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%?


Roger Bland said...

What is your evidence that PAS puts out soothing messages suggesting the current total of finds reported by metal detector users is acceptable? I am not aware of such statements. A PhD student starting in Jan. will be investigating this question, amongst other things.

We have also done more work on the number of detector users recently, (hence the revision of my estimate since the article in Rescue News) and how many of them report finds.

In Rescue News I said I believed PAS may record between 40% and 80% of all archaeological finds made by detector users and at present that remains my best guess, although I hope in due course to have better data on that.

But have you never considered that it may be relevant to obtain more data on the numbers of objects being found by detectorists and other artefact hunters in other regimes? Or indeed how easily obtainable is this data (with the honourable exception of Scotland)? I am supervising a student who is investigating exactly that.

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.

How can you state PAS has not assessed the costs of a scheme for recording portable antiquities in a longer term? We know the budget required for PAS. In an ideal world we would probably have in the order of 5 extra FLO posts plus an allocation of maybe up to £100K pa to employ special assistants to deal with backlogs of material, large collections etc., but this is hardly difficult to calculate or to cost. Or do you mean that PAS failed to secure the resources required for this?

I do not think an estimate of 8,000-10,000 metal detector users is 2,000 up on my earlier figure of 8,000. It simply introduces a note of caution into the estimate. And I have already explained that we have done more work on this, checking the numbers of md clubs and their membership and asking all FLOs how many independents they know of.

Does PAS cost `us all' in excess of eight million quid. Are you not being disingenuous here? Or do you pay British taxes, because I'm not aware that PAS receives funding from the Polish government?

PAS should be developing finds guides as UKDFD do: I suppose our online guides on Roman and medieval coins don't count?

Paul Barford said...

Thank you for your extensive comments. It is much appreciated. There is a lot here to which I’d like to reply, but time and space are limited. Starting at the end, I note you play the “Polish” card (rather like the metal detectorists who don’t like the thought that what they do can be seen from the outside). The Barford family of course pays its taxes on its earnings in the UK, I do not see that this is at all relevant to the debate on what is done to the common archaeological heritage (let's call it an European heritage if that makes you feel any better about me saying what I think).

Finds presentations. No, I personally do not think the PAS online guides on coins “count”. There already are such online resources made available by coin collectors and dealers, “coin-zappers”, the ACE and all the rest. Not to mention books. Anyway, this type of coin, being addressed sources with pictures and writing on them, are really just kids’ stuff as material culture studies go. The UKDFD [] guides to everyday objects are the sort of thing the PAS could have been doing with those resources (and contacts with collectors). As I said, Kate Clark mentions the UKDFD in her 2008 PAS review, but fails to build on it in any way in her recommendations. Beats me why. Anyway, let’s talk about your online coin guides when they are actually finished (is Charles II a “Medieval” monarch?). Until then, given a choices of looking at what I can learn about artefacts from looking at rows and rows of them on the PAS database and reading a nice text written by a collector of such things backed up by some kind of research they have done and linked to the database.. then I am sorry, in this case the UKDFD wins. While talking about desiderata, what the public (and artefact collector) can actually learn about archaeology from the website of “British archaeology’s largest public outreach” is, I am sorry to say, after a decade of development pitifully small.

As for whether or not the PAS puts out soothing messages suggesting the current total of finds reported by md users is acceptable, I’d like to ask where PAS (or Kate Clark) have said anything to the contrary? In the annual reports for example? PAS talks in public about “how much” they have achieved, rather than how much they have yet to achieve.

I said I believed PAS may record between 40% and 80% of all archaeological finds made by detector users and at present that remains my best guess, although I hope in due course to have better data on that. Well, when its information fundamental to creation of policy, “due course” is surely about seven or eight years too late.

I’d appreciate being put in contact with your student who is looking at the true scale of erosion of the record by artefact hunting. I have been looking at this for a number of years as best I can, and have some thoughts on that and material which might be of help.

But have you never considered that it may be relevant to obtain more data on the numbers of objects being found by detectorists and other artefact hunters in other regimes?
No. Because I am not discussing Iraq, Italy or Belarus. I am discussing a country where the archaeologists claim they have the problem more or less resolved and call artefact hunters and collectors “unsung heroes of the heritage”. I am discussing a country which has a system they claim works, and misleads outsiders into thinking that there is a painless way to curb looting and the trade in antiquities by cooperating with collectors and the artefact hunters that supply them. That’s what I am interested in. The other stuff is not relevant to me, it is relevant to groups like ACCG (but then how “relevant” are their rants?

Equally, how can anyone put any credence into Heritage Action's Artefact Erosion
Counter ?.

To save space here, and since I think its an important point, I will answer this in a separate post on the blog.

Equally I think I’ll answer the point about the PAS “Fifth Aim” separately later on this morning. Thanks for your comments and raising those issues.

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