Wednesday, 3 December 2008

The New PAS-Collecting Partnership

In most countries of the civilised world, the exploitation of the archaeological record as a source of collectables for entertainment and commerce is regarded as damaging to the longterm survival of the resource and historic environment.

In the topsy-turvy land of Britain, this is not so. There, it is almost as if the core beliefs of the ACCG had been enshrined in national policy. The nation’s biggest archaeological outreach organization, the Portable Antiquities Scheme, has long been dominated buy its close engagement with metal detector using artefact hunters and collectors. It has now been urged by the Clark Review to ditch the archaeological policy component of its advisory body (p. 30) which must now be seen as balancing the “interests of finders” with those of archaeology and curation. The objectives and aims of the NuPAS should reflect even more strongly that it is a “partnership with finders” (pp 6, 26-7, 28, 38) and PAS staff should maintain an “independence” from archaeological concerns about artefact hunting (p. 31). It seems the new way forward for the NuPAS is to enter into a “partnership with finders” and taking their “interests” into account. No sooner have the scandalous pro-metal detecting proposals of this review been made public, than we find the PAS is already busily pursuing these aims.

In his excited article “The Portable Antiquities Scheme Saved! Thanks to UK Detector Net”, in the 16th number of the detectorists’s newsletter “UKDN Word”, Roger Bland announces a number of moves intended to strengthen this partnership and deliver artefact hunters and collectors a better service (p. 22, sic). Among them is a bid for funding from English Heritage's National Capacity Building Programme in which his organization is in partnership with the metal detecting internet forum (sic) UK DETECTOR NET. They are seeking money to enable a feed from the PAS database to go to the UKDN website and also to help UKDN produce its newsletter (!). This is reputedly to “make the database more visible to UKDN users”. This cash handout to metal detectorists from English Heritage funds looks awfully like a thank you for the use to which that forum had been put in the recent public campaign. This is not the only metal detecting forum in Britain, it will be interesting to see whether PAS will be attempting to arrange cash handouts for them all. Here once again we see the same old emphasis on the “wottalotta finds” database rather than the archaeological outreach influencing attitudes to this type of exploitation of the archaeological resource this organization should be doing.

Another grant has been applied for “to pay for potential volunteers to attend residential summer schools to be trained in how to record finds on the PAS database”, this is in accordance with the recommendations of the Clark Review. We can no doubt expect another jump in “numbers of objects recorded on our database” as a result, though cutting out the FLO means that opportunities for archaeological outreach are thereby reduced. We recall that the Clark Review (p. 28 points out “outreach can be done by others”.

The PAS has reportedly also applied for outside money “to buy 200 hand-held GPS machines to give to every detecting club in the country and to community archaeology groups”. So the PAS is now giving the artefact hunters electronic equipment to help these artefact hunters to more quickly empty selected elements of archaeological sites into their personal collections without having to fumble with large scale maps. These handheld GPS are of course a double-bladed weapon. Meteorite hunters use them to find on the ground a point corresponding to the published co-ordinates of a fall or find, and they can then start exploiting them as a source of collectables. I am sure some club members will find this a useful aid in the wide-open fields of some areas of Britain to locating specific spots identified from old archaeological publications. Once again, this is clearly a PAS move to try and improve annual report statistics while cutting out the outreach and input by their own staff. Perhaps we will hear soon that in order to facilitate adding more and more appropriated collectables from archaeological assemblages added to this explosively growing "virtual collection", these new artefact hunting “partners” of British archaeology will be able to claim petrol money for going to commercial artefact hunting rallies – and maybe have the price of the entry ticket refunded from EH funds. Where will this all end?

Apparently the Council for British Archaeology is also a partner in this 'GPS for metal detecting clubs' bid. The CBA has recently appointed pro-collecting archaeologist Suzie Thomas as their 'Community Archaeology Support Officer', so it seems in what direction they are going on this issue too. When is portable antiquity collecting "archaeology for all” and when is it not? That’s the question to which I would like to hear a detailed and unassailable answer from both the CBA and the PAS. I am not holding my breath though.

We all know that a partnership means two entities working together towards a common aim. We know what the aim of the artefact hunter is, to locate and empty archaeological assemblages of selected pieces of archaeological evidence (ignoring and even discarding the rest) and add them to their scattered and ephemeral personal collections. British archaeology, and the PAS in particular, by calling its relationship with artefact hunting and collecting of portable antiquities, is therefore voluntarily party to this approach to the "management" (sic) of the British archaeological resource. The excuse given is that by gathering data about large number of ex-situ decontextualised artefacts they are in some way facilitating archaeological research. But if one looks at what the PAS produces as exemplars of that research we see narrow antiquitist (artefactological) studies of individual varieties or types of (metal) artefact, ethnic overinterpretation of emblemic artefact types and dot distribution maps. This is the type of research that would have been all too familiar to Gustav Kossinna and other investigators of the past with an intellectual foot in the scholarly world of the nineteenth century. Archaeology tried to leave Kossinnism behind decades ago, British archaeology is being dragged back to it by their current fascination with metal detected "data".

It seems to me that in entering a partnership with exploiters of the archaeological record for collectables will need some far-reaching rewrites of the codes of ethics of British archaeologists – fuzzy as they are on this issue at the moment. In fact, what kind of approach to archaeological ethics does this move represent? If to "create knowledge about the past" it is enough for any Tom Dick and Mohammed just to take a metal detector out into the countryside and hoik stuff up willy-nilly, then what on earth do archaeologists have codes of professional conduct and ethics for in the first place?

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