Thursday, 19 February 2009

PAS moves to allay fears over nighthawking

There was an extraordinary article published recently " Portable Antiquities Scheme moves to allay fears over nighthawking" by Richard Moss published on the 18th in "culture24" (which used to be MLA's '24 hours Museum'). In it Roger Bland head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme attempts to allay any fears the readers of the recent press coverage in the UK might have had about the scale of the problem of the various types of illegal artefact hunting in the United Kingdom.

It's not really a big problem he tries to convince us, along with "metal detectorist" and commercial artefact hunting rally organizer Norman Smith (here, with comment by US collector Jorg Lueke), former ACCG president Peter Tompa, ACCG officer, Californian coin dealer ('Classical coins') Dave Welsh and New York coin dealer ('Imperial coins') Alfredo de la Fe (see a pattern here?).

Over on Looting matters, Roger Bland attempts to defend his position as reported in the Culture 24 article. he admonishes David Gill:
Rather than just quoting headlines and opinions on this subject, it might be helpful to look at the facts that are published in the Nighthawking report. The problem here is that the report is pretty low on facts, it is based on a poor dataset and is rather incoherently-written. The label “nighthawking” is totally unsatisfactory and covers a number of different phenomena. Indeed, as Bland notes the report does indeed conclude (though on very uncertain evidence) that deliberate illegal artefact hunting on SMs is “down”, though I think not enough significance is attached to what it also says [Report p. 91] that one reason for this may be that all those likely to produce the material these people are after have already been denuded to such a state that further exploitation is uneconomical – this also means that of course that their archaeological and cultural value has been damaged severely. Likewise as Dr Bland himself points out the report explains why the raiding of archaeological excavations is less than it was in the mid 1990s [p. 91-2].

It seems rather disingenuous to claim that because the reports results suggested there two kinds of “nighthawking” were reduced that this is in some way a success of the PAS. The latter does not in any case not cover Scotland or Northern Ireland – in the latter the researchers found NO “nighthawking” (while in the former we do not have the 1995 figures). The counties identified however as most strongly affected are among those in which PAS outreach has been at a very high level of intensity and lasted longest.

Roger Bland further writes on Looting matters: But the facts in the Report do not bear out the assertion that came across in some of the media reporting that nighthawking is a growing problem. Well I suppose that really depends which “facts” one seizes on and which one ignores. I would say that the apparent non-reporting of treasure items in Scotland is not a problem on the decline, indeed we need more investigation to establish its scale, though measures are now being put in place in Scotland to combat it.

The 1995 study did not gather statistics on illegal artefact hunting on non-scheduled sites (ie the vast majority of known archaeological sites in the UK). The 2009 study had great difficulty gathering information on it, so it is impossible to say for sure using the gathered data whether it is actually “up” or “down”. That however is not the most important point. The results of the COSMIC study quoted by the OA “Nighthawking” report [p 31-2] however do suggest that it is currently a very substantial problem indeed. The report even suggests [p. 91] that this type of site is now being increasingly targeted as the formerly more productive scheduled sites have become denuded of finds.

Roger Bland suggests we in PAS want to work with EH to take the recommendations forward, but one of them was convincing the police and the courts (and landowners and law makers) that the problem is a serious and important one. That actually was one of the main reasons for compiling the report in the first place. I fail to see how the PAS is helping matters by issuing public statements working against this policy like “the report shows it is less of a problem than it used to be […] and we’re keen to get that message across”. What “message” is there here and on whose behalf is the PAS “getting it across”? In whose interests is the PAS trying to persuade the British public that this is “less than a problem than it used to be” when looking at the whole of the UK there is no evidence that this is the case at all (and it is simply weasel wording to say “but in a lot of areas of the country it’s hardly known about”).

The whole crux of the matter is that all the above-mentioned apologists seem to be saying that it is wrong to point out the problems engendered by existing policies, we should be looking at the "benefits" (sic) brought by the current system. That however is no excuse for not gathering information on illegal activity and discussing what to do about it, or showing that there is a need to do anything about it. This is like suggesting that since most citizens are law-abiding, we do not need to investigate crime. That would only benefit the criminals.

