Friday, 15 July 2016

PAS, Best Practice in and Spin about Artefact Hunting

British Museum in decline
I think we've all had enough of the issue of the British Museum refusing to admit that calling artefact hunting "citizen archaeology" was a hasty formulation not completely thought-through by their press officer. Instead of that I got a load of the usual PAS mumbo-jumbo. Enough.  This is my reply to the last letter of Hannah Boulton. I did not send it in this form, she got just the first two paragraphs but I thought better of getting us both bogged down with further discussion, but I thought I'd put it here for reference.
Dear Hannah, Thanks, I must say the British Museum’s definition of archaeology looks more like one written by English philologists than anyone actually involved in the field. As I pointed out on my blog, such a vague definition could fully apply to the disgraceful antics of the “Nazi War Diggers”, which explains a lot about your usage.

By the same token, the Museum you represent might be interested in the OED’s definition of a modern museum and what modern museum professionals do. Not a lot it seems, just store and show things in a “building”:

"As you know the Museum advocates 'responsible' metal-detecting. That is to say finders should follow the 'Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting in England and Wales', which has been endorsed by the main archaeological, land owner and metal-detecting bodies"'.
The Museum should be aware that there are not very many of those “responsible detectorists” at all if you indeed define that by the Code they follow. Any time spent on their forums and websites will show without any doubt that the majority of them reject the one you cite and acknowledge only the “shut the gates” NCMD one. And the numbers following the CBA/PAS code are dropping, not increasing.

"We understand that some people have concerns about metal-detecting";
Well, let us call it what it is, artefact hunting and collecting, and it's illegal in many countries - for good reason (it too is connected with notions of "best practice in the treatment of the archaeological record and archaeology being practised for"the public good"). Actually, what people like me have more concerns about is the way British heritage professionals replace basic facts about and sober analysis of the phenomenon by spin. They always have done, right from the beginning of PAS. Sorry, but you do it yourself in this mail. 
"the vast majority of finders have a genuine interest in the past"
Sorry, but I really do not think that means anything at all. That is just PAS-fluff. There are many ways of expressing the interest in the past many members of society have without destroying it (artefact collecting erodes and destroys the archaeological record).  If you look through the categories of collectables on sites such as eBay  you will see that many of them relate, or can relate, in one way or another to various visions/parts of the past. First edition books, vintage film posters, Japanese woodcut prints, old county maps, baseball cards, stamps, coins, porcelain dolls, teddy bears, model trains, lead soldiers, vintage toys, horse brasses, World War One and WW2 militaria, etc etc. Even Star Trek collectables reflect not so much an interest in 'space and technology' but a well-loved TV series people watched decades ago (and its spinoffs).  That is part of the psychology (well-studied, though PAS never refer to it) of collecting as an activity.

To say people who collect medieval buckles and hammered coins “have an interest in the past” is simplifying a much more complex issue (see those studies of collecting). In fact what they are interested in is collecting. People walking down Gt Russell Street from Euston can turn right and come to you or turn left and enter ‘Coincraft’ just opposite your gate. I would not say these people are all doing the same thing, but PAS would.  I think any discussion of artefact collecting in Britain needs far more precision of concepts than we are getting fed by PAS and your Museum. Its absence is simply misinforming the public who pay for it – and is damaging. And I think it is damaging archaeology and certainly what is left of the archaeological record.  But dodging the main issues, not calling a spade a spade is the essence of the PAS message isn’t it? And it always has been. Dumb-down and presenting everything they do as a huge success and ignoring the sticky issues. Why have the PAS no public forum now? Sticky issues got in the way of the constant churning out of a glib propaganda of success.

So I am not so much “concerned about artefact hunting and collecting” as about the manner in which some heritage professionals are treating it. And your Museum is at the head of the campaign to whitewash collectors when as a research institution it should be analysing the situation and giving an honest picture of what is happening to the archaeological record.  

How can you say that “citizen archaeology is increasing” when by your own estimates three in every four artefacts pocketed by metal detectorists are by your own admission NOT being reported []? After nigh on twenty years of PAS activity, the results are as pathetically poor as that.  One out of four, twenty five percent. If that was cancer patients getting NHS treatment after diagnosis in time to save their lives would you call that a success? I would not.

There is a problem, but it is not being addressed, because it is not being admitted. What your annual review should say is “our estimate is that seventy five percent of the archaeological record is being pilfered by collectors while a small minority responsibly report some of what they find”. That’s the truth isn’t it? So why are we not being told the simple truth? It is easy to write, I just did it.

"It is our role to encourage best practice";
Shhh. PAS don’t like people pointing that out. That “best practice” – what actually DOES that consist of in artefact hunting? Targeting known sites for example? The PAS has said not a word about that in twenty years.

Then we have the archaeological tragedies like the recent Lenborough fiasco. An earthwork site under pasture (Code of Practice…) and your FLO was not only there and not stopping it, she took an active part in the scooping out of handfuls of coins into a carrier bag which was then tipped loose onto a farmer’s tabletop. That is not “encouraging best practice”, indeed it goes right against several principles of the codes of her own profession. And it’s not an isolated incident in twenty years of PAS-dom. And what happens when the noisome man in Poland does an FOI, what do we find internal PAS documents telling the woman who did it? Well, you can know better than me, the documents I got were heavily redacted, but there was nothing there but praise for the way she “handled” the case.

It may be your role to encourage best practice, but the PAS is getting virtually nowhere with it – but of course the official PAS line is that “best practice” is just 82000 artefacts in the database. True best practice is much more than that.
Thank you for your answers.   
Best wishes
Paul Barford
What a dreadful mess. And of course Hannah Bolton is just doing her job, and if she stoops to reading this (PAS staff claim not to read this blog, probably they do not) she'll just say that it's all my fault. The problem is however that the fault lies in the corporate culture of the PAS and the BM which consistently attempts to dodge proper discussion of the issues involved in collecting of archaeological artefacts. These problems however have little chance of going away if we do not discuss them. Not discussing these issues only complicates matters when the crisis becomes impossible to ignore.

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