Saturday 12 July 2008

The Name of the Game: is "artefact hunter" an offensive label?

On the Council for British Archaeology's ‘britarch’ public discussion list is a recent post by a metal detector user from Sussex in which it is intimated that the term “artefact hunter” is an offensive label. Several other British archaeological forums have in the past agreed with this view and as a consequence in a bout of political correctness banned the use of the term. One of these forums was that of the Britain’s largest archaeological outreach, the Portable Antiquities Scheme (now closed) the other is the forum of BAJR (British Archaeological Jobs Resource). The British are apparently required to call these hobbyists “metal detectorists”. Over the other side of the Atlantic however relic hunters are not afraid to use the term, meteorite hunters use metal detectors and do not take umbrage if called meteorite hunters. So what’s the problem?
In Britain the hobby of looking for ancient artefacts with a metal detector from the 1970s onwards was initially called ‘treasure hunting’. This was the name given to Britain’s oldest hobby magazine. Such a name however suggested that the people with metal detectors were in it for the money, an image the hobby desperately wanted to play down once it was being highlighted by anti-collecting public information programmes (such as the CBA’s abortive STOP campaign).

The term “metal detecting” was suitably neutral, it sounded rather anorakish and harmless. As Andrew Gilchrist (2003) noted the name conjures up in the popular imagination a pastime which
is hardly regarded as rivetting; a hobby, perhaps, for people who find trainspotting too full-on”.
The problem is that there are many things one can do with a metal detector other than hoover up ancient metal artefacts from the archaeological record for entertainment or profit. Most of us meet metal detectors in airport check-ins, the foyers of public buildings. Are the people who operate them and interpret the results “metal detectorists”? Metal detectors are used by builders (to locate electric cables and pipes in walls), they are used in industry (to detect foreign objects in food). Some people use their metal detectors to hunt for meteorites in the desert, or gold in the mountains and would never dream of searching an ancient site. Others search beaches and places where public events have recently been held in order to gather up loose change and other dropped valuables. Some take part in token-hunting competitions, while others search the scenes of recent military activity to find collectable hardware. Metal detectors have many uses, and they are all “metal detecting”. The term used by the British in order to be politically-correct is ambiguous and imprecise. So ambiguous and imprecise in fact that it is a hindrance rather than an aid to discussion. That, of course is the main reason why portable artefact collectors want it to be the term used in discussions, and why they start to get a bit worried when people start calling them "artefact hunters". They pretend it is "offensive" - but never have explained in what way, but it does make explicit what they and their supporters want to play down.

I am all for calling a spade a spade. In the hobby that is (should be) of archaeological concern in Britain, this equipment is being used to hunt for artefacts, the hobby these people are engaged in is artefact hunting. The portable antiquities that are collected in Britain include more than just metal objects found with a metal detector, but flint tools, pottery, the occasional shale, jet, amber, stone, bone or glass object also find their way to private collections. This is all a cause for concern, not just the part of the hunting for collectables which is electronically aided. Metal detecting is nothing more or less than artefact hunting. But as Jerome Hall noted in his seminal article, calling a spade a spade is not something the artefact hunting and collecting milieu is very good at.

Andrew Gilchrist 2003: ‘There's gold in them there hills', The Guardian, Nov. 17

Jerome Hall 2007: 'The Fig and The Spade: Countering the deceptions of treasure hunters. AIA Archaeology Watch.

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