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.


Roger Bland said...

Paul, I was not scoffing but simply asking a question: what is the basis of the Heritage Action Counter's claim about how many archaeological objects are found by detectorists? We cannot be expected to believe it without knowing the assumptions that underlie it. People will no doubt draw their own conclusions from your reluctance to answer the question.

Paul Barford said...

Well, until the book comes out with the details of the basis of this estimate, you can take it or leave it. But if one rejects it out of hand, one question remains. "By how much would it have to be wrong for the current situation to be acceptable"? People will no doubt draw their own conclusions from the reluctance of the pro-collecting lobby to answer that question.

Paul Barford said...

Heritage Action has sent the following comment in reply to the comments here.

I am surprised that Dr Bland should enquire about the basis of our counter and obliquely cast doubt upon it. Both of those issues are well answered by the words we used directly under the counter I would have thought -
"This counter is based upon published figures from academic studies, the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the comprehensive survey of finds rates recently carried out by detectorists and published on the premier UK discussion forum.
The figures are deliberately conservative relative to documented evidence. For example, both detectorists’ and independent estimates and surveys of the total rate of artefact removal have suggested rates up to nearly 40% higher than indicated here (well over 100,000 artefacts per annum more). A collection of 20,000 artefacts, mainly non-metallic and found on an "eyes only" basis by a single detectorist over 11 years, was recently offered for sale on eBay.
In addition, the number of active detectorists assumed here, 10,000, is by far the lowest of all estimates. Recently published estimates, all by very prominent detectorists, have been 20,000, 30,000, 60,000, 100,000 and 250,000. A study during the 1980s put the figure at 180,000. In addition, neither the above estimates nor this counter reflect the impact of the overseas visitors who are attracted here to detect under liberal British law s which are often in sharp contrast to the situation in their home countries. The numbers are unquantifiable but it is known that very significant numbers of European detectorists regularly attend British metal detecting rallies whilst many North American detectorists take part in organised “detecting holidays” and tours. Finds from one holiday operation run into thousands.
Since what happens in the fields is essentially a secret known only to each individual detectorist, no-one can claim to know for certain the true figures or suggest any particular estimate is right or wrong. Consequently, our purpose in presenting this counter is to illustrate to the public in a clear way that even on the basis of the lowest likely estimates the rate of erosion of the finite resource is unacceptable – and is happening in Britain and almost nowhere else.
The counter may or may not be a precise reflection of the rate of depletion. The broad picture it paints, of millions of artefacts being progressively removed and society being deprived of the associated knowledge of its past, is certainly accurate."

I can only reiterate, with some considerable frustration: the precise basis of the Heritage Action counter is very clearly laid out in the last two paragraphs above. It leaves little scope for serious criticism since it does not purport to know precisely what is done in private and which can never be precisely known. Nevertheless, if Dr Bland cares for example to fieldwalk a suitable ploughed field for a few hours and apply his eyes-only find rate to 10,000 detectorists I am sure he would have little reason to think our broad picture is other than conservative - and indeed this commonsensical assessment method is available to anyone who cares to try it.

The counter does beg some very clear question from anyone who chooses to imply it is grossly inaccurate though - how on earth do they know and what lower level of otherwise entirely unnecessary recreational or commercial erosion do they suggest is acceptable - and why?

No-one has yet proffered answers and until they do we are minded to leave the Counter ticking and steadily accumulating as a broad reminder to the public that there is something inarguable, large-scale and wrong going on in their fields every single day. Unlike Dr Bland, we are not archaeologists. However, we ARE conservationists and are permanently bemused that our legitimate concerns aren't publicly and wholeheartedly echoed by Dr Bland and others.

Roger Bland said...

It is helpful to see the basis for this `counter', as it shows that it is largely based on guesswork. If you had ever talked to people who do detect you would know that an average number of finds per detector user is difficult, if not impossible, to estimate, as there is such a wide range of finds rates between individuals, plus the fact that many of the estimated 10,000 detector users may no longer be active. Indeed the comment that "what happens in the fields is essentially a secret known only to each individual detectorist" is revealing in itself, as the only way to obtain a better estimate – and, as Paul Barford is aware, I have already given an estimate, in Rescue News, which is that 40%-80% of all archaeological finds made by detector users are recorded by PAS - is to engage with detector users, treat them as human beings instead of demonising them and talk to them. However, initiatives such as the Heritage Action Counter make that more difficult.

