Monday, 19 August 2019

Bottles and Metal, the Early History of Artefact Hunting in the UK

Leaving aside lithics (about which one could say a lot) and so-called 'high end antiquities', it's quite interesting to look at the early history of hobbyist artefact collecting in the UK, how did we get into the mess we are in? Yesterday I was playing with n-grams (here), and after I made that post, idly made another half-dozen. One however caught my interest and I thought I'd share it. It's about bottle collecting'. Who remembers bottle collecting? Who remembers walking along a leafy lane and finding huge holes and piles of earth and broken pottery and other material scattered around where this group of artefact hunters had been active? But (though there are still those who do it), it was largely a passing fad  - where are those bottle collections now? Will 'metal detecting' (and those ephemeral metal fragment collections) end up going the same way?

But let's look at some n-grams. This first one is just for the phrase 'bottle collecting'. It's fuzzy as I wanted to try and get US-English (top) and UK English (bottom) on a similar 'scale', but it does the job. We can see that according to the mentions in the literature of bottle digging started to increase in the US about 1962/3 and reached a peak in the period c. 1974-1980. Then there is a steep drop and mentions of the hobby were in declining numbers in the period 1980-1988.

Below is the UK evidence. Here the appearance of larger numbers of mentions comes only in 1968ish. But there is the same peak (but shorter-lived) 1972-77, then a similar pattern of drop off of mentions (1976-1985). As far as I know, this cannot be explained by the introduction of a new name for the hobby or hobbyists. It looks like this is a reflection of the observation that this was a '70s hobby. This diagram makes it look as if the hobby was introduced to the UK from the US (which I think it was) but the Brits got bored with it earlier - or ran out of accessible bottle dumps to dig.

In the second one, I tried to put two types of information together to see what would happen. Here we have 'bottle collecting' and 'metal detector' (so, both artefact hunting looking for different kinds of object) shown together and again, I've tried to adjust the scale. In these, the 'bottle collecting' peak is flattened out because there is a lot more in the literature of the period about 'metal detectors'. In the top histogram (US English) it looks like the increase in mentions of metal detecting starts a little later than bottle collecting (from 1969 basically) and just keeps going up, while the bottle-collecting theme drops off in popularity, metal detecting is being increasingly discussed in the literature.

The lower graph (UK English) seems to be hinting something else. It almost looks like both artefact hunting for bottles and with a metal detector come into the British public consciousness at the same time (c. 1969/1970), and initially the fortunes of metal detecting use follow those of the bottle dump digging hobby - so again we see a drop in both about 1976. But then, while bottle dump digging becomes passe, metal detecting suddenly becomes talked about again, and the peak starts climbing rapidly. It would be interesting to know why this was happening. The question concerns why there are downward perturbations seen in these graphs around 1976-1980. That they affect the US too means that they cannot be attributed to the CBA's STOP campaign, so what else was going on then? Incidentally, this was the period when I started taking an interest in artefact hunting and artefact hunters as an archaeological phenomenon (though at that stage I was not the critic I am today, so that can't be the reason either 😄).

Vignette: Bottle diggers

1 comment:

Hougenai said...

In my case, the egg collectors, bottle diggers and metal detectorists were one and the same. As a teenager I tended to hang about with kids in the village who were 3/4 years older than myself. They tended to have developed 'hobby's' as I started to hang about with them.

As a small village on an Island , there was a lot of contact with our environment and the older kids had developed an interest in the collection of birds eggs, with one in particular having quite an extensive collection (It was already illegal by 74, when I was 12). At about the same time, they'd started with stripping the local bottle dump or collecting ww2 artefacts eg bullets, shrapnel etc, with the egg collector being the main force in the bottle collecting. ( as for myself , I collected shells and stones from our local beaches ) . By the time we get to 76/77 metal detectors make their appearance and I remember going out at xmas with the guys who'd got them as presents. The main egg collector/bottle digger became the main detectorist and speaking on the street last year he still practices, generally by travelling to areas in the south east rather than locally.

Talking to older villagers, it seems as though egg collecting was a 'hobby' that was quite widespread amongst kids in our area from at least the war (even my dad used to do it as a kid. My only egg collection was to take a single egg from gull or duck nests for food, my grandad used to love them).

Basically, I wonder if the trends you have noted is simply a drift in fashion for the collection of 'things'. At the time our local municipal museum was full of stuffed animals , a collection of invertebrates and the like often donated by the town's previously good and great from the 19th C ( A skeleton in the Dock museum's cupboard is that they have extensive egg and bird collections ). It is almost as though 'Collecting' became part of our identity during the 18th /19th C ( I once worked doing survey of a collection of trees in Tortworth Arboretum , established as part of a bet by a Bristol shipping magnate in competition with what is now our National collection at Westonbirt).
On reflection, the collecting thing was apparent during the late 60's and 70's in other areas. The whole thing with petrol companies giving away 'collectables' eg Esso's 1970 England world cup team, the Brooke Bond 'Tea cards' of the 60's and early 70's. Cigarette cards of the 50's 60's.

It may be that you have touched on something worthy of a PhD level investigation. If you extended your n-gram searches to include other collecting areas it may be that the collection of cultural objects fit into a larger pattern of more general collecting behaviours that for some reason appeal to our psyche.

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