Wednesday 19 November 2008

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.


Daniel Pett said...

You're spinning the artefact data incorrectly. The rider is located to an 8 figure grid ref. The findspot is hidden at the request of finder and landowner. Therefore you see Cambridgeshire area.
Of course data has differing merits for academic interest, but have you looked at the average HER record for an object?
Sorry our server is down due to a fault at the server farm.

Paul Barford said...

Well, I am not "spinning" anything. In most cases the finder almost certainly knows where the find was from, nothing surprising in that. The point about the PAS however is the public pay a lot of money for getting that information into the public domain. Its their heritage. In the case chosen to symbolise the Scheme in this review, that information is not in the public domain. The description is and always has been "from Cambridgeshire". My point is that this gives out the wrong picture to those who pay for it becausae they expect some benefit from it of what the PAS is about. No "spin" just a straightfoward observation.

lootingobserver said...

You know why the findspot is hidden? Just for prevent the landowner for the nighthawks or more simply looters but the PAS staff never say it because it's not a good publicity for the treasure hunters oops sorry "for the wonderful metal detecting hobby" - the words are important.

Daniel Pett said...

@lootingobserver - We have publicly stated that findspots are degraded to either four figure NGRs, parish level or area level to prevent looting or nighthawking or even dayhawking. To suggest otherwise is rather naive.

We make the information available online, cheaply and effectively. Where else can you get such information so easily and a National picture. Oh, thought not, nowhere.

Paul Barford said...

Poland. The AZP scheme.

Paul Barford said...

Dan, I do not see what is "naive" about that comment, since as far as I can see you said exactly the same as lootingobserver.

Now I'd like to ask why you say in your FAQ
that you HIDE information from the public (who pay for the Scheme) about the public's own heritage which is being taken away with PAS blessing by individuals for entertainment and profit... Does this in itself not constitute damage to the archaeological resource? Totally preventable damage in this case. So what is the PAS doing to prevent it?

Is it not even more damaging that the "metal detectorist" persons who report a number of items from site X will have dug up metal items which they do not regard as "collectables" and so therefore are not collected (and more often than not end up in the "scrap" bucket) and do not get to the FLO? But whether or not the FLO sees them, they are still missing (taken) from the archaeological record. What proportion of this "rubbish" (some of which is nevertheless destroyed archaeological evidence) do you not see from a typical lowland site? Any figures on that from the PAS?

I think when we look deeper, what in fact you are protecting here is something else. Many landowners allow "detectorists" onto their land on the basis of a written agrement to split the proceeds of the sale of anything of value 50:50,yes? (That is how you define a "responsible detectorist"). The problem with "nighthawks" is obviously then is they do not split the proceeds of such sales with the landowner. What PAS are protecting here is not so much "sites from damage" but the landowners' ability to turn the archaeological finds on their land to commercial profit. I think you will agree that put into those terms (and I am sure it is not wrong to do so), this is getting into very slippery ethical issues.

I think the people that live in the area of Cambridgeshire where that horsey thing was found have a right to know it was found in a field near them. Don't you? I'd be pretty pissed off if I found some metal detecting bloke had taken something like that from my own parish and was keeping it secret - and a Scheme we'd all paid nine million quid to was aiding and abetting that.

I find this especially galling when by their own admission these people use archaeological literature to find sites to target for their erosive hobby. Like a Roman villa site I published a few years ago. What are we to do? Not publish anything? Falsify the site plans so nobody can work out where anything is? What is the point of that? But that is exactly what the PAS are doing by hiding data from those that pay for them. Where is the openness and transparency that archaeological heritage management should be based on? Accountability to the public...

s said...

France: the Patriarche base... only if you have a good reason to watch it... I am not a naive person, Daniel, that's the problem!

Just a question: why do you protect only the Scheduled Monuments and not all the findspots as in France or Germany? It's a "non sens" for me.

Daniel Pett said...

@Paul - can you point me towards the AZP, I found a paper of yours that mentions it.

@S - I didn't think Patriarche is available online yet? Was the question aimed at me?

Paul Barford said...

Krajowy Ośrodek Badań i Dokumentacji Zabytków

lootingobserver said...

Patriarche is available in all the "services régionaux de l'archéologie". For the artifacts online you can use the Joconde base, with the museum's collections.

My question is very important for my undestanding of the Britt. cultural property law.

Paul Barford said...

UPDATE May 2009:
What nobody was mentioning in this discussion at the time (and I'd not noticed - more's the pity) is that by the time this object appeared to symbolise PAS "success" on the cover of the Clark Review, it had already been sold at Bonhams and a few months later an export licence application was made to take it out of the country.

Information that the "passionate amateur hunter of pieces of the past" who found it in a Cambridgeshire field had cashed in his find adds a certain spice to its choice as an icon of the PAS.

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