How ironic also it is that the article is illustrated by a photo of the Newark torc which newspaper reports indicate had been found under somewhat questionable circumstances by a man reportedly searching an aircraft crash site with a metal detector. The law of the United Kingdom (Protection of Military Remains Act 1986) requires that an artefact hunter (such as a "metal detectorist") needs a permit to search such sites. Enquiries last year indicated that no such permit had been issued to the finder by the relevant authority before the discovery was made.


David Gill said...

I have responded to comments left on Looting Matters with a new posting which looks at some of the contradictions in the report. I, too, am puzzled by the need for PAS to "get the message across".

Paul Barford said...

Well, it makes no sense whatsever as an archaeological organisation doing outreach to the general public on portable antiquity issues. But that's old hat now they have been declared "partners" of the artefact hunters and collectors instead.

Marcus Preen said...

This is confusing.

We have one official body, English Heritage, saying it's really bad and the purpose of the report is to highlight how bad it is to the police and courts in the hope they'll take it more seriously.

Then we have a second public body, PAS, saying it might not be as bad as it used to be, thanks in part to them, and they intend to get this message across.

So it's separate hymn sheets, isn't it? What are the public (and the courts and the police) to believe? Should English Heritage be left to convince the courts and the police of one thing and leave PAS to convince the public of another?

Or should the infighting be suppressed and Mr Browning, hit 150times by nighthawks, be appointed the official overall spokesman on this matter? He seemed to perform very well on television, didn't juggle statistics and didn't seem to have any agenda other than telling it exactly how it is. Which is exactly how the public, the police and the courts prefer their witness statements to be delivered.

Paul Barford said...

It does seem rather strange behaviour Marcus. All this pushing and shoving over what should be a clear-cut issue on which institutions could stand together is quite unseemly.

It's quite typical though of British archaeology's general inability to get its act together when it comes to artefact hunting and collecting.

David Gill said...

Marcus should not be left confused! (And I enjoyed reading his post.)

Let us assume that English Heritage is speaking out for the sake of the public - and this is the message (i.e. there is a continuing problem with looting on scheduled and unscheduled ancient monuments in England [and Wales]) that has been picked up by the press.

But then the PAS feels it needs to get a "different message" across. Why? In whose interests?

Marcus Preen said...

"But then the PAS feels it needs to get a "different message" across. Why? In whose interests?"

Well David, since no explanation for the dichotomy has come from either horses mouths we are forced to look at the facts and logic -

I think you are quite right to assume English Heritage is "speaking out for the sake of the public" since they are the statutory guardians of that which the public owns and naturally hold themselves responsible to the public.

PAS on the other hand seem to have adopted a different position. To be sure, they were conceived, delivered and nurtured by the public (still are) and charged by the public with reducing the damage to the public's resource. But somewhere along the line their main tactics for delivery - outreach, liaison and education morphed into advocacy and (lately)full blown partnership. I don't recall the public sanctioning that but it does seem the case that to a teeny extent PAS has gone native.

Therein lies the rift between EH and PAS I think. EH are beholden to the public alone for the public's resource, PAS seem to think the interests of the erosive 0.167% of the public ought to be got across as a message to the rest of the public.

It really needs sorting out. EH's position is consistent with their duty under their enabling statute. PAS's isn't.

Paul Barford said...

"to a teeny extent PAS has gone native." :>)

I don't recall the public sanctioning that Well, I think a very cogent question is whether the public is being provided with balanced enough information about artefact hunting, collecting and their relationship to the commerce in archaeological "collectables" (among others by the PAS supposedly British archaeology's largest public outreach) to actually make an informed decision anyway.

Marcus Preen said...

I perhaps should have clarified that I'm sure pas despise nighthawks as much as detectorists and the rest of us do.

But given this universal disapproval of the criminals it really is RUM that anyone should take the trouble to suggest they are less of a problem than they used to be. What if they are? Why sabotage the report's intent to tell the courts what a problem they are? I hardly think the nighthawks are going to sue anyone for exaggerating their activitiues.

But there is a single, solitary reason why anyone would. The detectorists forums have been full of people saying it's not a big problem and only a tiny percentage of them nighthawk. So getting THEIR message across has to be what's going on here.

Unless anyone can think of any other explanation?

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