Tuesday, 5 December 2017

UK Detectorists 'Strike Gold as British Museum Reveals Record Haul'

Grabby fingers
On St Barbara's day this year the British Museum announced that there were 1,120 treasure finds in 2016, the highest number since the revised Treasure Act came into law 20 years ago (Maev Kennedy Guardian 4 December 2017). St Barbara is the patron saint of miners and Britain's archaeological record is being mined for sparkling 'treasures' like no time before in its history. Over the past 20 years, 14,000 treasure finds have been reported under the act, of which 40% are in UK museums.

In addition to the Treasure stuff, the Guardian reports that 'there were 81,914 smaller archaeological finds [...] reported through a network of local finds officers across the country under the voluntary portable antiquities scheme'. So basically one in 80 artefacts reported were treasure. Who says they are 'not in it for the money'? Yet the HA artefact erosion counter suggests that in that same year, a minimum of some 300000 artefacts (and probably many more) will have been dug up by artefact hunters alone exploiting the archaeological record as a source of things to collect and sell. All the rest (290000 items)  just disappeared into collectors' pockets. And everybody at the BM yesterday knows that. Everybody, including the enthusiastic journalist who 'reported' the event, mentioning some human interest stories, but not much else.

She says soothingly:
Many of the items have almost no commercial value but contain great historic importance, helping to identify hundreds of sites and settlements.
No they do not. The show where things have been found and nothing else, the rest requires examination of those single finds in their context. As for the 'value' I suggest the Guardian's reporter goes and gets a couple of numbers of 'The Searcher' from her local newsagents (WH Smith carry it too) and just spends a few minutes looking on the 'valuation of yer finds' pages there. Even at ten to twelve quid a shout, 300 000 artefacts sum up to quite a bit of munny coming out of the ground into somebody's pockets. I bet the actual landowners whose land is being mined for these collectables never sees any of it - especially when the collection is sold off decades after it was accumulated - in most cases the finds are not labelled or associated with any paperwork showing the landowner's name even. These objects are coming out of our archaeological heritage into their pockets. Year after year. Where will it all end?

One obvious projection is that one day collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record by thousands of collectors will end in the substantial depletion of the accessible archaeological record of almost all diagnostic material (turning it into the decontextualised mass of material on the collectors' market).

The second, equally worrying, aspect is that as lawmakers apparently seriously consider shedding the  'polluter pays' approach to the management of the archaeological record , that same government can point out to the public that figures like these reported in the Guardian show that 'archaeological discoveries' are in no danger of decline due to these shifts in funding 'policy'.

Which brings us back to that question I have been banging on about, making a clear definition of what we mean by archaeology as opposed to just 'finding interesting things' .

1 comment:

kyri said...

heard this guy talking on radio 5 today.a profesional archeologists,
even the archeologists are at it. metal detecting in his spare time and dreaming of "making enough monry to put a deposit on a house"

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