Monday, 28 September 2009

Debate or no debate?

Over on the CBA's British Archaeology Forum, a debate is or conversely is not about to break out on the dreaded subject those metal detectorists. The media hoo-haa about the seven-figure sum reward paid to the finder of the Staffordshire hoard is the context. Let's have a look in.
The thread starts with Mark Horton drawing attention to the plight of a Devon museum which suddenly, it appears, had the funding it was reliant on for developing its business plan, slashed by the local council. By a million quid. The museum will have to close, local jobs will be lost, the developers may well move in to the site and ruin its heritage amenities. He ends: "I am not sure if there is anything that can be done, except to feel outraged". A list member (Nigel Swift co-author of a certain book on artefact hunting) adds a trenchant comment to that:
One could reflect that if only 10% of market value of the Staffordshire hoard was paid to the finder (which is more than enough for surrendering what belongs to us all I would have thought) then the £1 million shortfall could be covered and the museum could be saved. It is really not on that finders can chortle that "it is better than winning the lottery" while at the same time museums can be allowed to go to the wall.
One Ian Daintith answers with a one-liner:
"And with an attitude like that more detectors will go "underground" and heritage would get nothing!" [my emphasis]
To which the sharp-witted Mr Swift replies with the only response possible faced with such a comment (remember metal detectorists say they're "only in it fer th'istry"):
So what are you suggesting?? Unless society is prepared to pay every penny in full, it can forget about seeing its heritage ? Is there a word for that?
[I think we can all think of one]. At which point Diana Briscoe, Archiver of Anglo-Saxon pottery stamps if you please, remonstrates:
OH PULEEZE!!!!I do NOT want to have to start deleting another round of metal detectorist arguments and slanging. Please stop this one right here!.
Lady D. does not want. Sounds like Andy Holland of the CBA who also "does not want" to talk about these issues on an archaeology forum either. Wimps. Quick as a flash Mr Swift (glad he's on my side) responds:
I'm afraid we shall have to differ. Millions of heritage pounds are not going into museum funding, yet millions of heritage pounds are going into private hands to reward people for doing what the law already obliges them to do. I really don't see why we shouldn't debate whether the heritage cake is being sliced to optimum effect.
Nor do I. Will there be a discussion on the British Archaeology forum? Probably not, British archaeologists seem to have lost the stomach to stand firm on anything much to do with artefact hunting and collecting these days.

There are three problems with this "full market" value lark. The first is it costs the public budget an awful lot. Britain is a rich country - but not that rich that it has enough hospital beds or school classrooms, or whatever. Most of these rewards are going to people deliberately going out seeking treasure.

An additional point is that every time the newspapers trumpet another six or seven figure reward another couple of hundred people decide it might be a good idea to take up metal detecting. Every year therefore we are going to be seeing more and more of these items being handed in. This will only stop when the Treasure (a finite resource) is all used up, or all the museums have decided they have enough gold and silver goodies to please the crowds. Mr Herbert of the Staffordshire hoard says treasure hunting is "like the lottery", it is not at all. With some 700 treasures being reported a year in England, Wales and Northern Ireland alone among 10 000 metal detectorists, a quick calculation shows that statistically in a decade or so detecting, the chances of finding a big-reward "Treasure" are cnsiderably higher than winning big-win sums on the lottery. It takes a bit longer, but it is exercise in the fresh air and you get your name in the papers and a pat on the head from the archaeologists.

The other issue is legal. The Treasure does not become Crown property from the moment of the inquest. The inquest determines whether it is or is not - the objects are Crown property while in (by virtue of being in) the ground. This means you or I or Mr Herbert cannot legally dig them up and sell them on eBay, any more than I could sell on eBay one of Her Majesty's corgis I found wandering lost in Windsor Great Park. Given therefore that their sale by a private individual would be illegal, how can they be sold for their full market value? They can only be disposed of by under-the-counter sales, for which the illegal vendor cannot expect full market value. This is the reasoning behind the assignation of rewards in other countries where items are considered state property. Why then is Britain different?

Archaeologists who find "Treasure" items in the course of going about doing what archaeologists do (they mainly "do it fer th'istry" too, there's no money in archaeology these days) do not get a reward. The law requires them to go through certain procedures with items of a specific category that they encounter as a result of their activities, and they do so without a big rigmarole, without a murmer. Metal detectorists who find "Treasure" items in the course of ("only doing it fer th'istry") doing what metal detectorists do get full market value. The law requires them to go through certain procedures with items of a specific category that they encounter as a result of their activities, and they do so and expect a massive reward for doing so. And they are often found complaining loudly on their forums that they reckon their mates were "diddled" by the state.

Let us note that English and Welsh law also requires everybody to report to the same official (the coroner) if they find a dead body somewhere, like in the woods or fields. So how soon is it before citizens will be expecting a reward for complying with that law (starting no doubt with the metal detectorists)? After all if there were no bodies reported, the newspapers would not be able to write about them, and the police would not be able to do their job would they?

Photo: the Knoxville body farm, no rewards for finders here.


Sheddy said...

Dear Mr Barford,

Archaeologists get paid for the time they put in to excavation work but Detectorists do not. I therefore suggest that detectorists should not be paid for the recovery of treasure items but should be paid at the same hourly rate as an archaeological geophysicist for their search time. That would level the playing field nicely.


Richard Lincoln

Paul Barford said...

Would they then do so under the same conditions? As part of an organized project in co-operation with the conservation sevices and on contract, no digging up of the finds detected by this "geophysical survey", no keeping of finds and no selling them on eBay? The latter is the way some metal detector users recoup their costs, is it not? So do we deduct that from the earnings you'd like us all to give them?

It is a fundamental misundertsnding that "metal detecting" is just about "detecting" metal. The name is deliberately misleading. It is a sly misnomer. This is why I call it artefact hunting. That is what "metal detectorists" are doing, they are detecting and DIGGING. If "metal detectng" consisted of just putting dots on a site plan and was not intrusive, then there would be no problems with "metal detecting". But that is not what the hobby is about. It is about digging up and collecting portable antiquities, an erosive and therefore archaeologically destructive process.

Now tell me, how much do you think was the "hourly rate" of the archaeologists who dug up 800 of the Staffordshire Hoard? The whole dig cost 25k. Half of ALL the value of the 800 or so items they dug up goes into Mr Herbert's pocket because after digging the stuff up himself for FIVE WHOLE DAYS he finally picked up the phone. So you reckon the hourly rate those diggers got was the same as the value of the finds they handed in so Mr Herbert can get his cash? How much do you think archaeologists earn in Britain an hour then?

The point is artefact hunters deliberately go out to find valuable objects, either to keep themselves or to sell. If its not treasure, they can keep anything they find, they can sell it on eBay or to their mates, they can sell it as bullion/scrap.

On eBay.UK tonight, we have 2120 British antiquities on sale, plus 1161 Roman ones, 763 prehistoric ones. Sold by British vendors mosly, coming from metal detectorists and other artefact hunters. That's just tonight Mr Lincoln. Over a year that's a lot of earnings for the metal detector users of Britain I think.More than enough. Far more than they deserve for an exploitive and damaging hobby. Like Mr Welsh, the idea that society owes you a living for ind=ulging in a minority exploitive, erosive and damaging activity is simply false reasoning. Ask the PAS who are supposed to outreach to people like you why metal detectorists cannot have an "hourly rate" for what they do. Ask them. They are your "partners".

[Richard Lincoln ("Sheddy") is a metal detectorist. He has a shed].

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link for the pic.


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