Tuesday 25 November 2008

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"

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