Sunday, 30 December 2018

CBA Newsletter Writes on 'Metal Detecting' [UPDATED]

"I've found lots of gold, it's always wonderful'
Karen Till BDMDC

The latest number of British Archaeology has a thought-provoking article in the section called 'my archaeology'. It is an interview with an artefact hunter. Readers who know me would expect me to be fuming about that, collecting historical artefacts of metal is not in any way archaeology. But that I'll leave aside now because I am intrigued by 'what the author [apparently] had in mind' - by which I mean the interviewer.

Up to now the CBA has had a pretty laissez faire attitude to Collection-Driven Exploitation of the archaeological record with the use of metal detectors, but this article seems to me to have a hidden message - coming on the wake of the RESCUE policy document, that might be good news. Or is it just a temporary aberration in a two-decades long spate of the CBA shying away from rocking the boat when it comes to Collection-Driven Exploitation of the Archaeological Record (which the CBA call 'metal detecting' and continually represent as some warped form of self-serving 'archaeology for all').

The text is called 'Walking across history, absolute history' (CBA British Archaeology magazine Jan-Feb 2019 number, page twelve), and you wonder what the writer of the text (Mike Pitts) had in mind quoting that adjective - is it used here in the sense 'not qualified or diminished in any way' (like directly received, not through 'book learning')? It seems to me that the writer might be tongue-in-cheek from the very beginning. 

The full-page text is an interview with Karen Till, chair of the Brentwood and District metal Detecting Club in Essex. The lady (calls herself a 'chairman') is reportedly in her early sixties and started detecting ten years ago because she had nothing else to do, it says.  She had started artefact hunting in her teens (so, early 1970s probably), gave it up and then started again (she says) after watching the 'Detectorists' comedy TV series. The article's tagline reads 'She'd be outside searching every day, if she could'. Of the club itself, she says: ' We have a monthly club meeting, we should have 80 to 90 people there. we're a very popular club, about 130 [...]' and they have a waiting list. So how many finds does the Essex FLO get to record from the monthly haul of those 130 people and what do they mean? How successful is the PAS approach being in instilling 'responsibility' and 'best practice'? The perspective of this club is telling. After talking about the fantastic venue they have for the monthly meetings of over 100 tekkies and the new projector for slides, she blurts out:
'We have  an expert who comes as well, he's a dealer. He sits in a corner and people ask for things to be ID'ed, and if they are interested in selling (sic) he'll offer them a price. A finds liaison officer (sic) comes every three months, although we're trying out a new system where one of our members is taking the Flo's (sic) place and she'll be liaising with them. [Italicisation in original]
Wow. Well that is not how the PAS is supposed to be working, is it? So, basically what goes into the PAS database are the dregs, collectables that the dealer did not want. What on earth is happening over there in Darkest Essex? (I have to be careful discussing metal detecting policy in my home county, my local FLO might have the police on me again for discussing it: Another PAS 'Liaison' First). How persuasive the PAS drive to get 'best practice', once every three months can be judged by the further comments: 
'People in our club range (sic) enormously. You've got the old timers in their 70s and 80s. This was their club for 30 years and suddenly these youngsters are coming in. They're very suspicious. They would never put anything in the finds cabinet. When they started detecting, there was no Portable Antiquities Scheme, and what you found you kept, you know? You'll never, ever change them'. 
Also: "Nighthawks do exist, we've probably even got some in our club. It is totally frowned upon and people are very very wary" [of what is not quite explained, perhaps of putting things in finds cabinets].  She claims that, in contrast to the oldies, the 'newbies' will 'do absolutely everything right. They want to report everything to the Flo (sic). They want everything ID'ed [...] they are the future'. She does not explain whether its the oldies that go to the dealer, or whether the newbies in their haste to get 'everything IDed', will ask the dealer for their opinion on the days the FLO is absent. But the club's chair herself...
'I am in the middle, I report Treasure items, I'm not so good at other things, mainly because of time and logistics. That's my concern [...]'.
Well, in fact it is everyone's. She's taking stuff for herself and by not allowing it to be properly recorded, she is stealing (no other word for it - thought the Ixelles gang wants to represent it as 'borrowing')  archaeological knowledge from everyone else. So, in fact Ms Till is basically acting like the irresponsible Old-Timers' she has just criticised. So she reports only what she's obliged to by law (and there's a reward for that). Irrespective of that the interviewer allows her to start being preachy:
'I think there is so much being missed. It's coins.  Coins are so important, because they actually show that people walked across that particular land, that era of people were there. What was he (sic) doing? Where was he (sic) going?'
Reminder, this is darkest Essex, not the surface of the Moon. The presence of man in the past in Essex is shown by so much more than dropped small change - the very landscape itself and the field boundaries, hedgerows and much else are ample proof of that if you know how to read them. But apparently Ms Till needs a coin with somebody's picture and name on it to feel that  "that era of people were there". Pathetic. PAS, where is your 'outreach' leading? After her object-fuelled romanticised musings about past lives, the coin fondler goes on:
'But people just dont bother about single coins. More could be done to encourage detectorists to record them, but I don't think the Flos (sic) would ever cope. There'd be so much more (sic) markers on the archaeological map if more coins were actually recorded, but how you get that, I don't know'.
By apparently focussing on finding and reporting - or not - coins, Ms Till and her 130 members, 'walking across history, absolute history' are blithely walking across and walking into but missing a whole lot of information about the sites they are hoiking and pocketing from. Most archaeological site assemblages produce vast artefactual assemblages, of which those of metal are often only a fraction (oddly enough, actual statistics on this are pretty elusive) and of these coins will be a smaller fraction. Yet if we look at the PAS database we find that there are some 670,000 coins on the PAS database (that's about half the database!). I've talked recently about this here: 'The Archaeological Values of the PAS Database (VI): Hauntings, Heads on Poles, Imaginary Data and Clipping, Reporting Archaeological Artefacts PAS-Style' .   As an archaeologist, Mike Pitts, and all the archaeologist readers of the BA magazine will be well aware that the archaeological evidence from the sites the BDMDC hoik collectable from consists of much, much, more than showing 'that people walked across that particular land, that era of people were there' through one specific class of artefact (dropped or deposited small change). Though money may be central to the mindsets of many Brits today, there is more to the past than that.

