Sunday, 29 March 2009

'Archaeology for Dummies' Writer Digs Into Stereotypes


According to the blurb: "In her book "Archaeology for Dummies," University of South Florida professor of archaeology Nancy Marie White explains what archaeology is all about. The book provides an overview of the field of archaeology and its different types. It covers prehistoric and historic archaeology, and includes information on the past two million years of human existence. White said the book is aimed at a lay audience and offers advice on how to get involved in archaeology ..."

Phew, it's a good job the publishers did not ask a British archaeologist to write the text, or we'd get a book which tells the reader to go out and buy a metal detector and start a personal collection of decontextualised metallic portable antiquities and found coins as a way to "get involved in archaeology".

I wonder how many portable antiquity collectors over in the US will be buying and reading it before indulging in their habitual misinformed archi-bashing? Let's see an Ancient Coin Collectors Guild or a Unidroit-L review of the book (and while they are at it Renfrew and Bahn Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice).


Daniel Pett said...


The Scheme's aims do not suggest going out and buying a metal detector.

They state:

1. To advance knowledge of the history and archaeology of England and Wales by systematically recording archaeological objects found by the public.
2. To raise awareness among the public of the educational value of archaeological finds in their context and facilitate research in them.
3. To increase opportunities for active public involvement in archaeology and strengthen links between metal-detector users and archaeologists.
4. To encourage all those who find archaeological objects to make them available for recording and to promote best practice by finders.
[ 5. To define the nature and scope of a scheme for recording portable antiquities in the longer term, to access the likely costs and to identify resources to enable it to be put into practice. - which has been dropped but I think needs to be used again and perhaps access complemented with assess. My opinion, not the Scheme's.]


Paul Barford said...

Hmmm. Dan, can you show me where in the Scheme’s aims it says anything about informing the public about the DIFFERENCE between portable antiquity collecting as a hobby and archaeology?

We see the PAS aims talk about systematically recording finds made by “members of the public” to “increase archaeological knowledge” when according to the annual reports and other material produced by the PAS the majority of the systematic outreach practiced by the PAS is at “metal detecting” clubs and commercial “metal detecting” rallies, so not among the general public at all but portable antiquity collectors.

As a result of this bias, the “public involvement” with “archaeology” the PAS website offers is largely manifested through metal detector finds.

This gives out an unambiguous message to the viewing public. As does every single PAS/BM press release about the next discovery of this or that made by a metal detector-wielding “heritage hero”. Far from being “unsung heroes”, every such jubilating press release is free advertising for the metal detector dealers of the UK; not a single one of them (even in the big papers) offers a judgemental word on portable antiquity collecting and treating the archaeological record as a source of collectables for entertainment and profit.

The PAS website offers advice on “buying archaeological finds” but none on why there are those (and codes of ethics) that say they should not be bought and sold like potatoes or collected like train numbers.

The PAS website gives the viewing public no inkling of the current debate on collecting “portable antiquities”, it gives the public no inkling of any difference there might be between a so-called “metal detectorist” and an amateur archaeologist. Not a word – in fact it sits silently by and allows the confusion in the public mind over this to continue – though I would say it rather encourages it. Does the PAS see a difference I wonder?

On the website, not a single recommended book for voting and tax-paying adults (Cf the Time Team website) to allow the public to read up elsewhere - if the PAS cannot be bothered [or is scared] to produce a balanced text setting out the pros and cons of the “metal detector debate”. There is however an “educational” resource which tells its audience merely that “archaeology is like a layer cake” (yuk, is it really?) and metal detecting is the technique we use to “find out about the past”.

In short, the material PAS produces as “outreach” does nothing whatsoever to disencourage people from going out to buy metal detectors, it gives nothing that allows the man in the street to question the ethics and propriety of doing so, but what it does do at great length by default is show what a “jolly good thing” metal detectors are. I think it is entirely fair to say that on balance the publicity generated by the PAS does indeed encourage people to go out and buy a metal detector to engage in “active public involvement in archaeology” in the new “partnership” between the Portable Antiquities Scheme and portable antiquity collectors.

Now this is not the first time this has been said about the PAS, and I bet this is not the last time the PAS will totally ignore the problem which they themselves are clearly creating here. Just the same as that silly spelling mistake (access, assess) which crept into almost ALL the PAS publicity material since 2003 was pointed out in print several years back and continues to reappear as the same text is unthinkingly and oblivious to comment cut-and-pasted from document to document.

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