Tuesday, 2 December 2008

PAS: How many artefacts Got away?

The former Minister of Culture in Britain once likened artefact hunting with metal detectors to "fishing on land". As we all know, fishermen like to tell tales of the "one that got away". We are told that the Portable Antiquities Collection is managing to record "40 to 80%" of the artefacts removed by these people to scattered ephemeral artefact collection (or eBay) each year. How many artefacts then does Roger Bland, head of the PAS say are getting away unrecorded after being removed from the ground?

We can use the 2007 figures (summarized by Clark, p. 22 and now by Bland). Bland asserts that the total number of finds reported by metal detector users in 2007 is 40 to 80 % of all finds made by metal detector users in England and Wales in that year. This would mean that annually "metal detectorists" in England and Wales are removing from the ground between 70 and 165 thousand archaeological objects a year. Of these they reported about 58 thousand (on average ten finds per reporter). This means the number of “finds that got away” was between 12 and 107 thousand artefacts. that is the equivalent of between one and nineteen unreported finds per “detectorist”. So is each metal detectorist in the country holding back a statistical one object a year from the PAS (why? What is this mysterious object and why is it kept hidden away?) or are they statistically showing ten but holding back nineteen? What actually is the real pattern of activity behind Bland's broad estimate? Why, after over a decade of outreach among these people do we not have firmer figures?

The results of the gathering of data on this problem by the British volunteer group Heritage Action discussed earlier on this blog indicate that the national figures are much higher, at a conservative estimate, approximately 300 000 objects a year. How accurate is this comforting picture painted by Dr Bland? On what secret PAS data is it based? How well is Britain really coping with the plague of artefact hunting and portable antiquity collecting and commerce?


Roger Bland said...

Oh dear, Paul, getting your facts wrong again I see. Please try to think before you put up these posts.

My estimate that PAS was perhaps recording between 40 and 80% of all archaeological objects found by detector users was made in Rescue News in May 2006. Therefore it should be set against the number of finds made by detector users reported to PAS in the 2005/06 Annual Report, which was 39,000. On this basis, the total number of detector finds would be 48,750-97,500, not 70,000-165,000, and the total number of unrecorded detector finds that year would have been 9,750-58,500.

But I would not want to place much weight on this estimate, as it was based on an impression rather than on a detailed analysis of the evidence. To get a better estimate it would be necessary to gain the co-operation of a sample of detector users and it is quite certain, Paul, that you will never be able to do that.

Secondly, I am quite certain that this recording rate will compare favourably with that of other European countries, such as Poland.

Paul Barford said...

I find it odd that if you intended us to understand that you were talking about three years ago you would use the passive voice of the present simple tense (“I have already given an estimate, in Rescue News, which is that 40%-80% of all archaeological finds made by detector users are recorded by PAS”). I assumed that since you were quoting it here, you believed it still to be true.

So now you claim that in 2007 that “nearly 85%” of the total of 77600 reported finds were reported by metal detectorists (by my reckoning that would be c. 65200 finds), so actually not too far short of your original upper estimate (and well exceeding your original lower one). So do you reckon then that three years on you are achieving nearer 100% than you were in 2006? Perhaps - since you reject the HA estimate out of hand - you would care to share your thoughts on what you now think the rate of success mitigating erosion of the record through metal detecting actually is?

I really do not see though what help an “impression” like this from Bloomsbury is to anyone. What ten years of PAS partnership with metal detector using artefact hunters and collectors should have been doing (as part of that abortive fifth aim) is precisely conducting “a detailed analysis of the evidence”. How else can we see how well you are doing?

I wonder how much progress even PAS-the-Partner would make just going up to a sample of "detectorists" and asking them to turn out their pockets and garden sheds to see what they have not reported. But you can always try...

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