Thursday 27 November 2008

The Heritage Action Erosion Counter

Heritage Action is a grassroots organization seeking a better deal for Britain's archaeological mouments and landscapes, a group of volunteers passionately interested in the historic heritage and trying to take action against those, especially goverment bodies and institutions, that seem to be neglecting the duty to look after them. One of the topics of their recent concern is government policy towards artefact hunting and collecting, damaging archaeological sites in Britain on a worrying scale with very little being done by the authorities to prevent it. In his comments to my post ("making it sustainable ...") on this blog Roger Bland, Head of the UK's Portable Antiquities Scheme asks:

Equally, how can anyone put any credence into Heritage Action's Artefact Erosion Counter when the basis on which it is calculated is not stated? 316,000 finds a year? How impressive to be so certain on so little evidence. For you simply to say that you believe it to be accurate is hardly adequate.
[The Erosion Counter under discussion can be found here at the moment it stands at some 3,478,000 'recordable' objects that have been collectively removed from the archaeological record since the start of the Portable Antiquities Scheme].

Well, I would like to hear Roger Bland's own best estimate on the number of 'recordable' artefacts that are being taken by artefact hunters (let us say just those using metal detectors) in England and Wales year by year and on what basis he arrives at his estimate. Is it possible to learn that after a decade or more and eight million quid's worth of liaison by the PAS? After not one but three separate 'independent reviews' of the Scheme's operation? It seems a pretty fundamental question to me. Too important to say "we have no idea, but one day we might".

I believe the Heritage Action Erosion counter figures are far more useful as a basis for discussion of current policies than the government's eight million pound "we don't know yet".

As Roger Bland knows only too well (!), I have been concerned about the scale of the erosion of the UK archaeological record due to artefact hunting and collecting for some years. Since no real figures seemed to exist in the context of which to examine the 'propaganda of success' that the pro-collecting lobby was putting out (concerning number of items recorded through the PAS for example), and nobody seemed keen to try and determine this, I took an interest in this problem and have been trying to determine this myself. A few years ago, after constant frustration of attempts to obtain such figures from the PAS and pro-collecting lobby in archaeology, I formed a small informal working group (now no longer active) called EAHAR (Effects of Artefact Hunting on the Archaeological Record) where we discussed this. The erosion counter grew out of these discussions.

I should perhaps admit that to some extent I was involved in the creation of the Heritage Action counter (though it is not by any means my own work or based solely on information I gathered) and I know how much thought and work of a number of dedicated volunteers passionately interested in conserving Britain's historic record actually went into it. I need not add that it did not cost the taxpayer a penny, but addresses questions that bodies that do should have been answering about the common archaeological heritage and how it is being "managed" (which in this case seems a loose use of the term).

A second point that needs to be made with regard Roger Bland's disparaging remarks is that the HA website is one doing “outreach” and not in itself an academic publication. The basis on which the erosion counter is calculated and the underlying definitions are all laid out in the book which Nigel Swift and I have written and will hopefully be out soon. I am sure they will then be well and truly scrutinised. My hope is that they will then be replaced by an even more firm estimate. I should add that in the course of work on the book after Heritage Action had set the Erosion Counter ticking away, we were led to the realisation that there were other factors not initially taken into account which should have led to the rate being set even higher. But as it says on the webpage, it is deliberately a conservative estimate of the erosion caused by the removal of artefacts from the archaeological record by metal detector using artefact hunters.*

I really do not see why Roger Bland scoffs at "316000 objects" a year. It is not a great amount if he himself accepts that there could be up to ten thousand detectorists in England and Wales alone. That’s just 31 objects a year each, a handful of Roman “grots”, a buckle or two, a hammered coin and some other bits. That’s not actually very much at all. There are artefact hunters on PAS who have (they say) recorded a thousand items in the last three years - 300 a year (Pete Twinn the Bristol detectorist who Kate Clark spent a lot of time talking to asserts that is the case with his finds). There are 'highlights' from metal detectorists' collections on UKDFD which show that individual detectorists have many more found in the course of a year. There’s the profoundly disturbing Mike Pegg video referred to on this blog a few months back with his “shedfull” of artefacts. There were the four guys (the video pulled from You Tube immediately after I drew attention to it here) who went on a metal detecting weekend in Suffolk and despite it being wet and horrible each proudly displayed a haul greater than thirty recordable items from just one weekend. There are many cases of personal artefact collections which contain more than thirty new recordable items added annually, especially if the searcher has found a "productive" site, like a Roman settlement or Early Medieval cemetery.

Of course at the other end of the scale are the dozens of sad individuals that plug away at the hobby and despite going out in all weathers for hours on end manage to find one or two things a year. There are a lot of them in the hobby, many of them probably only go out to meet other people they can talk to in a field at rallies and so on. Then there are many who fall between these extremes. What we need is a much greater amount of precision about artefact hunting and collecting patterns. I believe the Heritage Action counter takes these factors fully into consideration.

As things stand at the moment I believe the Heritage Action Erosion Counter is a relatively accurate reflection of the loss to the British archaeological record due to artefact hunting and collecting.

Supporters of the PAS scoff at the figures, but (as did Roger Bland just now) omit to address the second part of the question I ask about it. Even if the supporters of a "partnership" with artefacts and hunters think these figures are "wrong" (as they must in order to save face), then by how much must these figures be "wrong" to make the situation an acceptable one? Twenty percent, thirty, fifty? This is a question to which I would like to hear the answer.

The PAS and its former Fifth Aim

In 2003 the aims and objectives of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (operating since 1997) were formalized. There were just five of them. The last was
To define the nature and scope of a scheme for recording portable antiquities in the longer term, to access the likely costs and to identify resources to enable it to be put into practice.
Just a few years later, on page 9 of the 2005/6 annual report it was announced bluntly “The final aim […] has been achieved”. This was indeed a surprising statement if one regards just one of the several purposes of the PAS is to record the many items being deliberately and with pre-meditation taken from the archaeological record weekly by several thousand artefact hunters year by year. The PAS has clearly not been achieving full mitigation of the erosion caused by this single cause of the significant long term depletion of the British archaeological record. It also seems to me that it has a very long way to go in doing so. Furthermore it is clear that meeting this need would be a very costly exercise, so the curious may have wondered where the resources to put this in practice were emvisaged. On the announcement of the news that these resources had been identified, we all looked forward to the release of the details.

They never came. Whatever the PAS had decided about these costs and how they were likely to be met was kept out of the public domain.

The PAS however had not achieved their fifth aim. They had not assessed the longer term costs of a scheme for recording the thousands of individual pieces of archaeological evidence removed annually to scattered ephemeral personal portable antiquity collections by British artefact hunters. They never did let on where it was they identified the source of the considerable amounts of money needed to do the job properly – in other words the PAS did they reveal on whom they wished to unload the costs of legitimizing and coping with the erosive hobby of a minority - or why they should foot the bill.

More recently a review was commissioned to look at the same problem. The publication of the results of the review process identified the source of the funding to keep the Scheme operating more or less at the same level. Basically in addition to central funds, it requires the local partners each to give to the financing of the Scheme twice as much money as before. A few limply-phrased words about ”partnership” and so on are intended to convince local authorities of the necessity of doing this (at the expense of other local needs of course).

The point is however that current policies concerning artefact hunting and collecting in England and Wales do not need a PAS that is standing still, one that is merely treading water to create the impression that one day the problem of the erosion of the British archaeological record due to artefact hunting, collecting and commerce can be fully resolved. We need a PAS which is going to reach all those thousands of finds that are annually being removed from the archaeological record by artefact collectors and get reliable archaeologically-usable information from them. That’s going to cost a lot more than adding another few percent on a local authority’s already slim culture budget. The big question though is why? Why should everybody be forking out to support the hobby of an erosive minority?

