Saturday, 1 June 2019

'Weekend Wanderers' Exploiting Google Earth to Destructively Exploit the Archaeological Record

There is a superficial ('two minute read') article in 'About Google' on 'How a metal detector and Google Earth are helping one man uncover the past' about Peter Welch, the organiser of the pay-to-dig 'Weekend Wanders'. It's supposed to be part of a series to show how important/relevant Google is to everybody. There is an (admittedly very well-produced) video to go with it.
Mr Welch claims that targeting sites on the basis of traces seen on Google Earth (oh, and presumably publicly available LIDAR plots too) is 'a window back in time, helping him discover centuries of history hidden beneath the surface of English farmlands' and put it in his pockets.
Peter has made thousands of discoveries, many of which were over 300 years old, including fragments of swords, ancient jewellery, even a Roman horseshoe, known as a 'hipposandal' – but nothing compares with Peter’s biggest find: a hoard of Saxon coins valued at over £1.5 million.
Those thousands of discoveries are thousands of pieces of archaeological evidence that can never be placed back in context. Thousands of fragments of evidence that are lost because he's dug them up to put in his personal collection - or discard unregarded if the collector so decides.
Peter [...] turned his hobby into a full-time gig in 1990, when he founded the Weekend Wanderers Metal Detecting Club. Peter arranges and leads experts and novices alike from around the world on metal-detecting excursions. It’s the biggest club of its kind in the UK. [...]  Although Peter has been doing this for decades, his success rate of uncovering historic finds has grown since the launch of Google Earth, which helps him research farmlands to search and saves him from relying on outdated aerial photography. In December 2014, Peter noticed a square mark in a field with Google Earth. It was in this area where the Weekend Wanderers discovered the £1.5 million cache of Saxon coins.* [...] While nothing yet matches that discovery in scale, there’s a lot of unexplored land that’s yet to be seen by a metal detectorist. 'You never know, we might strike it big again', Peter says. 'I’m pretty sure it won’t be long.'
That 'unexplored land that’s yet to be seen by a metal detectorist' is where the sites are still preserved, anywhere where they have been the evidence has been selectively, and largely clandestinely, hoiked away.

Of course what Google in their fluff piece do not say is that in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan,  and elsewhere, artefact hunters intent on doing a bit of illegal collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record there too can pinpoint the areas where they need to dig to find stuff. Why does Google not write about that too? It is just OK when middle-aged white men do it?

The Google video:

* Oh pleease: 'The coins are now on display in the Buckinghamshire County Museum, by order of the Queen’s decree'. But that's just the coins, the context has gone for ever.

Vignette: The Queen. 

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