Thursday, 19 May 2016

How Much of the Archaeological Information Destroyed and Pocketed by Artefact Hunters does the PAS Mitigate by Record?

A non-British colleague asked me last month what he could give as a reference in an article he was writing "about the PAS which shows that very few discoveries are reported in relation to what is really or actually discovered". On being nagged (which I advised him to do), I gave it some thought. He will of course know the model proposed by the Heritage Action Artefact Erosion Counter, ticking away at a not-unreasonable rate as Britain's heritage is pocketed from right under the noses of heritage professionals and even with their outright connivance. 

I assume he wanted something in writing. Oddly-enough (I'll put that in inverted commas intended to imply an ironic tone: "oddly enough"), there are very few British archaeologists putting that particular thought onto paper. There's that awfully insistent and inquisitive guy in Poland who's been banging on about it for fifteen (!) years, the rotter. The bulk of the archaeological establishment over there in Britain though they don't read such things and keep schtum, There is an exception in that David Gill is one who is fearless in the face of the Bloomsbury boys. He tells it like it is in his seminal The Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Treasure Act: Protecting the Archaeology of England and Wales? The question of the relationship between what is found and what is reported is discussed at the beginning of the text. He sums up the situation in his reply to the commentators:
the statistics would suggest that there is significant underreporting at least in some part of England and Wales.
Paul Barford in the same forum discussion made the point too:
A question of particular importance is that of the numbers and types of archaeological artefacts removed from the archaeological record, but not recorded in the public domain (see Barford 2006a; 2006b; Bland 2006a and 2006b[...] There are many indications that a great many finds are not being reported under the present system. Pollard (2009: 183) for example has drawn attention to the fact that the typical sort of material that battlefields produce is not found in the PAS database, but comparatively large amounts of it are identifiable on Internet auction sites. A website allowing UK metal detectorists to show-and-tell the highlights of their collection (the UK Detector Finds Database) currently has some 25,250 artefacts on display (‘recorded’), less than 10% of which seem to have been reported to the PAS. Every week several thousand apparently freshly dug-up ‘British antiquities’ are sold through Internet sites like eBay (not to mention their contribution to ‘bulk coin lots’ offered by many foreign dealers) many of them the sort of material which should be being reported to the PAS, but in relatively few cases do their sellers indicate to responsible collectors wishing to purchase such items that they have been. 
The principal references being:
Barford, P. M. 2005. What are the effects of Artefact Hunting on the Archaeological Resource? The Quarterly - The Journal of the Norfolk Archaeological and Historical Research Group 58, 3-6.
Barford, P. M. 2006a Artefact Hunting and the Archaeological Resource. Rescue News 98, 1-2.
Barford, P. M. 2006b Artefact Hunting: the Sequel Rescue News 100, 4.
(there were replies by Roger bland, but they were superceded by the position noted below)

The Portable Antiquities Scheme pretended not to have read Gill's piece and attempted to ignore the persistent raising of this question for as long as they could, but in the end, just before he left the Scheme, Roger Bland put pen to paper (with Katherine Robbins) in the PAS Guide for Researchers  (August 2014)* and decided that the figures for the annual number of finds removed from archaeological assemblages is ~260 000. So that is a two-thirds loss rate (Paul Barford PACHI blog Sunday, 16 November 2014: 'Focus on UK Metal Detecting PAS and its Admitted Two-thirds loss rate'). Although I am not at all convinced that the method of calculation of this official number has any real reliability (Tuesday, 11 November 2014: 'PAS Finally Try to Estimate Scale of Non-Reported MD Hoiking (1), but Can't Even Manage to Present that Properly'; 'PAS Finally Try to Estimate Scale of Non-Reported MD Hoiking (2), Beach Detecting), it is satisfyingly close to the Heritage Action Model.


Comments are welcome if I have missed anyone out. 

* One wonders whether this slim and somewhat superficial publication is the only 'deliverable' of the 150k Leverhulme-funded project. There was supposed to be a separate report early in 2015. Where is it?   

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