Meeting the Needs of Researchers in Museums

David Dawson draws attention to a report released online by the Research Information Network which addresses the problem of how museums can better support the needs of researchers including those interested in examining archaeological objects in the reserve collections.There are a number of recommendations which impinge on topics which have been raised by collectors of portable antiquities in their rhetoric extolling the academic advantages of the "in a heap on my table" model over the "locked away in reserve collections in museum basements".

Two of them are of particular interest in this context.
The first is that the report says that all museums and other collections should make the research data in their content management systems available online as soon as possible, without waiting until backlogs are cleared or records improved to levels of perceived 'perfection'.
The other is that museums and other collections should develop and publish (for example on their websites) a 'researchers' charter', including clear policies on the arrangements for visits by researchers and covering other areas such as the support and facilities available for browsing collections, handling objects, sampling and testing, and loans. As an example, Dawson draws attention to the webpage for researchers of the Wiltshire Heritage Museum.
The report also recommends putting information about the collections online. Dawson reports that the above-mentioned museum found this to be relatively straightforward and inexpensive and that jt paid for itself in terms of staff time saved in answering enquiries and has made the collections better known.

Tuesday 25 November 2008

Does Scotland have a "metal detecting" problem?

Scotland is a huge and culturally advanced country lying to the north of England, it has a population of over 5 100 000. As we all know, under Scottish law all portable antiquities of archaeological, historical or cultural significance are subject to claim by the Crown through the Treasure Trove system and must be reported. It is interesting to look at Appendix 4 ("Finders who reported finds in this reporting year") listed in the latest Scottish Treasure Trove Report. How many people reported archaeological finds as the law demands? A massive 31 people, a total which includes "metal detectorists" and non-"metal detecting" members of the public. The reporting metal detectorists of Scotland are not enough to even fill a bus to Edinburgh.

Now there are some gentle-folk who suggest helpfully that if there was a Scottish PAS they'd become "educated" and encouraged to report.

The idea of extending the "community engagement" and "partnership" of the PAS to the metal detectorists of Scotland is not really a good idea. Outreaching to a group that appear to be guilty of law-breaking on a mass scale by offering them the opportunity to report finds voluntarily would rightly make Britain an international laughing stock.

Torah Story raises questions

A while ago I wrote on a Torah which news reports suggest was illegally exported from Iraq by US servicemen apparently at the instigation of Rabbi Youlos of the US-based Save a Torah Foundation. Enquiries sent at the time to the military unit allegedly involved (82nd Airborne) have failed to elicit a response. My interest however was piqued by another exploit of Youlos (dubbed by an admiring press “the Indiana Jones of Rabbis”), this time on my own patch in central Europe which raises more question about the activities of this Foundation.

In a recent article by James Baron “From Auschwitz, a Torah as Strong as Its Spirit” New York Times April 30, 2008 ) we read about how Youlos claims he dug up a Torah from among the remains of the historic Jewish cemetery in Oswiecim, the place infamous as the site of the Nazi camp of Auschwitz, a site with which I am very familiar.

Youlos claims he went to the Polish town in late 2000 or early 2001, in search of the Torah from the Auschwitz synagogue and had a hunch it was buried in a metal box in the cemetery, so he hunted the area with a metal detector. He found nothing but then did some archival research (after the fact!) and found (online) land records that showed that the boundary of the cemetery visible today was “far smaller than the original one”. So Rabbi Youlus says he went back in 2004 with his metal detector and it “beeped as he passed a house that had been built after World War II. He dug near the house and found the metal box”. The story continues that a Catholic priest who had been a prisoner in the camp had been keeping four fragments missing from the scroll and miraculously contacted Youlos to give them to him (the newspaper article reports that Youlos says the priest has since died). Youlos took the scroll and the four fragments to the States where they were restored and then sold to a businessman David M. Rubenstein who donated them to a New York synagogue. Rubenstein is a co-founder of the Carlyle Group and was No. 165 on the Forbes 400 last year with a reported fortune of $2.5 billion; readers may remember that in December last year he paid $21.3 million for a copy of the Magna Carta. So a good contact then for purveyors of historic scrolls with a story.

This story however seems to have a number of glaring holes in it. First of all, it is not clear which Oswiecim synagogue this scroll is purported to come from. The one from the main one I believe has been saved and is in use in it today. Secondly anyone using a metal detector in Poland to seek old things in the ground, whether Jewish or not, has to have a permit from the provincial curator of historical monuments. A friend of mine who works in this department checked this out for me and told me that no individual or group received any such permit in 2000, 2001 or 2004 to do any such work. Since he says he was digging in the cemetery in the winter (dumb time to come to frosty Poland to do fieldwork anyway), anyone seen grave robbing with a metal detector and digging in in an old cemetery on the outskirts of this quite sizeable town would in any case be spotted from the road and probably would have been reported, but no reports of such criminal activity on this historic site were noted in the past decade. So if these items were dug up in the place and manner the finder says they were, the act was an illegal one. The Rabbi would be guilty of looting and the purchaser who failed to ask to see the requisite permits is guilty of buying looted items. But is that the case? When looking into this I came across some comments on a Polish historians' discussion forum referring to articles in the US press on this and questioning the whole account, as nobody in Oswiecim today knows anything at all about this (sadly, I did not note it down at the time and I cannot now find the link, perhaps it was an ephemeral website).

Another question I would address to Mr Rubenstein is whether he actually saw the export licence that would be needed legally to export five fragments of pre-War Torah scrolls out of Poland. The law in Poland is perfectly clear about the need for such a docment for such items. Such a document not only would confirm the legality of the purchase involving tens of thousands of dollars, but would also be confirmation of the origin of the items concerned within Poland. Given the several doubts about this story, what proof was offered to the purchaser of the legitimacy of the claims of the finder and seller of these items?

Some Thoughts on the New Portable Antiquities Scheme (the 2008 PAS Review) : NuPAS 1

The Portable Antiquities Scheme was set up in 1997 to serve three main purposes.

The first was to ensure that accidental finds made by non-archaeologists, members of the public going about their everyday activities, were reported so that the information they reveal about previously undiscovered sites could be added to the Historic Environment Record (then called “Sites and Monuments Records”). This is what Art. 2iii of the Valetta Convention sees as an essential part of creating a legal system for the protection of the archaeological heritage.
The second as part of this process was to provide mitigation for the erosion of the archaeological record caused by “metal detecting” (the deliberate exploitation of the archaeological record as a source of collectables for entertainment and profit). As such therefore it was intended as a manner of managing the depletion of the record through this activity. Due to the strong opposition of the “metal detecting” lobby, Britain did not feel able to make the reporting of finds mandatory; it assumed persuasion would be enough.
A third and no less important function was to act as a medium for education the public about archaeology and the importance of the archaeological heritage and involving them in its management. The Scheme was set up as “British archaeology’s largest public outreach”, intended to promote archaeological awareness, and instill best practice in addition to its functions recording archaeological objects found by members of the public and passing the information on to the HERs to be used in planning, research and conservation programmes.

The Scheme has operated for over a decade and has been the subject of debate, not least on how to sustainably fund it to a level suitable to the tasks ahead of it. A review was commissioned to look at the ten years’ work and define future directions. The final text by Kate Clark Associates based at Wotton under Edge, Gloucestershire has now appeared.

To characterize this review merely as a disappointment would in my view be an understatement. The author basically has in fact not reviewed the past decade of operation of the Scheme in the various areas in any detail. Neither has she presented various options available and assessed each of them in any detail before reaching her recommendations. These largely coincide with what (as was leaked earlier to quell the mounting tide of criticism of the MLA and central government coming from the portable antiquity collecting lobby) was already being discussed in the MLA. The structure of the document suggests that its author to some extent tailored her arguments to lead to recommendations that this should be the case. I pointed out one of these here, I include what seems to be another clear example below (here).

