Sunday 7 June 2009

Heritage Action's Erosion Counter half a million objects on

The Heritage Action Erosion Counter has been ticking away in the background as each metal detectorist in the UK takes away a few items worthy of PAS record here and a few items there for their personal collections from the soil. Today it has reached 10 500 000 objects. In the same time (though we still await the 2007 PAS annual report [!], not to mention the 2008 one), the number of items found by metal detectorists in England and Wales recorded by the PAS is a fraction of that.

The pro-collecting lobby (predictably) say the HA counter is ticking too fast (predictably without producing any evidence to support this case). In fact it corresponds to a rate of each metal detectorist in all the searching of "productive sites" and all the rallies they go to finding less than 30 objects of archaeological interest a year. Many "metal detectorists" however can find half that number of relics in a single weekend. I personally think that until we have more reliable evidence from a proper review of "metal detecting" and collecting practices, the HA erosion counter produces an entirely realistic picture, and one that poses a number of questions for the pro-collecting lobby to answer. I doubt, though, that they will.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Paul.

We should add that we think the Erosion Counter has proved to have an additional utility beyond the obvious: the reactions it has prompted have proved very telling.

Obviously metal detectorists have all said it is a pack of lies but archaeologists haven’t, which is telling point number one.

Second, unlike you, most archaeologists don’t express open concern about the broad picture it paints (though some do in private). We see this as “The Problem” that besets the issue: people have their views but are reluctant to be seen to be swimming against the official version of reality.

We can think of only three archaeologists (apart from you) that have publicly commented on our Counter one way or the other.

One (just the one!) has taken the detectorists’ line and dismissed it as “ludicrous”. We can live with that!

Another (who is charged with liaising with detectorists on their forums) has said to them: “The archaeologists who frequent the forums tend to be sympathetic to the detecting hobby, but aware of its shortcomings in terms of recording of finds - that is why we come on and discuss these matters. If you want an alternative view have a look at Heritage Actions artefact counter or Paul Barford anti-looting blog. “ (Is that a grudging admission we’re right to be concerned? I’m not sure, but I think so!)

The third is Roger Bland. It’s very telling that he also hasn’t said the Counter is wrong. Instead, he has berated you for taking it seriously, on the grounds no-one should give it credence when the basis on which it is calculated is not stated.

Well Roger, we thought we’d done that, and explained it had to be a broad brush picture and that even if it was over or understated it still suggested a major cause for concern. Is that not a valid view? Why no opinion on that or alternative figures? Complaining about our lack of data is a bit rich, n’est-ce pas, considering PAS has provided none on recording for several years and none on non-recording ever! We also wonder whether it is your role to cast doubt on the Counter itself rather than to offer an opinion on the figures it shows. The PAS has a duty to confront the problem doesn’t it, not dismiss the methodology of those who try to quantify it for the public? Where are PAS’s figures on the issue? Why leave it to ill informed amateurs in Heritage Action alone to quantify what PAS has been set up to put right? How many arefacts do YOU think are going missing each year Mr Bland?

Finally, it’s rather telling that despite suggesting we have provided no basis for our figures he has never made an enquiry or comment about it direct to us. Maybe he thinks that as mere members of the public we are bears with very small brains and not worth bothering with?

No. The Erosion Counter is performing a very proper function, on a number of levels, and will tick for as long as it validly embarrasses some people and validly alerts the public to what they are losing.

Roger Bland said...

I expect I am simple-minded, but I still cannot see why the figures produced by Heritage Action's Artefact Erosion Counter should be taken seriously so long as HA do not publish the basis on which the calculation has been made. About the only tangible impact of the Counter of which I am aware is that it has made a contribution towards making it harder to build bridges with detector users.

Those of us who work in PAS have never attempted to make an estimate of the total number of archaeological objects being found by the public: this would be a large research project which none of us would have time to undertake. However, we do have an AHRC-funded PhD student who started her research in January who is working on the biases underlying PAS data and this will include tackling that subject. It will be of course a 3-year project.

I have gone on record as stating that I believe that PAS records between 40 and 70 per cent of all archaeological objects found. This is an educated guess and a more detailed study is needed before it can be refined.

Of course we are very unhappy when we see large numbers of detector finds being sold on eBay and elsewhere before they have been recorded and since 2006 the two national detecting bodies and all relevant archaeological bodies agreed a Code of Practice on Responsible Metal Detecting which stressed the importance of detector users recording their finds. We need to increase the incentives for those who make such finds to record them before they are sold. But it must be remembered that PAS is a voluntary scheme and there is no legal obligation to report such finds (if they are not Treasure). On the other hand, many potential finds of Treasure are being sold on eBay and we do believe that there is a need for greater regulation of the site and we are pressing for eBay to extend the agreement they reached with Germany, Switzerland and Austria last year not to sell any antiquities from those countries unless they are accompanied by documentation to show their provenance to the UK.

There is no secret about the number of finds recorded by PAS and we are happy to give these data to anyone who enquires. In 2007 66,311 objects were recorded on the PAS database (in addition 11,295 coins from Norfolk, recorded before 2007, were added to the database in that year) and in 2008 the figure was 56,065, a result of the cuts in funding to PAS that year.

