Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Productive Site in Lincolnshire

A site in Lincolnshire (not pictured) is
productive of interesting collectables so
archaeologists thought they'd give it a dig.
Excited archaeologists have dug nine "evaluation trenches" in a metal detectorist's "productive site" at Little Carlton, East Lindsay and got their names in the national newspapers (Haroon Siddique, 'Remains of Anglo-Saxon island (sic) discovered in Lincolnshire village' Guardian Tuesday 1 March 2016). Wow, eh? According to the article, "hundreds of" metal artefacts have already been taken by an artefact hunter from the site:
Graham Vickers came across a silver stylus, an ornate writing tool dating back to the 8th century, in a disturbed plough field. He reported his find and subsequently unearthed hundreds more artefacts, recording their placement with GPS, thus enabling archaeologists to build up a picture of the settlement below. The artefacts include another 20 styli, about 300 dress pins and a huge number of sceattas – coins from the 7th-8th centuries – as well as a unusual small lead tablet bearing the female Anglo-Saxon name “Cudberg”. Students from the university later found significant quantities of Middle Saxon pottery and butchered animal bone.
The latter illustrates what I was saying earlier about the collectables removed from archaeological assemblages in sites by artefact hunters not being "data" in that collection is selective and biased towards (removal of) certain elements of the evidence. The archaeologist benefiting from the stripping of the site by a collector
praised Vickers for reporting his find to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, describing it as a “really nice collaboration between the general public and the university”. ”.
Really nice? Are artefact hunters and collectors actually representative of "the general public" - most of whom do not strip archaeological sites of collectables? I really do not follow this line of argument. Are grouse-slaughtering shotgun maniacs bloodily killing dozens of living creatures for "sport" representative of the "general public", or are they a separate group within the public that callously do things most of us would never dream of doing and calling fun? All the international conventions and documents emphasise that artefact collecting is not an activity archaeologists should be encouraging. Are they all wrong? Why?

Note the insertion of the word "disturbed" in the text above. Whoever was responsible for it getting there (artefact hunter or archaeologist, or made-up by the journalist), it is there to say to you and I in metal-detectorist-speak, "it's OK, all these artefacts wot the collector took waz all from disturbed contexts". Is it actually OK? If the contexts were ascertained to be so "disturbed' then why bother with GPS plotting?

There is a deceit going on here. The public are (deliberately?) being given a one-dimensional picture of archaeology. What matters, they are being told, is "down". If the stuff is not coming from "down in the stratigraphy", British archaeologists are saying that it is perfectly OK for collectors to walk off with what they want in whatever quantities (the public learns from the report this collector is not content with fewer than "hundreds more" items at home from the exploitation of this site). There is hidden here another truth, in archaeological research what also matters is not just "down" but "across" (and "with"). The surface patterns of distribution of archaeological material of all types is a source of information used for a wide range of types of interpretations at varying scales. You learn about this in "archaeology 101". Selective removal of unknown types of artefact made of a single type of material, in unknown quantities by various folk looking for something to add to their personal collections distorts that pattern irrevocably. Rudimentary 'x-marks-the-spot' recording of the findspots of random individual 'collectable' items from among those removed or discarded adds nothing. Archaeologists know this (should know this) and yet remain silent. A surface site is "disturbed" when raided by collectors greedy selectively to take away "hundreds more" artefacts for themselves. 

Why does a collector need greedily to remove "hundreds more" items from a site in the first place? Once the site has been identified ("detected") as such, why not leave it alone? Is it "responsible" (back to that definition again) to take more and more? When will a collector STOP? When there's nothing much left to be had from a site? Even bird egg collectors only took a single egg from a batch, but artefact hunters seem less prone to their trophy lust being sated by a single item, they seem compelled to get more and more. And then they boast about it on their forums, or make videos showing how many items they hoik.  One wonders what this compulsive behaviour compensates for.

In any case, although Mr Vickers has reported the find mentioned in the article, a search for the site name in the PAS database reveals that of the reported "hundreds more" that he has taken, whether or not there is a GPS record, only two artefacts there are identifiable as from this parish (and presumably this site). Where is the record of the rest? Any member of the public (stakeholder) checking the database after reading about this site which has the archaeologists so excited to learn more about what it has produced will be disappointed to find that the public database which is there to give them this information is simply not up to the task. Just two artefacts. Where are the artefacts from the nine "evaluation trenches"? Are they with the group of "hundreds more" in a private collection - keeping the assemblage together for further study (by whom?) or are some in a private collection while the others are on an archaeologist's desk somewhere?
 Nine evaluation trenches on and we are getting an interpretation offered:
It is thought that the site is a previously unknown monastic or trading centre, but researchers are still at an early stage of their investigations [...] “It’s clearly a very high-status Saxon site. It’s one of the most important sites of its kind in that part of the world. The quantity of finds that have come from the site is very unusual – it’s clearly not your everyday find.”
This goes back to earlier discussion of the question of so-called "productive sites" by British archaeologists enthralled by the bucketloads of effort-free decorated metalwork and coins brought right to their desks by collectors of ground-dug artefacts in the 1970s and 1980s. More sober judgements emerged from the scholars engaged in the VASLE project who ascertained that in general the notion that there was something special about the "productive sites" exploited by artefact collectors and reported was mainly an illusion created by the way the "data" about them were generated (targeted and selective collection-driven exploitation). This is yet another example of why I hold that artefact hunting does not in fact produce archaeological "data" of any use for all but the crudest Kossinnist dot-distribution maps. Not that any artefact-greedy British archaeologist will be telling the Guardian's journalists that.

1 comment:

heritageaction said...

"Once the site has been identified ("detected") as such, why not leave it alone?"

Well I'll tell yer. That question goes right to the heart of moral pigmyism. Personal grabbing outranks communal conservation. That's why so many detectorists are reluctant to give exact find spot data or real ones or any - "in case the archies stop me detecting". PAS is well aware of that thinking, which is why they are at such pains to reassure detectorists (alone) that reporting will never result in scheduling.
They wouldn't insult amateur archaeologists with such talk.

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