Wednesday, 18 November 2015

What "Wasted Opportunity"? (2)

No glass beads found with a
METAL detector, but found in
proper excavations (Copyright:
Warwickshire County Council)
This is the second part of an examination of the postulate found on the blog of Canadian collector who calls himself "John Hooker FSA", and contained in a guest post written by a metal detectorist who calls himself "Dean Crawford — Living among the Dobunni" (sic). It  concerns "a story of a wasted opportunity" and is supposed to be a critique on British archaeology and is typical of the chip-on-the-shoulder anti-establishment moans we hear from many collectors and amateur antiquarians and those who portray themselves as such.

Mr Crawford writes of one of his "colleagues" who "has spent most of his life metal detecting the fields around Bidford on Avon, Warwickshire". The story concerns the car park of a local pub.
"About twenty five years ago, archaeological excavations were carried out behind the Anglo-Saxon public house in Bidford. The archaeologists were asked by my colleague, Jim, if he could assist, if only by scanning the discarded topsoil. The answer was a defiant NO. What a wasted opportunity. "If the archaeologists had as much knowledge of the area as Jim, they would have known that the site in question was disturbed in the nineteenth century, so a great deal of what they would had been looking for would already be unstratified and possibly nearer the surface. Yet, a deep layer of topsoil was stripped and discarded. 
[Note the reference to the collector's "special knowledge" only available to the collector - another frequent trope in their rhetoric]. The postulate is that "much knowledge and information [was] lost by the archaeologists using this method" and when the artefact hunter scanned the soil dumps deposited from the site on a nearby farm and found "many late Roman and Anglo-Saxon finds". I will discuss those in a third post. The site behind the "Anglo-Saxon" public house at Bidford-Upon-Avon is well known. The archaeological investigation "about 25 years ago" would be the event listed at position 15 on the publicly available archive called "the Time Trail", specifically here: MWA605 -Site of Saxon Cemetery 100m N of Bidford Bridge. Remember how Crawford and the FSA attempt to claim that "archaeologists" do not want public involvement? I wonder how they explain then this "Time trail" with its helpful glossary of 'technical terms'... Could it be that they hold these views because they themselves are in fact ignorant of the existence of resources like this - just a mouse-click away? Anyway, using it we come to this information:
A watching brief and excavation took place in 1990 during construction of the car park at the rear of the Anglo-Saxon pub. 17 inhumation burials with a number of grave goods (spearheads, knives, shield bosses, brooches, beads, pottery) were discovered. The burials are likely to date from the period AD 550-700. 
We also find this:
17 Find of an Anglo Saxon brooch fragment in the constructors' waste (of the car park excavation) in May 1990. 
But what we do not find there are "all the Roman coins, Roman brooches, Anglo-Saxon Sceats and important brooches" which Mr "Living among the Dobunni's" mate Jim claims he "recorded". Where are they recorded if they are not in the HER and not in the Portable Antiquities Scheme database? The lack of information suggests this is another of those metal detecting fantasy claims.
 To return to the "prejudices and outdated education" of the archaeologists who are stuck in "ignorant ways" because they "blindly believe everything they are told" fail to "question everything" and fail to "use their own intuition".  Jim wanted to "help" with his metal detector. He wanted to scan the topsoil during stripping. He came onto the site and seems to have justified it by telling the director that
"If the archaeologists had as much knowledge of the area as Jim, they would have known that the site in question was disturbed in the nineteenth century, so a great deal of what they would had been looking for would already be unstratified and possibly nearer the surface". 
I think this would probably get anyone's back up. The site was well-known, and the HER already contains its history of previous disturbances and interventions. This was after all the reason why the investigation was taking place. Of course the archaeologists carrying out the project did not need some know-all telling them about what they knew from pre-project research of the site's existing records.

The second issue is that the artefact hunter seems to think that "what the archaeologists were looking for" was just loose finds in disturbed soil. This is a common misconception, and one which the PAS has done precious little (despite its declared aims) to counteract in any effective way. In fact, quite the opposite, they have been reinforcing it with "outreach" (I use the term loosely) like "Britain's Secret Treasures". If somebody came up to me telling me that he (and only he) can help me find what I am looking for but revealed he had not the foggiest idea what I am actually looking for, I'd probably tell him to go away too.

The topsoil was stripped off because, most likely, that was what the excavation brief required. Somebody was paying for this. In this case it was probably the pub owner - and it would be difficult to justify making them pay tens of thousands of pounds extra and delay their intended construction work by a few weeks because the deep topsoil, already disturbed from the nineteenth century onwards, had to be excavated slowly by hand with sifting to get out all the loose finds. No doubt some interesting objects could be found, maybe adding something to our knowledge of the site itself (or the typology of coins of Eddygerit the Simple minted by Bash the moneyer of the Worcester mint). But in the real world one has to balance these against the cost to the pocket of the developer. On the other hand, it could also reveal a bucket load of bottle tops and modern horseshoe nails and nothing else. Explain that to the developer why they paid for that.

The issue is not always as simple as "why don't you let the metal detectorist save some of these objects?" We are hearing this story at fourth hand, Jim told Dean, Dean told John FSA, and John tells us. We do not know the circumstances. Deep stripping of topsoil involves machine use. The excavation is taking place on private property. The excavators are not the agents of the landowner. Having a third party, not formally part of the team contracted to undertake the work involves all sorts of legal issues connected with access, health and safety and above all insurance. Very probably these could all be got around with the use of a good legal advisor and the requisite paperwork and supervision, but the archaeologists do not have to be keen to put themselves to all that trouble, and additional expense (which in the end hits the developer's pocket too), just so "Jim" can "find stuff". There is no "wasted opportunity" if an action requires all sorts of concessions to accommodate it.

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