The point is not what percentage of the total number of finds made by detector users are recorded by PAS, but which system of protection in different European and other countries in practice works best, and in those terms PAS compares well.

Paul Barford said...

I really see nothing in the above posts by myself or Heritage Action that would lead to the inference that the erosion counter “is largely based on guesswork”. It is a statistical model which actually is based on information gathered, as far as is possible, from the “detectorists” themselves. It certainly does not ignore the fact that “there is such a wide range of finds rates between individuals” (I thought I said that). Bland’s assertion that “many of the estimated 10,000 detector users may no longer be active” if he’s referring to the figures given in the 2008 PAS review contradicts what the text itself states referring to the PAS as her authority (p. 15, “people who actively take part in the hobby”). I think we are getting in a muddle here.

Roger Bland has “ already given an estimate, in Rescue News, which is that 40%-80% of all archaeological finds made by detector users are recorded by PAS. “Forty TO eighty percent”? What kind of an official estimate is that of the success rate of a policy? On what data and criteria of defining an archaeological find (archaeological or aesthetic)is it based? Can we assume that before the text Nigel Swift and I are working on is published, the PAS will tell the public the basis for THEIR comforting figures?

I really do not see why initiatives such as the Heritage Action Counter make engaging with detector users "difficult". Why should that be if these individuals are all “passionate about the past”? Surely if the counter suggests that non-responsible metal detectorists are trashing archaeological assemblages without record at an alarming rate, this gives a basis precisely for engagement with the milieu as a whole. Only a bad doctor would begin treatment of a disorder without diagnosing what it was and how extensive were the effects.

Maybe after a decade and three reviews, we could have some better figures from the PAS than an estimate so broad as to be useless? Why are these data not available?

Paul Barford said...
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Paul Barford said...

Roger Bland wrote:
The point is not what percentage of the total number of finds made by detector users are recorded by PAS, but which system of protection in different European and other countries in practice works best, and in those terms PAS compares well.

The same old ACCG story... Excuse me Roger, but how is the "help yerselves lads but show us some of what you've got" approach of the PAS a "system of protection"?

It seems to me that the only thing that is being protected in all this is the interests of artefact hunters and collectors, certainly not the archaeological record.

In any case, I really do not see how you can say the PAS "compares well" to what other countries achieves since you cannot actually tell us how well the PAS is mitigating the erosion. Indeed, in connection with the launch of teh Treasure Report, the newspapers are reporting that in the decade of PAS outreach, metal detecting has become more popular.

I do not see what it is you claim to be protecting from artefact hunters and collectors.

Anonymous said...

While it is known that I don’t always see "eye to eye" with Sir Roger Bland I do agree with his two previous posts.

Paul... your "wait to the book comes out" is not a good answer is it.
I can imagine the reactions I would have got from you if I used the same "wait to the book comes out" :-)
But there again my literally standard would never meet the criteria of being ever to make it into book form.

Paul Barford said...

It's a perfectly good answer. The Erosion Counter says what it says. It raises the question which niether you nor Roger Bland nor any of the pro-collecting gang will answer: by how much would it have to be "wrong" to reflect an acceptable situation that one could regard the PAS as consitituting part of a "system of protection"? Simple question, why no answers?

The book is written, is being edited, chapter seven is the one you want.( If I were a "metal detectorist" or a pro-collecting archaeologist, this is one book that I'd be in NO hurry to see actually on the bookshelves.)

Paul Barford said...

Heritage Action replies to Roger Bland:[quote]
"It is frustrating, to put it mildly, that Dr Bland should have dismissed our counter earlier with the words “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?” and has now said “It is helpful to see the basis for this `counter'”.

The basis which I provided was pasted direct from the website where it has always resided, as plain as day, immediately under the figures. This suggests to me his earlier dismissal was on the basis of not having looked at the website at all. Hardly a good reason to pour scorn and indicative of a determination to maintain we are wrong, come what may. I would expect that from detectorists determined to carry on detecting but not from the head of the PAS.

Also detectoresque is this – “an average number of finds per detector user is difficult, if not impossible, to estimate, as there is such a wide range of finds rates between individuals.”

Come come, Dr Bland. Ten thousand detectorists are in some sort of mathematical other-world where variations can’t be rendered into averages? Who on earth, other than those that want to, would believe that? This is really awful. Orwellian. And most certainly not the sort of "outreach" that PAS should be directing to members of the general public.[/quote]

Paul Barford said...
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