Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Commitment to Debate, Quelle Surprise

I was being egged-on by a colleague to stop my sniping and take time from my busy schedule to actually contribute something to the internet  publication "Aspects of non-professional metal detecting in Europe". The notes for contributors is rather daunting, past experience tells me there is most likely lurking tiresome pedantry just round the corner from submission, so before giving the project more attention it seemed to me wise just to check whether a carefully-argued contribution from me would not be dismissed out-of-hand on formal grounds. I asked the editors:
Just to clarify, when it says "Contributors are invited to submit case studies highlighting aspects of non-professional detecting in their own country or region", does that mean a British citizen living in Poland would have a text rejected on the grounds that it is not a case study on "metal detecting" in Poland? Can a British citizen living in Poland submit something on aspects of non-professional artefact hunting in England and Wales in its wider European context? I can do one on "metal detecting in Poland" but it would not be particularly interesting, relevant nor in my opinion really "form a new step towards more unified debate across Europe" . 
Basically because we lock them up if they loot archaeological sites and steal artefacts which by law are owned by the state. Because the average Pole is not actually stupid enough to break a law where you can get five years for having dugups in your garage and (because of the scale of the deliberate destruction by the invader in WW2) cultural heritage is seen by the whole of society as something to be protected and not trashed, there is not much to "debate" about. Another problem is that for two reasons, I am not really at liberty to discuss everything I know about this issue in Poland (which is why it figures so lightly in this blog). Anyhow, quick as a flash, I got a reply from one of the editors which made it clear that a planned text on "British Archaeology After the Portable Antiquities Scheme" would not be welcomed, despite it being a topic to which I have given a lot of thought and would be a useful contribution to the wider debate. This is my reply to his response:
Dear Mr Lewis
So I take it from what you say that in the volume there will be just ONE text representing all aspects of the issues surrounding artefact hunting in England and Wales as a contribution to "forming a new step towards more unified debate across Europe"? And that is the one preferred by the institution directly interested in maintaining the status quo? The usual commitment of the pro-collecting lobby to debate then. Rather as I suspected. 

You say you are interested in advancing a European debate, but as I have argued elsewhere, I would say the problem is far more complex in its international dimension than anything I have seen so far from the PAS. Not surprising from a body which (my recent FOI revealed) seems to have an official policy of ignoring outside discussions. In addition it is precisely in an international context that what the PAS is doing, and the PAS is saying about itself which is profoundly damaging.

Your aim in suggesting I don’t write about England but instead asking "how common metal-detecting is in Poland" and "what we are learning (or not) from the material culture found" is all too transparent. You want it to say that "the PAS is the best thing since sliced bread" which is what disgustingly happened when you organized that "international conference" several years ago. Suzie Thomas has already got a text on that as chapter two of her 2008 book "Metal Detecting and Archaeology" (by my colleagues Kobylinski and Szpanowski). What would you like added to that to "forming a new step towards more unified debate across Europe"? Do you think they are wrong in some way?

One thing I would say in response to what you suggested is that "learning about material culture" is just one thing archaeologists do - not just in Poland (even though the UK seems to be losing the thread) and what we should be talking about are more holistic issues than your Kossinnist dot-distribution maps, but preserving the information which sites and archaeological assemblages hold. Even surface sites. I think the first step on a unified debate is actually defining what it is we are trying to protect and research, and why. A large group of artefacts coming onto the market from the wholesale stripping of Dura Europos and Archar in Bulgaria by artefact hunters probably have a lot of potential for blinkered finds work (especially by coin collectors maybe) "to learn from the material culture found" but oddly enough few archaeologists outside the PAS would be arguing that this is the point.

Ask Ben Paites about what is happening at Bradwell on Sea and the Little Oakley villa site and don’t try to tell me it is a “good thing” and that we are “learning a lot about the material culture”.
Paul Barford   
I expect you can tell I was very angry.  One day though, the PAS will disappear and we really need to be giving thought now to what opportunities are being missed to prepare for that. From the response I received, it seems clear that the "Learning, Volunteers and Audiences" PAS however still wants to monopolise the discussion and marginalise and ignore other views, and the editors of the volume are probably going to present "the British solution" as the best and only way to deal with the artefact hunting issue. That may be what collectors want to hear, but it is not the whole story. Anyway, it's a good job I did not decide to waste time writing something for their internet publication before checking what is what. 


Anonymous said...

"One day though, the PAS will disappear and we really need to be giving thought now to what opportunities are being missed to prepare for that."

Maybe those thoughts are already happening, but of course such is the hold of PAS that a lot of obvious archaeological and academic bodies who MUST know a radical change is vital are only saying things in private so as to avoid rocking the PAS boat. One day, as you say, one day, and I would pay Mr Lewis the complement of suggesting that on that day he will stop painting the unsupportable status quo as suppportable for he'll then have no reason to. Maybe EH, HE, CBA et al will also suddenly start talking to Government and the public like proper archaeologists and you and I can both close the UK artefact hunting portions of our respective blogs! I can't bloody wait. Talking to a brick wall behind which so many sensible professional and academic people are hiding and pretending they can't hear gets a bit wearing after a decade or two!

Anonymous said...

PS, you shouldn't just be angry about being locked out of the academic debate you should be indignant and shout it from the rooftops. IMO it amounts to a conspiracy to silence - a 1984 tactic - to hurt heritage here and in Europe in order to advance the interests of one tiny quango in one European country.

Paul Barford said...

I'm not "locked out", just been invited to write about a far-off country well away from the PAS rather than give arguments opposing the unchanging and unchallenged bunny-fluff that the PAS regurgitates year after year.


Paul Barford said...

In any case its not the academic debate but public opinion which matters.

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