The Review recommends making changes in the levels of activity and funding of the scheme aiming to facilitate its delivery in the future in the most cost-efficient manner, and render it sustainable. In doing so the author revises the underlying objectives of the scheme. The latter involve such substantial changes that if adopted the ensuing entity fully deserves the name “New PAS” (NuPAS) clearly distinguishing its activities and function from those of the previous decade. The new proposals dilute many of those features that made the old PAS (at least in theory) an ally of archaeological resource conservation.

Normally a policy review of this magnitude and its recommendations would be the subject of comment and discussion in the archaeological world. There is however nothing “normal” in the approach of British archaeologists to the issues surrounding artefact hunting. In fact on the whole the main comments have been coming from artefact hunters and collectors in Britain and beyond which treat its recommendations as a victory for their party. To a great extent they are right and I wonder just how many of my British colleagues have actually read the text carefully and reflected on its significance. I would like today present my thoughts on this review, rather than as one long post, I decided to divide the main arguments into several thematic posts here. I’m going to try to post them in reverse order so they read more logically from the top. They supplement the six earlier ones posted here just after the review appeared ( here, here, here, here, here, and here). I make no apology for discussing the review and the changes it proposes introducing into the ethos behind the PAS at length, given the iconic significance the Scheme has attained for all manner of people involved in portable antiquity collecting and trade, its implications go well beyond those connected with conserving the archaeological resources (record) of England and Wales or even the UK.

vignette symbolises "community engagement"

What Kate Clark wrote about: NuPAS 2

I would be the last person to claim that the discussion of artefact hunting and collecting in the UK is simple. The issues involved are certainly much more complex than they will appear from the outside (especially from a coin cabinet the other side of the Atlantic). The author of the 2008 PAS Review has therefore our sympathies because it seems she was under-resourced to conduct this key policy document. She writes
Because of the short timescale, much of this review was done on the basis of information in websites, magazines and other publications, and I am sorry that it was not possible to speak to a wider range of people or to visit more groups.
She forgot to mention that (perhaps under the influence of the campaign being conducted by antiquity collectors) the websites and magazines she consulted were chiefly those of “metal detectorists”. Much of her deliberations over the options available for the future organization of the PAS seems to have been done on the basis of talking to PAS staff and metal detectorists and their supporters. In her acknowledgements she cites “Kurt Adams, Roger Bland and his staff, Gail Boyle, Harry Bain, Steve Critchley, Paul Gilman, Suzie Thomas and Pete Twinn.” This is an interesting collection of names, in part it’s a somewhat incestuous selection. Kurt Adams is her local PAS Finds Liaison Officer, he is based in Bristol City Museum (Bristol is 28 km from Wotton-Under-Edge), where Gail Boyle works as Curator of Prehistoric and Roman Archaeology Peter Twinn is a metal detectorist from the Bristol region and one of the organizers of the campaign to keep a “detector-friendly” PAS. Steve Critchley is the chairman of the National Council for Metal Detecting, Harry Bain is the editor and publisher of “the Searcher” metal detecting magazine. The bibliography of just 15 references hardly give the impression that the author has cast her net widely in weighing up the various options for a sustainable PAS.

The passage quoted above is more or less the only statement of the methodology used to gather information on which the review is based. The 1995 CBA report “metal detecting in England” was produced in a similar timespan, but a comparison with the rather fuller presentation on the sources used, its acknowledgements and list of references shows what can be achieved, given the resources. Two questions remain, why was this review under-resourced (and how much actually did it cost?) and why did Kate Clark Associates take it on, knowing that?

The 2008 Review takes a very narrow view of what the PAS does. For Kate Clark, it’s apparently all about a “partnership” with “metal detecting”. This is perhaps a reflection of the atmosphere engendered by the anti-MLA campaign launched by UK “metal detectorists” in the months preceding the review. A count of words with the root “detect-” reveals that in the 44 pages, it appears 180 times, while the word “finder” appears 78. If however the latter are examined in context, it can be seen that in the majority of cases the writer is using the term to refer primarily to those who find archaeological collectables with metal detectors. The word “accidental” (as in accidental finds) does not appear, and the word “chance” (as in the "chance find" of the Valetta Convention) only refers (once) to the chance of finding treasure – with a metal detector. A number of people who have reported something to or otherwise helped the Scheme or archaeologists are mentioned by name at various points in the text. I counted sixteen. Every single one of them is a metal detectorist; not a single non-collecting member of the public is mentioned as having contributed anything at all significant in this review. That is despite the fact that they comprise almost a third of the people reporting finds to the Scheme in the past few years.

The PAS was formed partly to mitigate damage to the archaeological resource caused by “metal detecting” as if that was some kind of substitute for preventing it. The New PAS however is to reflect a “partnership” and “balances the views and interests of finders” and “training finders (sic) to help record the finds” (which are for the most part the products of artefact hunting). One of the new aims is to include “creating a positive role for detectorists”. By this means they move from coping with and mitigating the damage to servicing those who cause it and thereby conferring specific approval on them. This is further emphasized by promoting the record of the products of artefact hunting as some kind of a valuable resource, more valuable than encouraging the preservation of the archaeological record itself, by which the NuPAS becomes an operation that puts Britain even further at odds with world opinion. The notion of "balancing the views and interests of finders" telegraphs the fact that it is primarily “metal detectorists” that the New PAS will be servicing. What "views and interests" do individual normal accidental finders have? None.

The whole of nine million pounds worth of a decade of operation of the PAS is summarized in just five pages (Chapter one pp. 9-14). The next five pages of the review are devoted to a rather simplistic and somewhat rosy-spectacled presentation of “metal detecting” (Chapter two, pp. 14-18). There is no equivalent chapter on the reporting or outreach to the accidental (chance) finders of archaeological finds who are currently NOT collectors of portable antiquities. This is despite the fact that in terms of sheer numbers, outreach to them should be a priority of the PAS, both old and new. Why is this whole sector of “finders” and potential finders treated so dismissively in this review? There are over 54 million people in the British Isles who not only have never held a metal detector and made personal collections of artefacts removed from archaeological assemblages , but are unlikely to ever want to. Yet all of them are the target of PAS outreach, all of them are encouraged to keep their eyes open for any potential archaeological finds and know where to report them. Kate Clark’s review and proposed NuPAS leaves this outreach totally out of the picture, but devotes most of the text to a study of how the New PAS can best, as it were, “serve” in some kind of “partnership” the eight to ten thousand exploitive individuals that collect artefacts. This totally changes the emphasis of the Scheme. Instead of being central to a resource management based archaeological approach, the NuPAS seems set to become a marginalized aberration, an appendage of artefact collections.

Monday 24 November 2008

Making it Sustainable: Mitigating Erosion by Portable Collection in England and Wales: NuPAS 3

The author of the 2008 PAS Review was asked to recommend how the Scheme can be funded and managed in the future in a sustainable way. It seems to me that the sympathetic version of the practices of artefact hunting she has adopted in the report as a whole and especially in the superfluous Chapter two have led to her seriously downplaying the role of the PAS in mitigating the erosion of artefact hunting which was the reason for it being set up in the first place. As a result, the author has not examined this aspect of the current and future functioning of the PAS in any detail. She apparently accepts the soothing messages put out by the PAS suggesting that the current total of finds being reported to the Scheme by metal detector users is acceptable – and clearly has ignored any contrary opinions.

