Saturday, 26 September 2009

"A Vulgar Quest for Pretty Objects". Is this the best British Archaeology can do?

I owe one of my readers a sincere apology. This morning when, bleary-eyed, I turned on my computer I found a rather nasty comment had been sent by somebody appearing to be a metal detectorist (?) from Hungary referring to a video posted on the Internet about the excavation of the "Staffordshire Hoard". The comment looked like the typical anti-archaeologist stuff certain artefact collecting forums are full of at the moment. Opening the link revealed the offending film had been posted by IT guru and generally decent bloke Dan Pett, of the BM. It was a dreadful video. After watching it, the only explanation that came to mind was that Dan had been offered a day trip out of London to see the site, had taken his cell phone and captured a few candid shots. Even on the best run sites there are days when one would prefer there not to be cameras around. I assumed this was an unauthorised video a visitor (Dan) to the site had made and posted. In which case the Hungarian reader's comments were a little unfair and biased - though the video did seem to show some strange things happening, at 13 seconds the girl clunks a piece of garnet inlaid gold with her trowel, objects being yanked out of what is clearly very stiff clay for example.

After thinking about it and reviewing what I had to do this morning, I regret to say I rejected the comment, not having time to explain all that to the person who'd sent it. I also sent a remonstratory email (OK, I'm grumpy early in the morning) to Dan Pett, suggesting that putting his none-too-flattering home movies of other people's excavations on the internet might get him into hot water and it was not creating a very good impression of the project or archaeology.

Then later on after the coffee kicked in, I found fragments of this video were part of the online coverage given by the Telegraph and the BBC, which would be odd if they were Dan Pett's home movies. Then I realised that these scenes were actually credited to Birmingham Archaeology, Birmingham University's Archaeology Unit which apparently received part (?) of 25000 pounds from English Heritage to conduct this excavation. This is an official film of the investigations (which Dan confirmed when he replied to my early morning mail - he has not been to the site). This I find astounding. Apart from anything else, it shows an extraordinary lack of professionalism to release such a film to the national media.

So, here belatedly is the original comment I too hastily rejected this morning:
Karikásostor has left a new comment on your post "Huge Anglo-Saxon Gold Hoard Dug up by Finder":

Dear Paul,Theoretically I'm 100% agree with your post, however in the practice I was rather shocked after watching this video: It's the so called professional fieldwork of the Birmingham archaeology team. I can't see too much difference between this and digging of some benevolent amateur detectorists. What can we see in this video?- People walking to the field with some larger GPS and possibly geophysical instruments.- We can see some wooden sticks, most likely grid points and some people digging in the most likely disturbed topsoil, with IRON trowels.- When they are finding some interesting find they are instantly removing each pieces and proudly showing to the camera. Frankly speaking, I had the chance to take part at several scientific archaeological field walking in my country (Hungary), when we discovered hoards, but this is not way shown in this video how some can gain valuable ARCHAEOLOGICAL information about such a spectacular find. I'm still hoping that I just misunderstood something about this film.

Well, so am I but I have a sneaking suspicion that your comments might not have been so far off the mark after all, sorry for rejecting it out of hand. Now, I suspect what we are not seeing is that before the filming each of those metal objects may have been pinpointed by metal detector (and or magnetometer) beforehand. So the slightly cavalier style of digging almost certainly is guided by the thought that they know pretty exactly where all the metal objects are. The video clearly shows that all these objects at this stage of the excavation are coming from the ploughsoil. While I would not see in such circumstances the use of trowels so much of a problem myself (you can see this is really awful stuff to dig), there certainly seems to be no record being made of the objects in the soil, we see objects exposed and immediately yanked out, and the cleaned off (the earth in the bent strip at 50 seconds could have contained organic material from the original burial environment). The site is a mess, the diggers are trampling over the spoil lying in the bottom of the trenches, the excavation units are highly irregular in shape. None of this produces the impression of a disciplined investigation. Two scenes show that one face of the artefact-bearing layer has been shaved off with a spade which in one case has passed extremely close to an object lying in situ. The objects are being yanked or levered out of the soil. What's going on? What happened to those lumps of clay - wet sieving? What kind of records were kept? This is Birmingham by the way where master excavator Phil Barker taught. Was there any kind of EH inspection to see how their 25k was being spent here?

Then I found a webpage with photos of the dig - really quite a small hole for 25000 quid - more to the point, unfenced. So what, a five by five metre trench? A thousand quid per square metre of topsoil sieving? But at least we see some wet-something (sieving? Where are the screens?) was going on of something. There is a petrie dish of three pieces of gold obviously recovered from this washing, one quite big.

