Thursday, 22 October 2015

Twisted Arguments About Artefact Fragmentation

I discuss the twisted arguments employed by UK metal detectorists and their supporters to uphold the current laissezx-faire status quo on artefact hunting. The text I was discussing by UK metal detectorist Dean Crawford republished by Canadian collector John Hooker, is ostensibly about fragmentation (of otherwise collectable artefacts) and why artefact collectors are misunderstood "victims" of stereotypes.

In the previous two posts on John Hooker's blog (here and here), we see gold and silver coins found by Mr Crawford without a scratch on them, not a single one. In Mr Crawford's show-and-tell showcase of finds on the UKDFD we see artefacts without a scratch on them. When however he wants to make a justification for what he does, he suddenly pulls out from his pocket or scrap bucket a whole handful of grunged up coins and "partifacts".  The coins are shattered, the metal objects broken. The caption says: "Typical agricultural damage found on one of Dean's Romano-British sites". The text says: "So much has changed since I first started this hobby, the majority of artefacts are now "partefacts" and coins are bent, fragmented and corroded"

[it may be awful for the collector to contemplate, but ancient coins do tend to have "corroded" in the ground, also one may legitimately ask whether the state of artefacts found today is not the result of the sites being stripped of the less bent and nicer collectable items over the past four decades by tens of thousands of legal and clandestine artefact hunters?].

Yet every single one of those fragments is identifiable as an archaeological artefact. They are perhaps less value as an object for sale or collection, but they are fully useable in that state as archaeological evidence. This is where the archaeologist and collector part ways. The PAS was supposed to be telling these folk about archaeology and its use of evidence, but they copped-out of that task before they'd even begun.

The second point that the archaeologist would make here is that artefacts in exactly that state are also found in the undisturbed layers of archaeological sites (and there treated as fully-valid archaeological evidence). I can recall Roman artefacts looking like the Crawford-handful  coming off Late/Sub-Roman metalled yards at Wroxeter. They probably been falling in decaying horse or cattle poo and been run over by wagons - thus accounting for the corrosion and breakage. Or perhaps the soil dump making up a Roman or Sub-Roman yard surface came from a previously disturbed deposit (for example ancient ploughsoil). But the state of the excavated artefacts show this was ancient corrosion and breakage. Mr Crawford says that in the case of the site he collected these items from, this is modern plough-induced damage. How can he tell? The sites Roman artefacts came from were not made yesterday, things happened on them throughout the intervening two millennia, potentially including medieval ploughing with heavy ploughs for example  or run over by steam traction engines in the nineteenth century. Some fields (like at Sutton Hoo) were used for training tank driving on during WW2. There are many mechanisms that could create this state of artefact, but it suits Mr Crawford's purpose simply to blame it all on modern ploughing which he infers must have occurred since he found the sites and after they'd been "neglected by archaeologists" (who'd not immediately come and dug up the sites to save the collectable state of the artefacts).

Personally, I think if you enlarge Mr Crawford's photo of his hand and the cruddy uncollectable coins, apart from the lack of any obvious dermatitis (many artefact hunters have it) there is also a lack of obvious fresh breaks on those artefacts he displays. He's not photographed the edges of the broken objects, but a lot of the breaks seem to me from their appearance likely to be old. How old? Who can say? But Mr Crawford is no wiser than the rest of us on that account, though claims to be.

It should be noted that, despite the claims that this process of deterioration of collectables is universal, the bulk of the coins reported by artefact hunters to the PAS are not in this state. the bulk of the coins (even job 'uncleaned' lots) on eBay  are not in this state. I challenge Mr Crawford to publish tomorrow a zoomable photo of every single metal artefact he's collected from that site from which he selected (I am convinced of it) the subjects of his shock-horror photo. Let us see how the fragmentation profile of the whole assemblage compares with the ones he selected to illustrate his argument. We had an opportunity to do that with the Water Newton I rally when the same claim was made about wholesale fragmentation and the 'rescue' of artefact, but when the whole assemblage of PAS photos taken as a record of the objects was made available online, it was found that objects with clear modern damage on them were only a few percent of the assemblage as a whole despite the long history of intensive ploughing of the fields in question.  Let us see Mr Crawford's evidence. 

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