There is some considerable doubt about to what degree the PAS can currently be seen as providing any sort of mitigation of the cumulative, long term and permanent damage being caused to the UK's archaeological record by the deliberate removal of archaeological finds from it by collectors for entertainment and profit. Clark makes much of the database of 350 000 objects (a more accurate idea of the information being recorded would be given by quoting the number of records, not finds within a record) and seems to regard that as a satisfying quantity. This should be seen however in the light of the model presented by the Heritage Action artefact erosion counter which estimates that until today, since the start of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, 3,475, 000 recordable artefacts have been removed from the archaeological record and disappeared into scattered ephemeral collections. The fact that just 350 000 of them were recorded by the PAS really is no reason for comfort. If these figures are correct (and I believe that essentially they are) it actually means that 90% of the archaeological material being removed from the ground in the UK by metal detector users is simply disappearing and we have no idea what is taken or where its going. It seems inconceivable to me that any proper review of the past decade of operation of the PAS would not take that into account.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme claimed (page 9 of its eighth annual report for 2005/6) well over a year ago that it had actually fulfilled its own fifth aim which was the all-important task of defining:

the nature and scope of a scheme for recording portable antiquities in the longer term, to assess the likely costs and to identify resources to enable it to be put into practice.
It turns out that despite this explicit claim, subsequent events showed that not only had it not in fact actually done this at all, but had no idea how to start (it remains an open question why an official scheme would state it had when this was not true and that no questions were asked about such behaviour when it turns out it had not).

Kate Clark (without commenting on the previous claim) has set about doing this, but on the assumption that the current levels of recording do not need to change drastically. Surely as a first step in designing a PAS that will act as part of a coherent heritage management policy, relatively reliable information on the actual numbers of artefact hunters involved and the patterns of their activities is required. A decade’s activity of the PAS might be expected to have produced this information and a review of that decade would normally start on using that as a basis for future prognosis. Well, all we learn from Clark’s review (p. 15) is that

It is difficult to estimate the number involved in England and Wales, as many people who have bought detectors don’t use them regularly, but both the clubs and the PAS estimate that there are between 8,000 and 10,000 people who actively take part in the hobby.
It should be noted that this is up 2000 on the estimate (about 8000) provided by the Head of the Scheme in a recent text (Rescue News 99). It should be noted that the Heritage Action figures quoted above are based on the total number of active detectorists involved in England and Wales as 8700, not 10 000.

Clark refers several times in her review (pp. 6, 28-9, 36, 38) to the “demand for recording” as though this was a service provided to “finders” rather than an archaeological resource conservation measure mitigating information loss. She sees this “demand” as increasing in future but soothes (p. 38) that “An increase of £160,000 (c 12%) would enable PAS is to maintain regional equity and put in place a long term solution to the ever increasing demand for recording”. If 12% more money could be translated into 12% more recording of archaeological artefacts being removed from the record by UK collectors, it still means that 89% of the finds predicted by the Heritage Action model would be vanishing without record. How much would it cost to get 75% coverage of this lost information? About ten million pounds annually should fix it. Ten million pounds to service the archaeologically erosive hobby of eight to ten thousand (one in 6000 individuals). That seems too high a cost to me.

I think that is why nobody in the pro-collecting lobby is at all interested in determining the patterns of activity and real effects on the archaeological record of current archaeological (so-called “heritage management”) policy. I would argue that a decade of operation of the PAS costing us all in excess of eight million quid should have equipped us with detailed information of precisely this type. I would ask why it did not. I would ask why Kate Clark’s review did not point this out.

The reader will however note a further inconsistency in Clark’s treatment. In her highly selective paean to metal detectorists (Chapter two, p. 15-6) she mentions with apparent approval (or a lack of disapproval) the UK Detector Finds database. She does not point out any of the problems which have led to it being criticized by some (but by no means not all) archaeologists and conservationists. Seeing that this database costs the ordinary citizen not a penny, the reader might well ask therefore why following the model of this database is not one of the “options” considered in her discussion of funding the NuPAS? Exploring all the options in a government funded review would require a fuller treatment of this issue. If nothing else, the differences between it and the PAS are a significant pointer to the fact that the latter does not accurately reflect what this particular group of “finders” think a database of their finds should look like. Also the guides to particular categories of “small finds” which its users have written are precisely what one should be finding on the PAS website, showing readers what information these objects can provide. I am not an admirer of the UKDFD, but think it has important lessons to which this review should have paid much more attention. Clark mentions it but does not examine it to suggest alternative options to the NuPAS she sets out to institute.

* How much would the Heritage Action figures have to “be wrong” to make them and the current rate at which the PAS is recording the vanishing information acceptable? 20%? 30%? 50%?

Making the PAS fit – more smoking guns: NuPAS 4

I have earlier suggested that an analysis of the text of the 2008 PAS review seems to suggest that it was written ‘backwards’; rather than inducing its conclusion from arguments, the text appears to have been constructed starting with the conclusion and deductively fitting arguments to lead to them.

Another example appears on page 19, Clark says one [anonymous] expert sees PAS data as creating a
new cultural map of England and Wales through new insights into the material culture of ordinary people and ordinary places. It (sic) has also shown the far-reaching contacts and cosmopolitan nature of Britain from prehistory onwards…
I think it would be difficult to make a more banal statement about what archaeological finds can tell us. This has been one of the commonplaces since the early years of the twentieth century and those dotty diffusionist and invasion hypotheses, and discussions of "trade" and cross channel contacts… What is interesting however is that this odd “cosmopolitan” remark can be seen in the context of a later passage in the review. This is on page 34 where the author discusses the various options for funding and delivery of the New Portable Antiquities Scheme:
PAS also meshes with the three priorities in the current British Museum review – ‘in the city’, ‘across the country’ and ‘throughout the world’ – by creating partnerships across the country and revealing the cosmopolitan nature of English
society through time.
The banality has been harnessed to support the conclusion that the rightful place of the NuPAS is in the British Museum.

Another example of backward logic is found on page 28, where we learn
This review has suggested that the current objectives of PAS do not entirely reflect its impact or achievements. At present they are: […] Instead they should reflect the fact that PAS is…[…].
Elsewhere in the review the PAS is praised for its “clear sense of direction” (p. 30), and yet its objectives do not reflect what it has been doing…. Maybe somebody could explain to me this other meaning of the term “objectives”. It seems to me that the purpose of the review of a Scheme that has actually had the same objectives since 2003 should primarily be seeing whether the actual results adequately reflect those objectives and not the other way around! Anyhow, seeing that the results do not reflect the original objectives, Clark has suggested some more, to fit the results. How about looking at the Scheme and its context and setting some aims for the Scheme based on that?

The New Aims of the New PAS and Artefact Collection Best Practice in England and Wales : NuPAS 5

The 2008 PAS Review has created a whole new set of objectives for the New PAS. As mentioned above, Clark points out the old ones were not adequate to what the Scheme was actually doing (sic). Instead (page 28) they should reflect the fact that PAS is:

• creating a virtual collection that is influencing our understanding of the past;
• bringing finders and museums/archaeologists together in a partnership contributing to that understanding;
• improving knowledge and skills in object identification and conservation in curators, finders and archaeologists;
• enabling more people and a wider range of people to engage with museums and archaeology by creating a positive role for detectorists and other finders; and
• promoting best practice by finders, curators and archaeologists.

Formerly we had an archaeological body engaged in archaeological outreach to the general public to instil best practice and prevent information loss through unreported discoveries. Now Ms Clark has recommended that we have an autonomous body, a NuPAS consisting of a partnership with artefact hunters and collectors which at public expense will be engaged in improving knowledge and skills in object identification and conservation promoting best practice in curators and archaeologists. ACCG officers Wayne Sayles, Dave Welsh and Peter Tompa could not have composed this better themselves!

Expanding the PAS as a nationwide archaeological British Museum-run Uberinstitution guiding these aspects in all archaeology, curation and conservation as well as fulfilling its mission to the general public is fatally overstretching its resources (and I would venture archaeological goodwill towards it).

The New PAS and Museums in England and Wales : NuPAS 6

In the 2008 PAS Review assessing the objectives of the New PAS in the light of the changes in regional museum provision, most particularly the “Renaissance programme”, the main arguments of the author seem to be that the New PAS is intimately linked to museums as it gets people involved in museum activities who would otherwise not be.

