Wednesday, 10 August 2016

The Death of a Site to the Spades of Artefact Hunters

Artefact hunter "Aurelia" spent a day in a field on a commercial artefact hunting rally (UK Detecting Rallies open rally at Carlton, near Olney, in Northants). She spent about £20 for fuel and £15 dig fee but considers it was: 'a disappointing rally' (May 24, 2015). Note the way the search area is described, paying attention to known findspots (ARCHI is a database created using as the basic source of information published archaeological reports):
The site was billed as around 120 acres of ploughed, rolled and seeded arable land. ARCHI showed the area to be rich, especially in Roman material [...]. The morning’s field had reportedly produced a William I penny the last time the site had been detected, though apparently on that occasion most diggers spent the day on another field which had produced a couple of Anglo-Saxon pennies and a few later medieval hammies [...] it was a dead loss [...] the sole reported decent find was of a hammy of some sort from one field.[...] My impression, and that of others I spoke to, was that the fields had been more or less detected to death; if they hadn’t, why was nobody finding anything today, notwithstanding any finds on earlier visits? [...] 
Note the way that the search area's history is presented only in terms of what coins have been found there. The proportions of finds in the PAS database shows that British artefact hunters are not so much producing a picture of archaeological material (and therefore historical land use) across the landscape, but primarily one of coin loss. Furthermore to find these coins, they focus on known findspots (including those reported in the archaeological literature). As a result, more and more of these sites become  "detected to death" (ie destroyed by artefact hunters). If we look at the PAS database, we see no evidence that much of the material that has been removed from this search are, or any other in the near vicinity - have ever reached the PAS (the area is the red square near the middle of the map - and the detectorist is useless at map-reading, Carlton is in Bedfordshire).

Death of a Site
 Supporters ('partners') of collecting will tell you that "metal detectorists" (they tend not to call them artefact hunters or collectors) are generating archaeological information by 'searching' areas (they seldom add 'and taking away any of the bits of the archaeological evidence they fancy for themselves'). This artefact hunter used in this trip an application called Tect O Trak which plots the route taken around a field and shows the positions of any finds against the route. The results are disturbing. The artefact hunter traversed the field along six lines forming an irregular polygon (shaped like a phallus, which seems appropriate to this as a search method). If there had been a concentrated scatter of finds in  the centre of the field, it would have shown up on a plot as a thin line of finds, if the scatter had been in the top left corner, it would not have been 'detected' (so saved from her depredations, but also appearing as a negative in any analysis of settlement pattern which takes 'areas searched by detectorists' as its basis). It is obvious that even if Aurelia had found ten reportable finds that day and plotted every single one of them with microscopic accuracy, their bare distribution across that field produced by her penis-shaped search pattern would reveal absolutely nothing to the archaeologist coming to the PAS records not knowing the details of the search (context of discovery). The latter are data not recorded in the PAS database which works on an object-centred presence-absence basis.

So basically, there is ample and repetitive evidence out there in the public domain that known and potentially productive sites are being targeted by collectors who are looking for specific types of collectables, and either hoarding or discarding the rest without record, many (and unknown number) of sites are being emptied of the archaeological evidence, again without any record. And we are told that these people are 'partners' of archaeology and doing good. This is rubbish.

* A reader points out that the search pattern could equally be seen as a hammer form - for hammering the archaeological record into oblivion. I still associate it with those archaeologists who refuse to see the facts about artefact hunting in England and Wales and fail to draw the conclusion that this is something we need to be debating and raising social awareness about. 

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