Literally just as I was in the middle of drafting this post, I had an email from the French heritage group HAPPAH with a link to their newsletter. There we read some none-too-complimentary comments on British archaeology and the PAS (the latter I'll leave aside here). They judge British archaeology rather poorly from what they saw on BBC news of this what-should-have-been-a-flagship-project:

Ce sont les archéologues de Birmingham Archaeology, branche commerciale de l'université de Birmingham sur financement d'English Heritage, qui ont achevé « la fouille ». Mais peut-on vraiment parler de fouille ? D’après les films amateurs diffusés sur Internet, il s’agit plutôt d’une vulgaire quête au bel objet. Les prélèvements ne paraissent pas plus sérieux que ceux qui ont été effectués par le chasseur de trésors. Dans l’un de ces films on voit une personne prélever tous azimuts les objets, les arrachant de leur contexte stratigraphique avec une truelle trois fois trop grosse pour s’empresser de les présenter à la caméra. Les méthodes employées sont dignes des fouilles du XIXème siècle où seuls comptent les objets, leurs qualités artistiques, typologiques et symboliques. Les archéologues jugeront par eux mêmes si l’archéologie moderne est ici présentée sous son meilleur jour :
As one metal detectorist noted on seeing this, "If I as a metal detectorist did this with my spade and trowel would you be horrified and judge me by a 2 minute video?". Yes we would, and I think we are doubly justified in asking what is going on in this cringeworthy video when its not metal detectorists but archaeologists. Now (unusual though it may be it for me to defend the PAS), it should be pointed out that these excavations are nothing to do with the PAS, the Treasure Unit or the British Museum. The Treasure Unit, oddly, has no fieldwork team of their own or even a separate budget for such excavations, so when investigations of any Treasure findspot needs to be carried out, they are reliant on the local archaeologists. In the case of the Staffordshire hoard, one wonders looking at this video and the international criticism (Poland, Hungary and France) whether a team from the British Museum with experience of dealing with finds like this may not have done a better job than we see being done in this video. This looks like a typical example of British fudgery and make-do.
Now I hope I am entirely wrong and next week we will see soon some decent photos of a site that does not look like the amateur fossickings of the Barsettshire Amateur Archaeology Group in 1961, that we will see some decent site plans and a decent description of the site methodology. Whether or not these do appear, there can only be one conclusion here.
To make the Treasure Act any kind of archaeological (and not just treasure-hunting) success, there not only has to be a way of getting to the find before it has all been taken out of the ground by artefact hunters. There also clearly has to be the resources and ability to undertake a proper archaeological investigation of the findspot. A hole 2 x 2m as we have seen on other sites dug by one bloke with the assistance of the metal detectorist in a single day is not an adequate archaeological response to one of these finds. THere is a reason why this hoard was buried at precisely this spot, a 5 x 5 m trench is not necessarily going to find that reason, the area needs a proper topographical survey and field research to put it in context. Clearly there is a need for a well-equipped and well-resourced Treasure Unit Archaeological Flying Squad ready to go out at a minute's notice and co-ordinate the work of local teams. There needs to be resources set aside for providing proper security for such sites during excavation, the full conservation, study and publication of these nationally important (so we are told) finds. This should be financed to no less a degree than the money the UK is forking out to get the artefacts. And that is the true cost of the Treasure Act to the British people.
Photo: From the Birmingham Archaeology webpage.


John Muccigrosso said...

At 0:34 you can see a bit of the grid they laid out which is at least 4x4, I'd say, and, to be fair, the clips are only of the moments when they found metal (gold) objects, most of which to be very close to the surface. It's impossible to tell what else is going on (recording, screening, etc.) elsewhere on the site.

That said, they seem a bit too eager to pull things out of their sections.

Imagine what the original finder did over 5 days.

Paul Barford said...

OK, you imagine you are a professional unit and this is your project, and you are making a video to "show the public" what you've been up to. Is this what you would show the national media? Does this represent the quality of your work? Does this well represent the professional standards to which you aspire? I imagine Birmingham Archaeology is in the IFA, what do the IFA say about what that video shows? I shudder to think what they cut OUT of this film.

No, this is very unprofessional, letting the side down totally and there is no excuse for it on what should have been a flagship project for the whole of British archaeology.

If that's what it's going to look like they might as well have let the whole Bloxwich Research and Metal Detecting Club go down there and have a dig around, they'd have done it for free, and probably just as well as what we see in this awful video.

Panopolis said...

No problem Paul.

It's rather funny for me, that based on my "nasty comment", you supposed, that I'm a metal detectorist.

I'm a field archaeologist.

As for the use of the trowel, I tried to point out, that according my experience it was a very bad idea to excavate golden and other very fragmentary object with an iron tool.

Of course it much less important issue, that on this video they just simply grabbed out the object without any detailed in-situ record, even if these pieces were in secondary context in the ploughsoil.

Paul Barford said...

Sorry for accusing you of being a metal detectorist, that's what you get for not using a real name, i cannot check who you are !! Firstly over on one of the artefact collecting forums there has been a lot of anti-archaeologist nonsense and this looked like just another one of them. It was also this: "Frankly speaking, I had the chance to take part at several scientific archaeological field walking in my country (Hungary)" which sounded like a metal-detectory thing to say. Anyway I am glad you are not, it's an unhealthy habit.