This sits rather uneasily with the prevailing doctrine which is that in the UK the local “metal detectorists” only dig archaeological artefacts out of archaeological assemblages because of a “passionate interest in the past”. One might ask if they are so passionately interested in the past, how is it possible they cannot find the entrance door to a museum? It also raises the question why the non-collecting British public would want to entrust the curation of a substantial portion of the British archaeological heritage in scattered ephemeral collections of artefacts to people who have no great affinity for or interest in museums? Maybe they should be asked if this is what they want (after they are told how much it costs and what proportion of the evidence lost annually is in fact being saved).

Clark several times presents the PAS database as a “a virtual collection of c. 350,000 objects used by a quarter of a million individuals each year” (p. 5, 12, 19, 23, 25, 28, 31). The first of the new aims of the Scheme are intended to reflect therefore (p. 28) that it is “creating a virtual collection that is influencing our understanding of the past”. Some sixty to seventy percent of those finds that it contains however are the product of artefact hunting, the deliberate dismantling of the archaeological record as a source of collectables for somebody’s entertainment and profit. This is to be presented as a public benefit by the NuPAS Ms Clark proposes establishing .

The statistics of “number of hits” on the PAS website has always been a staple of their annual report ‘spin’; numbers with six zeroes on the end always look impressive. So the PAS website received 250 000 hits last year. Big deal. Just to put it in perspective, this metal-detector-related You Tube video posted November 29, 2007 has received more visits than the PAS website (currently 335,203 ) and this is just one of the videos on this rivetting topic (and not very well presented at that). Equally one could compare the number of virtual visits to the PAS artefacts showcase with visitor figures to single museums and the number of hits on the websites of individual museums from which it can be seen that the PAS has not really been providing anything which other museums are not capable of delivering (but at a lesser overall cost to the archaeological heritage than in the case of the PAS-displayed artefacts).

It is interesting to reflect that modern museums have been emptying the extensive row-upon-row displays of similar-looking pots and brooches that used to be the civic pride and joy in the early part of the 20th century, making a more definite division between display and reserve collections. It was assumed that this is what the public wanted, more easily assimilated ‘sound-bite’ displays rather than a mass of information to be individually searched. If Ms Clark thinks the PAS database – the “virtual” equivalent of the over-stuffed showcases of the past with rows and rows of similar looking artefacts - is really what the public want, then maybe it is time to reflect on current display policies. Are we underselling the public which is why they no longer come to museums?

Maybe we should be heeding all those collectors who say we should not be holding reserve collections in storerooms (where they are “rotting away” they claim) and put them on display again. Far more emotive than an image on a computer screen.

The New PAS and Artefact Collection Best Practice in England and Wales : NuPAS 7

The 2008 PAS Review has created a whole new set of objectives for the Scheme. Some of them reflect that the new Scheme that its author proposes creating is no longer envisaged primarily as a means of providing archaeological outreach to the accidental finders of artefacts. It now seems likely to be even more concentrated than before on collaborating (in a “partnership”) with those who exploit the archaeological record as a source of collectables for entertainment and profit.

The old Portable Antiquities Scheme was always very wary of discussing with “metal detectorists” the archaeological approach to using metal detectors and digging tools in certain sensitive situations, such as artefact-producing areas which are permanent pasture or earthwork sites, or emptying archaeological sites already known in the literature of archaeological finds. The PAS was caught between the feelings of some archaeologist who expected them above all (as part of their outreach on behalf of the discipline) to impart such ethical guidelines to artefact hunters and the artefact hunters themselves who wanted to be left to get on with emptying the archaeological record into their scattered ephemeral collections with the minimum of interference. As Clark (p. 28) puts it “Detectorists simply want FLOs to be ‘independent’ – in other words to not be antagonistic towards the hobby”. Independent that is of the rest of archaeological thought on such matters. The PAS has spent the last ten years not only not being antagonistic towards massive artefact hunting and portable antiquity collecting, but promoting the official line presenting it as in the public interest, and those that engage in it as “the unsung heroes of the UK's heritage". In fact it would appear that not everybody (in the PAS?) feels that this outreach needs to be done at all. One of the [unsourced] opinions Clark quotes (p. 28) is that “recording should remain a priority for the scheme as outreach can be done by others”. That is simply nonsensical – the ability of the PAS to do outreach about the archaeological aspects of finding portable antiquities was the prime motivation for funding the PAS in the first place. Where is this all leading?

PAS-Sceptics? : NuPAS 8

Kate Clark’s 2008 PAS review contains a number of words and phrases which are inadequately defined. The word “finder” is used to refer to two quite separate categories of the artefact-finding public. It is a nonsense not to differentiate the little old lady from Surrey who finds a Neolithic axe while tending her rose garden (or the Tyneside builder who finds a spearhead in a house-extension foundation trench) from the collector of portable antiquities in Milton Keynes who has a shed-full of "metal-detected" Roman brooches and coins taken from a variety of “productive sites” all around the country. This is the case in particular in sentences such as “Many finders have a lot of knowledge but lack formal training. FLOs and Finds Advisers should focus outreach on involving finders and other volunteers in the work of the scheme, including recording, education and promotion” (p. 6 – presumably she is referring to "metal detectorists" rather than rose gardeners).

Equally we have seen earlier that the author of the 2008 PAS Review is unable to provide a full enough definition of the word “nighthawk” to make sense in the context of what she claims about them.

I was puzzled by the meaning she attaches to a word which occurs several times in the review. That word is “sceptical”. Page 6: PAS has overcome the scepticism of archaeologists and the mistrust of finders to create a partnership in the understanding of the past. Page 7: The scheme attracts fierce loyalty from finders and partner organisations; even sceptical archaeologists and finders have been won over. Page 10 however: several archaeologists remain deeply sceptical. Page 31: There is still some scepticism about the scheme from archaeologists (although surveys show that this is less apparent amongst those who have close contact with the scheme). Page 32: rebuild (sic) trust between detectorists, archaeologists and museums. Although there are still sceptics on both (sic) sides, PAS has done much to rebuild that trust.

Clarkian “PAS-scepticism” would therefore seem to be an attribute associated mainly with archaeologists. About what are they sceptical? They are sceptical “about the Scheme”, but it is not clear what aspects. But after they come into close contact with the Scheme, their scepticism disappears (I presume she is intimating that only those ignorant of the Scheme are sceptical of whatever it is that arouses their scepticism). Or maybe they have closer contact with a scheme in “partnership” with artefact hunters only after their scepticism disappears. Who knows? Without definition, it’s difficult to determine what the symptoms of PAS-scepticism are. I wonder whether I am what Clark would consider as a PAS-sceptic. I suspect that what she means is what Sayles and the ACCG acolytes label “radical archaeologists” and David Gill “archaeologists with integrity”.

If I have read her intentions correctly, I think Ms Clark’s disparaging tone about these sceptics is misplaced. It is not these “PAS-sceptical” archaeologists that are supporting what most European and North American archaeologists don't. In fact, we know exactly who its overseas supporters are, and why.

Sixteen inches down on downland

An inquest was held by West Sussex Coroner Penelope Schofield at Worthing Town Hall on November 18th on sixteen Roman coins dating to between 260AD and 285AD discovered on downland in Storrington in June. They were found by Anthony Gill, a "metal detector enthusiast" from Thakeham who says he has been "detectoring" for more than 30 years. The coins were found buried 16 inches underground on downland at Storrington in June. That's 0.4 metres. It does not sound much like these coins were threatened by the plough. Neither does it seem from the newspaper report (which otherwise goes to excessive pains to point out how law abiding Mr Gill had been) that any archaeologists were present at the removal of these finds from this depth to determine what kind of context they had come from.

