Monday, 8 September 2008

UK metal detector users get militant

There are two major artefact hunting and collecting organizations in Great Britain. The Federation of Independent Detectorists (FID) split away in the early 1980s from the National Council for Metal Detecting (NCMD). In contrast to the NCMD, it has a rather ‘anti-establishment’ approach, and focuses many of its activities on highlighting “threats to the independence” of its members and opposing them. The siege mentality of this group is well illustrated by the news items it releases. In the latest update (July 2008) we learn that the British government is having difficulty finding increasing numbers of thousands of pounds to allow the Portable Antiquities Scheme unlimited expansion and this would lead to the scheme losing jobs. The FID interpretation of this is telling:
Although relations with detectorists have been mixed and often not worked in the interests of either the hobby or landowners, it has stopped further moves to ban or hamper detecting with extra regulation. […] Only time will tell what the eventual outcome will be. We should all be prepared in case of 'bad news' and be ready to lobby hard if this should prove to be the case.”
The next news item is about the National Trust policy document “Metal Detecting on National Trust land” (apparently in existence since at least 2003, so hardly “news”) is described as a “Typically Negative Atitude (sic)”. This policy is of course concerned with preserving the heritage values of National Trust land, instead the FID artefact hunters characterize this policy as having arisen due to “those small minded people who cannot behave in an adult manner who try undermine the good work of detectorists and archaeologists alike”. They add disingenuously “It is well to remember that the past belongs to everyone not just any particular small minority interest”. Quite, and the aim of the National Trust of course is of course to preserve those heritage values (“for ever, for everyone”) so they can be managed for everyone’s benefit and not stripped away by some selfish individuals to add to some garden shed collection or sold on ebay.

The big 'shock-horror’ online news story of the summer was however headlined “Heritage – up to the same old tricks?” which emerges from the realisation that the grassroots heritage organization Heritage Action have a web page dedicated to the erosive effects of the hobby of artefact hunting and collecting with metal detectors. Part of it is a clever little clock ticking away showing how many recordable archaeological artefacts a conservative estimate indicates have been taken from the UK archaeological record since the hobby began in the 1970s. This time last year it passed a staggering ten million items showing the scale of erosion to the archaeological heritage of Britain that is caused by a few thousand hobbyists.*

The accompanying text makes clear the problem. Although collectors are taking away so many items, very few of them are being reported to archaeological bodies and therefore any information that accompanied their discovery is completely and irretrievably lost. In the time since the PAS was set up, the counter shows that nearly three and a half million objects have been taken by metal detector using collectors, and yet in that period PAS and the Scottish Treasure Trove Unit have had reported to them something like one tenth of that number of objects. According to these figures therefore, ninety percent of the finds made with a metal detector by artefact hunters and collectors in UK fields are just disappearing into domestic and foreign ephemeral personal collections without any record being made. Heritage Action call on those concerned to remedy this situation.

The FID artefact hunters see the problem differently. They label this as merely “heritage propaganda” put out by “the archaeological fraternity, their friends in museums, universities and even governments” who “have tried their very best to either outlaw or control the hobby” (does this account of whom these collectors regard themselves as up against sound familiar?)

The FID take comfort in the fact that “well known and respected author Edward (Ted) Fletcher […] is still fighting for our survival in the here and now”. Mr Fletcher announces:

I hope to launch a similar internet site dedicated to countering the propaganda put out by Heritage Action; and ensuring that the media, politicians, tax payers, landowners, farmers and anyone thinking of taking up metal detecting as a hobby, have easy access to the true facts about the heritage industry. Those who run Heritage Action are totally dedicated to the destruction of the metal detecting hobby. They cannot be deflected from that task by appeasement ... by cow-towing ... by keeping a low profile.
The author concludes that:
The only way to beat them is to hit hard with the facts they do not want excavated and brought to the attention of the media. I can do that ... but not without help from you with the costs of research, which involves travel to and from archives, as well as laborious searches of archaeological records and journals over many, many years.
”There then follows an appeal for funds.

We wonder how much money Mr Fletcher has received to counterattack what he labels “the heritage industry”. What is however interesting is Mr Fletcher, though he obviously regards these numbers produced by Heriage Action as some kind of threat to the image of metal detecting, does not say he is going to set out to prove that the figures presented in the erosion counter are wrong. He is not going to attempt to prove that it is not true that ninety percent of UK detector-made finds are unrecorded. Instead he is going to try to dig up some dirt on the whole “heritage industry”. He announces he is going to pore over archives, and conduct “laborious searches of archaeological records and journals over many, many years” to uncover and disseminate through the media facts which he is sure that heritage professionals will find embarrassing. What is not clear however is quite what he thinks this will achieve.

It is also less than clear why he does not see that his aims and those of the organization he imagines he will damage by such activity are so far from one another. Heritage Action itself is dedicated to showing where the professional, government, response to threats to the heritage is totally (in the view of its members) inadequate to the task. Mr Fletcher could therefore start his search on their webpage as their aim and his seem related. The problem for Mr Fletcher is that Heritage Action shows that the British government response to artefact hunting and collecting and the illicit antiquities trade in Britain is indeed completely inadequate and much is being lost without record. Maybe, however, instead of attacking heritage concern organizations who point this out, Mr Fletcher and the FID should be considering instead what they could be doing to remedy this.

* The Heritage Action counter and the figures on which it is based were consulted with the author of this blog who has been actively researching UK “metal detecting” for some years. Since the counter was installed, new evidence has come to light which shows that this estimate is in fact far too conservative, the true numbers turn out to be even higher (publication in prep/forthcoming).

1 comment:

Paul Barford said...

For Heritage Action's reaction to Mr Fletcher's "threat" see the text "Heritage Action Nuzzled by a Dead Sheep": ...

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