Tuesday, 1 March 2016

"Responsible Artefact Hunting": UK Archaeologists serves Chalk as Cheese

[UPDATE: and he's blocked me from seeing his Twitter account]

Sheffield university archaeologist Hugh Willmott says he's going to address the question I raised which he has so far been unable to answer. I asked for his definition of what "responsible artefact hunting" is:
Can archaeologists and other academics using that term so freely now give us a precise holistic definition of what that means in a global, not local, context - and from the point of view of the conservation of, rather than promoting collection-driven exploitation of, the archaeological record? 
Dr Willmott seemingly does not understand the question. He is apparently unable to differentiate the word "responsible" from "legal" (like in responsible birdwatching and legal birdwatching). In two tweets (is that it?) he merely attempts (here and here):
@ core of the discussion there are 2 key questions. 1 Is it ok to engage with legal metal detecting to encourage good practice & gain data?/ 2- is it ok to engage a wider audience using material culture (just as museums do). I would answer yes in both cases
I am not sure we are on the same wavelength here. Is it always OK for the archaeologist to "engage with legal metal detecting"? What does the CIfA code of ethics and the EAA and AIA ones say about that? What if the artefact hunting is being done in accordance with the letter of the law (maybe in the "they can't touch you for it" mode favoured by some collectors - see their forums for the loopholes they exploit) and the finds are being authenticated by the archaeologists so they can then be sold? Is that "responsible artefact hunting" (or responsible archaeology)? What about archaeological involvement in commercial artefact hunting rallies?

I would say the core question is in fact, is the selective collection of loose archaeological artefacts a responsible thing to do at all?  And if it is, when is it and when is it not? That is the question I asked Dr Willmott. I really do not see why he is yet again dismissive and tries to fob us off with this sort of superficial non-argument. That kind of thing may wow them in the metal detecting clubs, but I must admit, I was expecting something more substantial.

As for the second "core point", "using material culture" does not have to entail supporting private collecting. In fact most of the international conventions argue we should be engaging the public to combat private collecting. Does Dr Willmott feel he is above that and can ignore what they say without any discussion?

There are issues here which this weak response ignores. I asked for "a precise holistic definition of what that means in a global, not local, context - and from the point of view of the conservation of, rather than promoting collection-driven exploitation of, the archaeological record". A global context means this definition of responsible behaviour in this regard  must also apply to the archaeological record of other countries too, countries whose archaeological heritage is also the subject of the attentions of collection-driven exploiters. This omission is quite puzzling in regard to the fact that there is quite a lot of discussion about this - mainly in a Middle Eastern and North African context -  at the moment. In what way can such collecting be carried out "responsibly"? And if it cannot there, what makes the British archaeological record "different" in terms of its structure and robustness vis a vis such exploitation? Or, is it simply that Britain has the laxest and most ineffective heritage protection laws compared with the vast majority of those throughout Europe and the wider world? 

Is "responsibility" a matter for legislation alone? Dr Willmott's "definition" seems to imply that if we make the laws laxer in France, for example (to use the example "we all appreciate"), artefact hunters overnight will suddenly be transformed into "responsible ones" and archaeologists can ëngage"with them on that footing, even though they do nothing other than what they do now. In my opinion, if that's what he's saying constitutes "responsible artefact hunting" (see above), that is a ridiculous argument.

In the insular context, is it "responsible" for collectors of ground dug artefacts to target known sites and more or less openly hoik selected items from them willy nilly to add to a personal collection without adding substantially to further knowledge of that site and with no research programme more sophisticated than "hoik all the pretty stuff? Is it responsible for archaeologists to handle selectively-collected and decontextualised material removed from known sites which is not only depleting the information in the site, but also selectively distorting its 'signature'? Is it responsible artefact hunting that is promoted by such acts, or is the archaeologist not part and parcel of the process of destruction

 Is it "responsible" for collectors to throw any metal item from an archaeological site not wanted for their personal collection into a scrap bucket then sold off by weight? Items that if the site were surveyed by archaeologists would be collected, documented, if not archived as part of the record of that site? A moment's look at the PAS database (I use the term loosely) will show that what is collected is not at all representative of what the archaeological record contains. Are these "data" at all in any but the crudest sense of the word? Would not truly "responsible" collection from such sites be that which produces the fullest information about the site and findspot, not merely the fact that something "was found"at point X? 

And what about the collection of artefacts itself and its "responsible" curation? England's Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting for example makes no reference to the manner in which finds are to be treated (catalogued, conserved, individually bagged and labelled) or handled. No mention is made there about responsible disposal (sold off on ebay, sold/donated individually or in site groups with field documentation) and a whole lot of other things. No mention is made of the manner they are to be used in the responsible "engage a wider audience". Tuning them into "wearable" trophy jewellery for example, is that a "responsible" use of artefacts? Could the fact that there is no codification of "responsible" behaviour in this regard mean that there is no need to discuss what is the responsible way to go about collecting archaeological artefacts? Or does it rather indicate that I am right in suggesting that there is much yet to be discussed about what we consider "responsible artefact hunting"?

Oh, by the way, when the PAS was set up in England twenty years ago, it was intended to foster "best"practice, not merely "good". 

Dr Willmott, you had an opportunity to write a real cracker of an answer. As you say, I've been making the point for week before this. I find the scant attention you gave to the question after such bluster really quite insulting. Before you protest though, there is no "abuse"  in my response, no "profanity", nothing "racist" and this is a response, not "bullying". Now I see Lorna Richardson is claiming you can get Google to block my blog  to prevent people reading what I say. That would please the metal detectorists (they've been trying for years) but be a really, really pathetic response by a British archaeologist the moment they are asked to define a simple term properly.  
Vignette: It seems to me the weak attempt above to define "responsible artefact hunting" is as full of holes as this cheese.

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