I think, to be fair, its a difficult site, little bits of fragmented metal in a matrix of heavy clay which forms lumps. Hell to dig, but that is why I would expect a more rigid regime and site discipline (and cleanliness) than we are shown in this video.

I personally don't see a problem with iron trowels on this soil, its obviously very heavy clay. I certainly though would not be using it like those people !! Note the trowels shown are all unworn, these are not I think experienced diggers, I suspect students from the University.

I agree absolutely about the apparent lack of documentation as the stuff lies in the ground. This video creates the impression of an extremely unprofessional excavation and as a British archaeologist, frankly I am ashamed.

Thanks for bringing the video to my attention. I think there are some important questions here to be asked and answered. I hope they are.

Paul Barford said...

The new (BAJR) Federation of British archaeologists has been talking to Birmingham Archaeology about the contents of their video when asked by a metal detectorist about it (note the archaeologists of Britain are by and large sitting back quite happy about what they see, obviously nothing here strikes them as particularly noteworthy - rather reinforcing the point made by the French).

Anyway we are told:
"the finds were in ploughsoil - deep ploughsoil, and as archaeologists (not students - but real archaeologists) were able to identify that which was in ploughsoil, and that which were in sealed context. The Video quality was maybe not of the best, and really only concentrated on when somebody found something, rather than the 99% of the time when they were carefully digging, sieving and otherwise doing what Archaeological Companies do. What you see is just a bad edit, rather than any evidence of bad practice.
Although I winced a couple of times, I know myself that when you are in the field, you can 'feel' when something is ready to come out, and when its not. Additionally, it is important to recognise this was ploughsoil. […] After hearing from BA, I am happy to stand up and say... nothing to see here ... move along".
Well, whether or not the finds were "in topsoil" is not the point, its about "real archaeologists" being seen clunking gold-and- garnet metalwork with trowels, shaving sections with spades centimetres from still-buried objects, and yanking objects out of the ground before they (and any loose garnet inlay in it) have been fully exposed. It really creates the most awful impression of the standard of work being carried out by a team which should have been (given the importance of the finds) been the most competent in the region.

I hope that is a slip of the pen when the author says that it only shows the moments when the delicate hoard items were taken out of the ground, not the other 99% of the time "when they were carefully digging". I think we would all rather have seen some carefully digging in the vicinity of soft gold objects with loose garnet inlay set in hard clay. That is the one thing we do not see.

That the video only showed gold being hoiked out of the ground was also the point being made. No attempt was made to show this as part of a disciplined multi-faceted field project. No attempt was made to show anything more than a glorified treasure grabfest. No attempt was made to show the taxpayer who'd forked out the money to call the archaeologists in, what the archaeologists did, no sieving, no preparation, just grabbing gold from the sides of holes.

That was the point being made, about a professional team presenting their work in a professional manner. Is it actually too much to ask?

I winced more than "a couple of times", but I wish I could be glad to hear I was the only one.

Unknown said...

Even to a layman like me this does look a bit slipshod.
I thought archaeology was all about context and it doesn't look like real care has been taken to find out too much about that.
Of course, it's early days and the priority here was to get the stuff out of the ground for conservation. It's where we go from here that's important.

Paul Barford said...

It gives the impression of being extraordinarily slipshod work. I think that is obvious to even the non-archaeologist.

They say the "context is not important" because it was in ploughsoil, but basically what is not documented at the time these things are laying in the soil does not get documented and the importance (or not) of the precise disposition can never be determined. For example if (as has been suggested) this hoard was freshly ploughed up, the distribution and orientation of the items might be able to tell us in which direction the plough travelled across the orignal deposit and what had originally been lying with what. Working backwards from precise information on the attitude and orientation in the ploughsoil might have given us information about how they had lain in the ground before disturbed. If all we have is an "X marks the spot, it was here" record (because I do not see them making any other kind as the objects are taken out before they have been fully exposed in the ground) then obviously this is information we will never be able to obtain.

As for the "conservation", as I said, hoiking it out like that runs the risk of pulling out and leaving behind any garnets (and just as importantly the tiny fragments of hatched gold foil under them which give them their "shine"). There could have been organic material preserved in the soil that was still adhering to the objects which came from the original deposit, but we see the archaeologists breaking it off in clods.

Basically the video shows the objects being dug up by these archaeologists like potatoes. Well, in fact no, when I dig up potatoes I generally do it with a lot more care than we see here.

Simon H said...

This is the first time I have replied to this site.
And my name is Simon Haley, yes I am a metal detector, but also studied archeology at night school, and hope to write a paper on the do's and don'ts of detecting.
And agree regarding the early post, about the five days, items where removed from the plough soil.
But regarding the archeological extraction of the items, I was also shocked.
It does not matter if it was plough soil, as the context of the soil in heavy clay would be present on the object, till a finger wiped it of for the camera?

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