Thursday 20 November 2008

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)

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