I cannot see why you and HA think that it is so important? What will change as a result? Is it not more relevant to compare the situation in Britain with that in other countries? A recent study of Roman miniature axes from the Roman North-West by a Canadian researcher, Philip Kiernan (`Miniature Votive Offerings in the Roman North-West', Verlag Franz Philipp Rutzen, Mainz) has details of 120 specimens, more than half of which (64) are from Britain and 27 of the 64 British examples were recorded by PAS. Kiernan only recorded 21 examples from the whole of France, despite the fact that it is at least twice as large as Britain.

A French scholar, Xavier Loriot, and I, are working on finds of Roman gold coins from Britain, comparing the data with a corpus he wrote of finds from France, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland and the pattern is very similar: from Britain the rate of new discoveries has more than doubled since 1973, whereas on the Continent it has declined.

Paul Barford said...

I believe I have answered the comments on the HA counter in an earlier post and in the comments to it.

The basis for the figures is as I said fully described in a text which is currently in print (and we have reasons for not letting UK "metal detectorists" know what they are before the book is on the bookshelves). But until then I really do not see why anyone who has any dealings with "metal detectorists" would have any problems with accepting that statistically there is anything improbable in a sum of 30 archaeologically interesting (record-worthy) items found per year. Pretending there is seems to me to be simply dodging the issue.

As I asked before, by what degree would these figures have to be WRONG to make the loss acceptable?

Neither do I accept the argument that determining these figures is outside the scope of the PAS, this is neither the case when it had a "fifth aim" nor when it abandoned ("fulfilled" - yeah yeah) it. It should have been part of the review processes too. It IS an important question in any assessment of "how well the PAs is doing" (and where it is going) as well as the "effects of current policies on portable antiquity collection on the archaeological record".

Daniel Pett said...

Is "[..]The basis for the figures is as I said fully described in a text which is currently in print (and we have reasons for not letting UK "metal detectorists" know what they are before the book is on the bookshelves)[...]" really a solid defence for dubious/flawed statistical hypothesis? If you can't reveal how these stats are produced, then no wonder you and HA have had little comment from archaeologists as the foundation appears purely speculative. It wouldn't really stand up to peer review!

I still don't believe that 10,000 people are actively engaged in metal detecting weekly, or that many find that much of archaeological note.

It always seems that you (that's you and HA) don't think that we're concerned about the effects of metal detecting on the archaeological record of this country. That is completely untrue.

Any chance you could disable pop up comments? It is really bad for accessibility.
Anyway, off to watch Dan Snow's documentary on the Celts.

Paul Barford said...

Hi Dan, as I have already indicated, the reasoning behind the figures is set out (with much else besides) in a forthcoming book and as I said earlier I expect they – along with a whole load of other ideas and assessments of ours which it contains - will be subjected to the full weight of “peer review” from all the Merrie Men involved in artefact hunting, collecting and the trade as well as a number of our colleagues busy “building bridges” (who really do not come out of the whole affair too well). That’s no problem, that’s why we are publishing it.

I think you should not consider a group’s website on the one hand and my personal blog as a substitute for an academic publication. Neither are intended to be “a solid defence” for what you assume to be “a dubious/flawed statistical hypothesis”.

You wrote: I still don't believe that 10,000 people are actively engaged in metal detecting weekly, or that many find that much of archaeological note. Hmmm. There seems to be an odd assumption here that because Nigel and I say something which is uncomfortable for the pro-collecting lobby that we must be stupid, ignorant or in some other way lacking in intellectual abilities. Nobody has said that ten thousand blokes are out there every week. We are well aware that they are not. We are however aware of some who are out nearly every day in the ‘season’ and some who only ever get to one or two rallies a year because they have no access to fields. I am disappointed that you think the model which was produced is not a subtle, nuanced one created by people who have indeed put much effort into finding things out and capable of thinking issues through.

But in your dismissal is the fundamental issue. The KEY question is not intended as a rhetorical one. By how much would the model represented by the counter have to be wrong to allow the situation to be regarded as acceptable? Acceptable as mitigation of damage deliberately caused by a minority of exploitive individuals? That is the question I would address to my archaeological colleagues, bridge builders or not. Let us, without the staple glib artefactological superficialities, discuss it in those terms which are the only ones that matter. Just WHAT is the “bridge building” setting out to achieve? In that sense the actual figures are less important than their implications. It is a pefectly valid question.

I have no doubt that the PAS is “concerned about the effects of metal detecting on the archaeological record of this country” (how could one not be?). I would say then that it is time for an honest assessment of just how well current policies are dealing with the problem of wholesale artefact hunting (indeed an assessment of what those policies are and what their aim is). The PAS should be in the centre of such reflection.

Roger Bland guesses (comment above) that PAS is recording ”40 to 70%” of everything artefact hunters in England and Wales are taking away from archaeological sites each year. The next step is for the PAS to make the transition from merely guessing to demonstrating that (if that is what they wish to maintain) this is indeed the case. A glance at eBay (see the post on Sunday I think it was on “antiquebottledigger”) suggests this is not an accurate reflection of what is happening out there. Such statements seem to me to be a failure to face up to the possibility that the situation in actual fact looks completely different from the "fluffy bunny" picture the pro-collecting lobby continues to foist off on us and the major stakeholder, the British non-artefact hunting public. If people wish to dismiss the HA counter, then do so by showing it is wrong and discuss what “bridge builders” consider an acceptable loss of archaeological information caused by the unrecorded collecting activities of their “partners”.

Paul Barford said...

There is now a comment from Heritage Action referring to Dan Pett's comments on the Heritage Action Counter here:

(confusining isn't it?)

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