Thursday 20 November 2008

Angel in my hallway

Reuters (U.S. museum returns 14 stolen artifacts to Italy Wed Nov 19, 2008) recently covered the recent announcement that Cleveland Museum of Art is surrendering recently acquired looted archaeological artefacts (they call it “art”) to the Italian authorities. The news agency points out that:

Italy's approach has provoked international debate. Critics say large U.S. museums can often care for pieces better than institutions in the country of origin.
This is not really a matter of who has the prettiest, airiest galleries to display “artworks”. Groups like SAFE are aguing that we need to be making sure that the public is fully aware that their concern should be focussed on the process (looting) rather than the products (loot). Too often have the ‘repatriation’ and ‘whose heritage’ debates dominated at the expense of the real conservation issues that underlie them, which is the continued destruction of the archaeological and cultural heritage of many regions of the world to serve a voracious no-questions-asked collectors’ market.

Museums have an educational role too, but the Cleveland Museum’s press release skips over the question of why they finally agreed these objects did not belong in a museum which they say has a “commitment to build and maintain a collection of art from around the world and across time that is acquired in good faith using the highest ethical standards and after rigorous provenance research”. The Italians showed convincing evidence that these items had come from recent looting (and thus wanton destruction of) of ancient archaeological sites.

Whether US museums are nicer, individually or generally, than Italian ones is immaterial here. The “our museums are better than theirs” argument is just a version of the “only giving them a good home” one discussed by Colin Renfrew (2000: Loot, legitimacy and ownership).

Basically its like somebody clandestinely taking an otherwise unthreatened sculpted angel from a monument in a nineteenth century graveyard and putting it in their hallway, saying it looks nicer there and is “better looked after” than standing on the top of a pedestal in the open. It is still stealing, it is still destruction of the heritage.
Photo: Angel from the old cemetery in Powązki, Warsaw. Poland (not in my hallway).

Roger Bland thanks archaeologists

Yesterday I discussed the effusive gratitude of the head of British archaeology's largest public outreach programme addressed to artefact hunters and collectors for their contribution to influencing UK heritage policy. A similar message has just appeared on Britarch (posted by Mike Heyworth on behalf of Roger Bland). It reads:

Statement on PAS: The outcome of the Review of the Portable Antiquities Scheme commissioned by MLA was announced today. [...] I would like to conclude by offering my thanks to those on Britarch who gave their support when the Scheme was in difficulties a year ago.

Roger Bland is registered on at least one metal detecting forum, where he has chatted with them about gold coins they have found. It's a shame that as the head of "archaeology's largest public outreach" he could not bring himself to actually register with one of the most active British archaeological forums and share the breaking news personally, rather than it reaching them second-hand a day late. It is also notable that the message differs greatly in tone at the end. This is how he concluded the one on the UKDN Forum, sent twenty-four hours ago:

All of us in PAS are tremendously grateful for the wonderful support UK Detector Net gave us when we were threatened with funding cuts and our future looked uncertain. I think you can see that the whole situation is now transformed thanks in large part to the support you gave us earlier this year.

I find this rather symbolic of a PAS that seems to be moving further and further away from being archaeological outreach to a service provider and legitimiser for artefact hunting and collecting.

It is worth noting that in these messages sent out after the review, the Head of the Scheme expresses his satisfaction with the outcome of the review and thereby by implication his acceptance of the Recommendations.

This blog mentioned in PAS review

I have already expressed my initial feeling that Kate Clark has done a rather superficial job of writing the government-sponsored review of the PAS which many of us thought, given her background, would lead to a fresh approach to the conservation issues which would serve as a basis for future policy decisions. From that point of view, the document we received yesterday has been a serious disappointment.

As I read it yesterday, I noticed she had mentioned me and this blog in passing (apparently the only critic of current British policy on artefact hunting and collecting mentioned by name), but only today have I paid more attention to what she says and in what context.

In Chapter two – devoted for some reason entirely to “metal detecting” she writes:
Some archaeologists are worried that detecting is feeding an illicit trade in antiquities. Paul Barford, vocal critic feels strongly that PAS encourages the trade in portable antiquities.
To substantiate this she includes a link to a post in this blog. But that post says absolutely nothing to justify the statement in a government sponsored review about me “feeling strongly” that PAS encourages the trade in portable antiquities (its about the PAS encouraging responsible collecting).*

My first impression was that her citing a random post from this blog was just a gratuitous reference to make it look as if she had done more reading into the topic than she actually had and suggest that she’d paid equal attention to both sides of an argument (see the comments by “lootingobserver” here which indicate I am not alone in thinking she had not).

But its not that simple. Look at the juxtaposition. “Some (unnamed) archaeologists… illicit trade in antiquities”/ “Paul Barford [reference] feels strongly that PAS encourages the trade in portable antiquities …”. This is then followed directly by an [unsourced] reference to the 2003 Dealing in Cultural Property (Offences) Act about ‘tainted cultural objects’ . Clark’s text shows signs of hasty construction and in places is badly written (a number of spelling mistakes for example), so perhaps this is just bad phrasing. Equally however it can be assumed that the author is implying that Paul Barford has accused the PAS of encouraging the illicit trade in portable antiquities (which is not the case). Neither is it true that anyone (that I am aware of) has actually accused the Portable Antiquities Scheme of encouraging the illicit trade in portable antiquities. This could be disregarded as a relatively insignificant infelicity of words were it not for what we find on page 30 of the same text. There Clark writes:
Given that illicit trading in cultural objects is a risk to the heritage and also represents a reputational risk for PAS (if it is seen to be associated with or to encourage it) then it is vital that the scheme retains this capacity.
The Portable Antiquities Scheme has to retain its capacity to do something because, if not, it could be seen to be associated with or encouraging the illicit trade of antiquities? What a stupid idea, who would do such a thing? Well, the reader may remember that a dozen or so pages earlier of her text there was some mention of such a crazy bloke with a blog who they were led to think, by the way it had been sandwiched between two other sentences discussing this, had been doing such a thing…

Analysing the structure of this text (and there are other examples), it really does look to me very much like Ms Clark had started off with a vision of what the PAS should look like (basically there need be no real change except those that the MLA paymasters had earlier announced would take place anyway) and set about fitting her review to it. There is little sign that she really did make much of an effort to identify any alternatives. It looks like she wanted to find a reason to retain one function of the PAS (one actually not included in the formulation of its aims back in 2003), so stressed the importance of the reputational threat created by those critics in the UK that accuse the PAS of encouraging the illicit trade in portable antiquities. Trouble is, she could not find a reference to that in the limited range of literature she consulted, so it looks very much to me that she fudged one.

Or perhaps it really is just bad writing?

*Of course if Ms Clark had taken the trouble to ask this “vocal critic” what I do feel most strongly is most troubling about current archaeological policy implemented through the PAS, I would have had no problems in telling her.

Vignette: Shady accusing guy (Photo in the BM, Cory Doctorow)

How much Illegal Metal Detecting in the UK?

In the MLA’s “A Review of the Portable Antiquities Scheme” (Clark K 2008) we are told [oddly enough, in the “Recommendations” p. 6] that “it [the PAS] also seems to have reduced the amount of illicit detecting on archaeological sites”. This is important because the author suggests (p. 7) “closing the scheme” would be deleterious because “illicit detecting (and thus loss of sites) may increase”. It seems de rigeur these days to accept that the Portable Antiquities Scheme is the best thing since sliced bread for “stopping looting”. Certainly that’s what Derek Fincham asserts (though cites no source for this belief), and as we have seen Californian coin dealer and ACCG officer Dave Welsh too. Just repeating an idea does not make it true. Now. however, the MLA has produced a report which says the same. Let’s have a look more closely.