But that brings us to commercial artefact hunts. Ms Till talks about a 'club dig' they held at an undisclosed location - they had a search and take agreement with the landowner for 77 acres (just over 30 hectares) and there were 38 people ('you could barely see somebody [sic], it was so big') and they were using facebook to communicate across the field. But 38 people scattered randomly over an area that size is not going to allow a systematic search and even coverage, so any pattern of finds from plotting them is only going to reflect the collecting activity and not the nature of the underlying patterning of archaeological evidence across that area - which is therefore being destroyed with no meaningful record. 
An uncoordinated commercial artefact grabfest - site destruction in progress

On the matter of the commercialisation of artefact grabbing, Ms Till says:
 'we are happy to pay to detect. A lot of people do it to make money. I'm happy to keep it maybe half the price of what everybody else is charging and give the whole lot to the landowner. We have agreements with all of our farmers, so that anything over the  value of  £500 which is not treasure is split 50/50 [...] Anybody can make money from detecting. look on eBay, you'll see the proof. Some guy has found 60 hammered coins within two to three months. He'll keep the best ones, but the others will be sold. He might get ten to 20 quid for them and that bit of history has gone [...]"
So 'we' are not in it for the money, but lots are, in fact. Everybody knows, everybody pretends. 

The article should perhaps have been titled: 'Walking off with history....'.

UPDATE 30th Dec 2018

I'll just put this reply up here, make of it what you will in the context of what's above:
Hi Paul, pleased you enjoyed the new British Archaeology! I won't comment on what the interviewee says as she speaks for herself, but note that i'm not "the author". The words are all Karen Till's, and I talked to her because she speaks well for many we should listen to more.

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