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 ­čśä).

Vignette: Bottle diggers

Sunday, 18 August 2019

n-gramming Collecting

Google Books n-gram ( is an interesting tool, even if it does only go up to 2008. But it has some telling results. Look at this (detectorist/metal detectorist):

So, according to this, the topic began to be talked about using the term 'detectorist' rather than 'treasure hunter' around 1986/1987. Here are some more (the word looter however could mean a lot of things other than one who raids archaeological sites):

and this one:
but what about this (in a different timespan)? Why does it abruptly start about 1963 and remain at a low level until 1984, and then suddenly take off like that? Why is there that downswing 1999-2003?

('ancient art collecting' remains pretty stable and much more prevalent over the same period).

Here's the bottle collecting/digging fashion shown (and relic hunting):
Note that I have conflated US and UK English, you can separate them out and the patterns differ from each other.

I am not sure if these 'mean' anything, but they are of interest - and provoke questions.

Fifty Years Ago

It was fifty years ago this influential article came out, initiating archaeological concern about artefact hunting and collecting Clemency Coggins, 'Illicit Traffic of Pre-Columbian Antiquities', Art Journal Volume 29, 1969 - Issue 1, pp 94-114 :
In the last ten years there has been an incalculable increase in the number of monuments systematically stolen, mutilated and illicitly exported from Guatemala and Mexico in order to feed the international art market. Not since the sixteenth century has Latin America been so ruthlessly plundered.

Can Recreational Removal of Cave Art be “Responsible”?

Banksy cans mural
Heritage Action ask 'Can recreational removal of cave art be “responsible”?' They make a very valid point, one that it seems until now has been totally lost on the British archaeologists that support private collecting and the PAS
The Portable Antiquities Scheme website tells detectorists their finds are often the only evidence for human activity which, once removed, will be lost. Therefore. detectorist must report their finds and if they do they’ll be “responsible”. But look at this fellow. He’s removing the only evidence of human activity. If he reports what he’s removing will he be responsible? Hardly. The term “responsible detecting” is as false and misleading to the public as would be the term “responsible cave art removal”.
The reason for this is (and should be 'obviously') two-fold. First no mere record, no matter how detailed a find may be measured, weighed (eh?) and how many photos are taken with a scale can be a full record of every aspect of that object. Secondly, stripping the upper layers of pigment off a rock face and mounting them on a canvas for display in a gallery (like putting a Roman brooch in a little plastic box with Styrofoam padding) may save some aspects of the form of the object, but not its actual setting on an uneven rock wall, precisely placed at a particular height, angle to the light, visibility from other parts of the cave and in relation to other images and features as well as the interior spaces themselves. These are an integral part of the 'reading' of that image.

In fact, the case is especially well made by the May 2008 Banksy Leake Street, London mural used by HA to make the point. The nature of this work, its subject matter, symbolism and its history cannot be properly understood without knowing not only its spatial context, but also its artistic context in the place where it was created. Nor can it be 'read' in the same way in its sterile portableised form.

In the same way as an archaeological find cannot be 'read' as a single 'image from the past', but as part of a complex context that comprises not just an 'x-marks-the-spot' location, but a series of associations and interactions with other types of archaeological evidence of which it is just one part. So-called “responsible detecting” can never be responsible unless it fully takes those factors into account. When are the PAs going to get round to explaining that to the hoiking acquisitive oiks with metal detectors?

Saturday, 17 August 2019

Not Ok on Iceland - The Vanished Past and a Letter to the Future

Okjokull sat atop the volcano Ok northeast of
the Icelandic capital Reykjavik (Josh Okun)
There was a glacier on the slopes of a volcano northeast of Reykjavik in Iceland that has totally disappeared in the last five years due to environmental change. A plaque has been erected on its site (Toby Luckhurst, 'Iceland's Okjokull glacier commemorated with plaque',  BBC News 18th August 2019).
A Letter to the Future
Ok is the first Icelandic glacier to lose its status as glacier. 
In the next 200 years all our main glaciers
are expected to follow the same path. 
This monument is to acknowledge that we know
what is happening and what needs to be done. 
 Only you know if we did it.
The dedication, written by Icelandic author Andri Snaer Magnason, ends with the date of the ceremony and the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air globally - 415 parts per million (ppm).
 "You think in a different time scale when you're writing in copper rather than in paper," Mr Magnason told the BBC. "You start to think that someone actually is coming there in 300 years reading it. 

Oddur Sigurdsson, glaciologist at the Icelandic Meteorological Office points out that as part of the landscape
Glaciers have great cultural significance in Iceland and beyond. [...] "The world that we learned how it was, learned by heart as some kind of eternal fact, is not a fact any more." [...] "The oldest Icelandic glaciers contain the entire history of the Icelandic nation," he added. "We need to retrieve that history before they disappear".
and here we think of Oetzi and other finds preserved in permafrost across the globe.

Can We Ignore Changes in Our Environment?

Well, yes we "can" ignore changes in our environment, but the implications are disturbing. This July was the hottest month ever recorded. The climate emergency is intensifying month by month, day by day. Every bit of warming matters.

"Stories Can be Told Across the Chasm of Years"

David Barnett ('Real-life detectorists: The metal hunters who are digging up a treasure trove of British history', Independent 16 November 2017) interviewed a Cambridgeshire detectorist, Steve Critchley former chairman of the National Council for Metal Detecting, who has been metal detecting for 40 years. Among other gems, we learn this:
Metal detecting is an often solitary, slow pastime, which more often than not turns up little more than a few buttons or a sewing needle. But wait, for in such innocuous items buried in the soil, there’s a picture of an England lost to time. Buttons, hairclips, loose change – that’s what detectorists like Critchley call “casual losses”. Things not buried deliberately, but just accidentally discarded. And through such finds, stories can be told across the chasm of years. “Imagine finding a bit of loose change, then some more further along, and some more,” says Critchley. “Then it emerges that there was probably a path across this field at some point in the past. Or say you find some buttons. You can imagine men working the field on a hot day, taking off their waistcoat, a button pinging off. A little further away you’ll perhaps find a needle, lost by one of the farm-worker’s wives who sat at the edge of the field, sewing, while the men worked”. These are visions of a time long gone that will never be turned up by professional archaeological digs, which mainly take place at sites where there is some hard evidence of a major find, or at the behest of commercial developers who are requested to carry out a historical survey before commencing work on a new housing estate. Minor they might seem, but all the same, the army of detectorists – especially those who, like Critchley, log and extrapolate their data – are uncovering and preserving our very history.
Unless of course the field is subject to a fieldwalking survey as part of a landscape archaeology project, in which case he and his fellows will have stripped the site of a large (but unknown) proportion of the diagnostic artefacts. Just imagine.

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