Clark’s definition of Illicit detecting can be found on page 18 of the report:

So-called ‘nighthawks’ use metal detectors on sites without the permission of the landowner.
That's it. Well, that is by no means an adequate or full definition of illicit artefact hunting even in England and Wales, not by a long chalk. But there is more:

“Not only can such activities damage archaeology, they damage the reputation of responsible metal detectorists by association”.
This is the typical British politically correct newspeak – we catch the Oxford Nighthawk Survey saying the same thing, its one of the typical metal detectorist whinges too. Clark even cites “The Searcher (metal detecting magazine)” to make the point.

Well actually the problem is more complex than that. Illicit artefact hunting (be it in England or Afghanistan) in fact not so much damages archaeology and the reputation of artefact hunters, but damages archaeology and the reputation of the antiquities market that thrives on it. The Brits are so wrapped up in their narrow insular preoccupation of being nice to artefact collectors that it seems they find it terribly difficult to see the wider context of the debate. All forms of clandestine and illegal artefact hunting are the real – and almost only – reason for the disapproval among archaeologists and other conservation-minded folk of the artefact trade and portable antiquity collecting.* I cannot see where British archaeologists have a problem seeing it in those terms and where such statements come from.

So how much illegal artefact hunting is going on in the UK? Well, since it is a clandestine act, the answer is that we really do not know. Ms Clark mentions on page 9 of her text the survey done by Dobinson & Denison (1995 - she gives the wrong year of publication in the text and totally misrepresents it as "a report on the illicit use of metal detectors"). She says they found that "...188 scheduled ancient monuments (SAMs) had been attacked in the [previous] five years and that 37 out of 50 archaeological units reported raids on excavation sites”. But on page 18 of her review she makes the following bald statement:

Initial results [of the Nighthawking Survey] suggest that the problem has decreased significantly since the last survey in 1995 – the amount of damage to monuments has been reduced by a half and 27% of units report problems. It is possible that a strong, local ‘responsible’ metal detecting community might act as a ‘watch dog’ and deterrent to illicit detecting.
This looks like pre-publication ‘leak’ of the preliminary Oxford Nighthawking Survey results (though the survey is not mentioned in the acknowledgements as having supplied such information). It would seem from this then, extrapolating from Ms Clark's 'leaked' summary of these results, that the Nighthawking Survey has been informed about illegal metal detecting on c. 94 scheduled ancient monuments in the whole of the UK, which would be the context of Clark's assertion that the number is “down by a half”.

The quoting of these figures in this context is laughable. First of all, Clark’s own definition of “nighthawking” from page 18 does not mention scheduled monuments, while that was the only category studied by Dobinson & Denison, and by inference this must be the yardstick to which she is referring. So how many archaeological sites which are not scheduled sites (like the field at Stixwould) are being looted by nocturnal trespassing thieves armed with metal detectors? In fact where are these reports expected to come from? How is a farmer with several thousand hectares to know his field was visited by nighthawks? If they don’t break down the fences or leave gates open and fill the holes in and there is rain between their visit and the time a farmer visits that particular area of his farm, there would be few traces (or none that could not be equally attributable to poachers, or other intruders).

Secondly Clark fails to stress that Dobinson and Denison's survey was restricted to England and Wales, while the Oxford Survey covers the entire UK, including the Channel Islands. The PAS only operates in a part of this area. If so-called nighthawking has decreased in the area as a whole, including those not covered by the Scheme, then the effect is not due to the Scheme. I really do think we need to see the actual results of the Oxford Survey before making any statements like the ones we find in this review and drawing hasty conclusions from them.

In particular I am disturbed by the apparent assumption by the Oxford survey that "responsible metal detectorists" will “shop” fellow metal detectorists by filling in their questionnaire. This is very naïve. UK metal detectorists stick together and rarely do this kind of thing - except out of spite. As we have seen, metal detectorists are fully aware who among them does this kind of thing, where and when it is going on. As Stixwould rally organizer Norman Smith said: “the problem is we all know who they are and do nowt about it". So much for the notion that if any drop in frequency of illegal activity is a real one, it is because "responsible detectorists are policing sites". Far from it, most responsible detectorists generally keep well clear of such folk, they have a reputation for being dangerous. Several of my contacts have been threatened by these less savoury elements just for expressing support for the PAS. I have heard reports of damage done to cars of responsible detectorists who have criticised the unethical behaviour of fellow detector users. It is pretty telling that even the archaeologists involved in the Oxford Survey have decided that they should preserve their anonymity for fear of reprisals.

An interim statement has appeared in the periodical British Archaeology (Anon 2008). One of the questions examined was whether “nighthawking” occurred across the whole country or whether it was concentrated in certain hotspots, preliminary results suggested it was most prevalent in Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and Northumberland (Anon 2008, 24). Oddly enough it is precisely in three of these counties that the first attempts were made to "liaise" with metal detectorists (Tony Gregory and colleagues in Norfolk and the Fenland regions in the 1970s). The interim statement makes no mention of any "reduction by half" of damage to sites in the UK generally. The looting that is currently going on affects both scheduled and unscheduled sites; Roman ones were particularly targetted (Roman artefacts find a wider international market than Anglo-Saxon, Medieval or prehistoric ones), and it was noted that raids were more frequent on sites near to motorways. More interesting, preliminary results suggest that “there is evidence of an efficient grapevine, whereby nighthawks are notified immediately after a suitable phase of cultivation, or just before legal archaeological or metal detecting surveys” (Anon 2008, 24). This of course goes against the general trend within artefact hunting as a whole to protect information about potential search sites from fellow artefact hunters and suggests the prospect that in Britain too (as certainly is the case in the Balkans and Crimea), to some extent illegal metal detector use and the sale of portable antiquities is in some way linked with organized crime.

The author of this interim report stress that the archaeological issues are about more than the common law theft of the objects, but the “unrecorded removal of archaeological material can irretrievably distort the archaeological ‘signature’ of a site, or even destroy it altogether. Artefacts retrieved (sic) in this way lose much or all of their potential to inform about the past, and may suffer substantial damage”. The authors note that people affected by this crime in the UK do not have confidence in the police, magistrates or the Crown Prosecution Service (to which I bet we could add "archaeologists") to take effective action. In general, illegal metal detector use is treated as a relatively low priority crime by police forces in most of the country (though both Kent and Wales police forces now have small units dedicated to fighting heritage crime). When successful prosecutions are made, the resulting sanctions are often no more than token cautions or small fines.

There could be many reasons why the Oxford Survey has no information of illegal metal detecting on all but 70 scheduled sites. It could be that so many scheduled sites were so badly denuded of anything collectable in the 1980s and 1990s that by 2007 their metal detecting was less profitable than it had been a decade earlier and the clandestine detectorists had moved on to other areas. Perhaps the metal detectorists are getting better at filling their holes in after digging. Maybe EH field monument wardens are not getting to as many sites as a decade ago (currently they visit each site on an average once every three years - so it is difficult to see how they could detect any nighthawking that was not leaving two-metre deep holes). Finally not all the sites are owned by farmer John Browning. The important point however is that this is not a problem that only affects scheduled sites are either undergoing nighthawking. To prevent nighthawks finding sites where collectables may be found, the findspot data in the entire PAS database is hidden from public view, not only that referring to scheduled sites.

The number of archaeological units reporting “nighthawk” activity is said to be lower than 1995, but then as far as I am aware, the number of units is far lower than it was nearly a decade and a half ago (Oxford Archaeology itself having become one of the expansive big units which as developed in recent years). Since, however, one of the main reasons why artefact hunters have been attacking archaeological excavations has been because the topsoil (contaminated with many modern non-collectable metal artefacts) has been removed – one wonders whether the Oxford Survey did muich outreach to building contactors to ask whether trespassing on building sites after earthmoving had also dropped in this period.

