as follows, a few pre-Roman, 81 Roman objects, 4 early Medieval, 63 medieval and 50 post medieval. Over half are coins.

The "April" figures obtained by following the link supplied are similar. We get 313 records (not 330). The balance of artefacts is greater, with coins accounting for 91/313, buckles 37/313 and strap fittings 21/313. The preponderance of decorative, addressed and emblemic items is notable and reflects what collectors collect - rather than being an indicator of what archaeological evidence a site exploited by these collectors held. The spread of dates is similar to the figures a month earlier: 14 pre-Roman, 48 Roman, 16 Early Medieval, 78 Medieval, 61 Post Medieval. What is particularly disturbing is that of these 313 records online now, only five currently figure as with "images taken". If this is characteristic of the state of the Norfolk records as a whole, this is no kind of record of artefacts which have been hoiked out of the archaeological record and vanished into scattered ephemeral personal collections (remember Marsden and Rogerson say that the records awaiting photos will not yet be "live" - I presume that means online - the equivalent record for 2014 shows just 17 with digital images, and from the year before with 53 out of 218 records). This is appalling.

In the film we saw them examining 19 trays on a table, presumably the finds of up to 19 individual hunters. Perhaps the totals Marsden and Rogerson give are the sums from all members of that club in a month. The club has a fixed (and capped) membership list of 60 members. If 225 finds from that club for March are divided by 60, we get a minimum of 3.75 finds for that month for March. The April figure 330/60 is 5.5 each. Of course, for some reason or other, if not every member of the club is supplying the finds to be recorded when the archaeologists come, the number of items in the collections of those that do is consequently greater. If we look at the trend of record numbers through an average year in Norfolk (like 2014), March and April are about average months. We also learn that these figures quoted by Marsden and Rogerson that the Norwich Metal detecting club (right under the museum's nose of course - easy to get to) accounts for about a third of the records made by NMS. That is important because if we map where that searching is going on, it is not evenly spread in the county:
The April figures mapped by PAS database clunky mapping widget

Coming back to those numbers, if in two months, each finder is showing at a club meeting 3.75 and 5.5 recordable finds (and even taking into account the way the number of recorded finds as a whole fluctuates through the year) it means that in statistical terms it is likely that in Norfolk, each of these finders is taking between 45 and 66 recordable finds from the archaeological record a year. It is worth remembering that the HA artefact erosion counter operates using figures which come out at about 30.25 artefacts a year, the actual figures supplied by Marsden and Rogerson here show this could be a considerable underestimate. After all, it is in this eastern region that Kershaw (2015, 15) adduces evidence of "substantial and widespread under-reporting" and (2013, 16-7) in the Norwich area specifically anecdotal evidence that suggests that 75% of local detector users did not report any of their finds
Also the decision to ignore the "significant number of finds [presented at NMDC meetings] not of recordable age" is distorting the picture. These objects have been removed by collectors from archaeological assemblages, often those that also include older material. To ignore part of the material on grounds of historicity distorts the picture (a) of the sites they come from, in other words ignores archaeological evidence of the history of the site, and (b) distorts the picture of the collecting activity which produces the 'data' recorded in the PAS database.

It should be obvious that artefact collecting is no more "doing archaeology" than collecting folk costume Barbie dolls is "doing ethnography". In order to understand the information recorded by the PAS, collecting patterns need to be understood - and you cannot do that by the PAS throwing away enormous quantities of evidence about that activity. That is bonkers. What is more, the PAS deliberately obscures that information in its records, you can only with difficulty (and with the risk of error) put together a picture of individual collector's collection using the public information presented there.

Secondly, that it is Norfolk which is discarding the evidence of the continuity of settlement is disturbing. it was precisely systematic fieldwalking here in the 1970s and later (some of it by Andrew Rogerson as I recall) which gave rise to a whole lot of discussion about settlement continuity and settlement shift from the Middle Saxon onwards. The PAS data used to be supposed to be usable by the public (who pay for it) to get a ("sense of place") picture of the development of their own little homelands, giving communities a sense of roots. They cannot do that if a lot of the material which does that has been ignored by the recorders. It is precisely the evidence of the past three hundred years that is more visible in the built landscape (and the cultural landscape - field boundaries, hedgerows etc.). This evidence recovered by artefact hunters (who their forums and blogs indicate are particularly interested in this period where there are more sources to illustrate it and create a 'link with the past') should not be being put aside. Selectively, as it happens because of course Norfolk's PAS is recording some Post-Medieval stuff. So what is the logic, where is the policy set out? On what grounds is a selection made?

For the same reason, Marsden and Rogerson's logic is way out when they express a lack of concern whether a system of compulsory reporting and archive deposition like the Irish system is better than the British approach where, when it comes to how many of the 10000 items which pass through the hands of Norfolk PAS end up being properly curated in museums. Adrian Marsden say:
What I would say is that I would think that many – being very common, run-of-the-mill objects in poor condition - would probably not be of interest to a museum in the first instance.
Yet they are evidence of a site that was dismantled by a collector. Archaeological evidence is not archaeological evidence because it is not "common, run-of-the-mill objects" and not related to their financial value or state of preservation. Fossilised poo, iron slag and snail shells are also evidence of various aspects and contexts of past activity. I really do not think that a hastily created record of an object with no photo of a few select items  and the  rest ignored is any kind of record of a collector's activity on an archaeological site in the Norfolk area, and nor do I think that there is a cat's hope in hell of the latter being capable of producing any kind of a record of the site itself, the fiasco a while ago over the interpretation of so-called "productive sites" being a case in point (compare Pestell's work on these with the results of the VASLE project).

Andrew Rogerson claimed 20th May he was too busy to answer a public enquiry about the issues raised by the film, "because I have been extremely busy recorded (sic) finds for many months". On that day he managed two buckles, a pin, two thimbles and... a button (obfuscation code "for security" 0013EA168E001AD6), none of them had images taken.

Dr. Tim Pestell, Curator of Archaeology at Norwich Castle Museum, has yet to respond to my query of 25th April about the number of those objects donated to the Museum (perhaps he's got somebody who is still counting them) and why he said what he did about other countries scrapping their heritage legislation in favour of something more closely mirroring Bonkers Britain. I look forward to hearing from him.

Kershaw, J. 2013 Viking Identities: Scandinavian Jewellery in England. Oxford: Oxford University Press,

Pestell, T. and Ulmschneider, K. (eds.) 2003 Markets in Early Medieval Europe: Trading and 'Productive Sites', c.650-850, Windgather Press.

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