I think we are ill-served by the leaking of and drawing conclusions from the preliminary results of a complex and controversial joint project like this without the ability to assess the conclusions in the light of a presentation of the manner in which the data were gathered and their limitations. We are asked by the pro-collecting lobby to take too much on trust without any concrete and verifiable facts being presented to support the rosy picture they wish to paint. It may be that illegal artefact hunting has declined in Britain over the past decade, or it may be that there are many interests which have much to gain by pulling wool over everybody's eyes. Let us examine this new information in its wider context when the report appears.

*Clark goes on (p. 33) to note: PAS is also seen internationally as a pioneering way of dealing with the problem of illicit detecting. Banning detecting seems only to drive it ‘underground’ and to turn responsible detectorists with an interest in the past into criminals. Another typical “detectorist” whinge which I do not want to go into just now but is from the same stable. It is disappointing to see such things trotted out so glibly in a government sponsored report.

Anon 2008, Nighthawking’ British Archaeology Jan/Feb 2008.

Controlling the Illicit Antiquities Trade in the UK?

Kate Clark the author of the recently published review of the PAS would appear to have a sly sense of humour. On page 34 of her text she writes:

The scheme adds value to the work of the British Museum, including its role in implementing the Treasure Act and related policy issues – in particular the control of the illicit trade in antiquities.
The BM controls the illicit trade in antiquities in Britain? No, it does nothing of the sort. The 'Treasure Unit' in the BM has a memorandum of understanding with eBay by means of which it polices eBay for undeclared Treasure items. Staff members pore over the listings contacting sellers about items which they feel contravenes the Treasure Act. Most of the time the seller tells them it is “from abroad” and there the matter ends, because “No British law has been broken”. This is despite the wording of the 2003 Dealing in Cultural Property (Offences) Act concerning the scope of the definition of “tainted artefact”. The British Museum does not attempt to uphold this law (still less promote the respecting of the laws of the 'countries of origin') in its “policing” of eBay. Perhaps from a logistic point of view it is entirely understandable, but from the archaeological one there is a rather more troubling ethical dimension involved. An additional ethical problem is the presence of enormous quantities of fake artefacts which any antiquities collector will tell you being sold in great quantities through eBay as genuine (looted) ones. I am pretty sure that the BM has the expertise to spot the suspicious scarab, the spurious shabti, the dodgy didrachm, and yet depite the BM having cast an eye over them, they pass muster and continue to be sold (misrepresenting fake antiquities and selling them as genuine is also against British law).

The buyer is told the antiquity sales on the UK eBay are “policed by the BM” and have the right to trust that what they buy is therefore legitimate and authentic – which I am sure is what eBay would tell them. No, Ms Clark, the British Museum does NOT have any control of the illicit trade in antiquities in London or Britain as a whole.

Personally though I do think that something called “the Portable Antiquities Scheme”, adequately resourced could be an effective way of putting into practice HM Government’s declared intent of “cleaning up the illicit antiquities market” in Britain which for several years now has remained just empty words.

Wednesday 19 November 2008

Whose victory?

About this time last year all hell broke out in "metal detecting" circles in the UK. It was announced that the Portable Antiquities Scheme would only get 1.3 million pounds, instead of the 1.3 million pounds they got the previous year. This of course was regarded as a "cut" and everybody was going to lose their jobs or something. To make matters worse, it was announced that the Scheme was to be merged into the MLA's Renaissance in the Regions programme, which would mean that it would be more fully integrated into the work of the regional network of museums. Disaster. Many "metal detectorists" predicted that widespread looting and non-reporting would ensue if some members had to drive the extra 20 miles to see the FLO they had worked with for nearly a decade.

A huge campaign was set in train by "metal detectorists" (three in particular, Steve Burch, Pete Twinn and Corinne Mills) who orchestrated a nationwide campaign. MPs were barraged by mails and letters from disappointed ("metal detecting") constituents, an online petition was set up and thousands of people signed it. Questions were asked in the House, the Culture Minister was given a grilling. Foreign collectors joined in too, the Minister received letters from them (including one from the ACCG) giving advice how he should proceed.

So, now the crisis is over. The metal detectorists feel that with the publication of the 2008 PAS review they have won a great victory. Why? Basically because the MLA has promised 1.3 million pounds and the PAS will be integrated with the Renaissance in the Regions programme. Great victory guys, a year ago these were nothing more nor less than what you were campaigning against.

But they are jubilant. On the forums they are congratulating themselves on their victory:

Hi Everyone What a brilliant communication.

Excellent news for the team at PAS.

It has been a fantastic group effort, and everyone has been rewarded for their dedication and support. An excellent result for all.

Its nice to read some good news for a change.

Looking good. So much for those who were heralding the demise of the PAS.

The real reason for all last year's fuss however was quite different. These "metal detectorists" are only too well aware (as are antiquity collectors abroad like the ACCG) that the Portable Antiquities Scheme shields the hobby of portable antiquity hunting and collecting from scrutiny and criticism. Their fear was that if the PAS was 'downgraded' (by being integrated into the Renaissance programme) its ability to do this would be lessened. Thus it was that the campaign was called by them "save the PAS, save our hobby" (variant form: "support your hobby or lose it, your choice").

I drew attention at the time to the fact that the Head of the Scheme was deliberately courting these "metal detectorists" on their forums and the campaign organisers were "somehow" getting internal PAS documents to use against the by now demonised Roy Clare (new chief executive of the MLA at whose door all these "problems" were being laid). At the time neither the Scheme head, nor any of his staff sent a single message to any archaeological forum asking for help - despite the PAS being considered "archaeology's biggest outreach to the public". Now I see Roger Bland has sent them (and even ancient coin collectors across the other side of the Atlantic) another message thanking the artefact collectors for their help and support, but has not extended this courtesy to the many archaeologists who also supported him in his fight against Rear Admiral Clare. Shame on him.

Scheme Rides on to a New Tomorrow?

The much awaited Portable Antiquities Scheme review is now out. After all this waiting for what was promised, my first reading created a feeling of anti-climax. Much here however to mull over though, and some quotable quotes and significant omissions. The author seems to think the PAS is all about “metal detecting” (it is [was] not) though it seems to me on first reading that this is at odds with what she actually recommends. I was disappointed that there is not much attention paid to current British policies towards portable antiquity collecting as a whole, and whether they need discussion. This issue is skipped around, even though it should be fundamental to defining where the Scheme should be going. Anyway, more of this later no doubt.

I just could not believe that cover though. After writing all the expected stuff about how wonderful it is we have got a database of 350 000+ wonderful objects with nice archaeological contexts, somebody chose as the first illustration object SF-99E3E4 which was found by a metal detectorist and has been given the provenence “Cambridgeshire”. So an archaeological provenance of a site somewhere within 3389 km². This well emphasises the fact that by no means is all of the "information" being gathered by the Portable Antiquities Scheme for those 9.78 million pounds is as archaeologically useful or publicly available as others. That just about summarises the disappointingly small amount of joined-up thinking about the archaeological aspects of the Scheme that seems to me on first reading to have gone into this document. In one place (p 30) the author even says that the link between the Portable Antiquities [Advisory] Group and the APPAG* "inadvertently contribute to the impression that it is dominated by archaeological interests". Umm, if it is not, then who are they advising on what, precisely? Does this review, with its obvious focus on "getting people into museums" mean we are we to abandon now the pretence that the PAS has actually been doing any archaeological outreach?

Still, Roger Bland the Head of the Scheme is happy, he has just sent metal detectorists a big thank you on at least one of their UK forums for their campaigning on his behalf. The one to the UK archaeological forums has yet to arrive.

* All Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group

Photo: Iconic portable antiquity from an archaeological context "somewhere in Cambridgeshire". Recorded by the PAS, and only they know where it's really from, but if you want to know you have ask nicely and prove yourself toi be a bone fide stakeholder.
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