Wednesday 17 March 2010

Scottish Archaeologist Soothes on Figures of Damage

In his paper delivered to the Newcastle CBA-sponsored Conference, Scottish archaeologist David Connolly attempted to deal "with the realities in the field", "drawing on a wealth of recent analysis and fieldwork" to discuss portable antiquities collection in the UK. One of the things he had obviously set out to do was convince his audience that estimates of the rate artefacts are being taken out of the ground by artefact hunters created by its critics (like the Heritage Action Erosion Counter) are false.

In order to do this he asked a couple of his mates with metal detectors on the detecting forums to create a little demonstration for him. Six case studies are presented (slides 11-14 in his online presentation). They represent the fruits of 26 hours detecting in four counties, only one of which is in the southeast of the country. Four guys were out in the fields for four hours a day, and two reportedly for six [one of whom according to details presented in the transcript but not on the recording was there between ten and two in the afternoon, work that out]. The average period of time spent in the field on these days was therefore 4.33 hours.

The intention behind this action was to show the truth of the statement one can frequently see on metal detecting forums in the UK (especially since the HA Erosion counter appeared) that "metal detectorists find lots of metal items, but our critics do not know that this is mostly rubbish" (the HA Erosion Counter does not estimate the number of all metal objects being found by metal detectorists, just the ones which are 'recordable' in PAS database terms).

The notion of "rubbish" is different for the collector and the archaeologist. There is indeed a remarkable amount of totally modern rubbish (tin cans, tinfoil, ring pulls etc etc) in British fields, showing what a slovenly lot they are. The five case studies however also produced a relatively large number of "scraps of lead", "scraps of copper alloy", "undiagnostic fragments of copper alloy" and "various bits of iron". These the artefact hunters dismissed as "rubbish" too. Now I do not know how David Connolly digs, but I wonder whether he would throw away such material in the course of his own investigations? What is "undiagnostic" archaeological material? Corroded iron really needs X-raying before being summarily dismissed. Pieces of non-ferrous metal do not fall from the sky in a shower, they do not get broken by raindrops falling on them. They are archaeological finds and archaeological evidence. What they are NOT is the sort of collectable that V-coins dealers in the States, or Timelines auctioneers in the UK would sell in their shops. You'll not see many of them on eBay, but they are nevertheless archaeological artefacts. They are archaeological artefacts being removed from archaeological assemblages by metal detector use. But they are not the kind of archaeological artefact which the PAS generally record, like the collectors, they too are very selective. We'll come back to these artefacts in a moment.

Of the items that Connolly showed, which are recordable by the PAS or the Scottish TTU? Well, there were three hammered pennies, recordable. Five "copper grots", they should at least be looked at; there were three fragments of copper alloy vessel, these are an object type recorded in the PAS database. Some Neolithic flintwork, recordable. Medieval pottery, recordable. There were various buckles, no picture was given, were they all Post-Medieval? Would all of the supposedly "undiagnostic" artefacts have been rejected by the PAS had they been submitted to them? We will never know because in only one of the case studies (20%) were the finds noted as having been seen by the PAS.

So if six sessions of a total of 26 hours metal detecting (average 4.33 hours each) in different parts of England find a minimum of seven individual or groups of recordable items, that means that ten thousand detector users in the same 4.33 hours could be finding 2500 recordable items (and if as in the case studies quoted only 20% of them are being reported to the PAS or TTU...). They also are denuding sites of large numbers of what would in a proper investigation be regarded as archaeological finds but which are not collectable, so are summarily discarded, or taken away to be sold as scrap metal.

The degree of bias in these quoted figures presented by Connolly should be considered. Before his presentation Dave Connolly was seen on detecting forums pleading for information for his test cases and stating what the results were going to be used for. Is it not conceivable, especially given the paranoia currently rampant in the UK detecting community, that the information supplied to him by his detectorist informants was selected in order to make a point? After all these lists have hundreds (claim thousands) of members, why were the "statistics" from just a single car-full of artefact hunters used in this "analysis of the situation"?

Oddly enough, Connolly makes no use of the other statistics he gives in his paper, of his Water Newton rally where he said in "two days" of detecting, 320 artefact hunters found 585 recordable items. Now, unfortunately Connolly (I sure this is just an accident) neglects to present in his report of this event the number of hours that people were searching. In the absence of this information, let us accept that the 4.33 hours average detecting session noted in the Connolly case studies is what most people can put up with (many detectorists say they only go to these rallies for the social life rather than the detecting). Thus 320 finders searching for 8.66 hours found 585 recordable objects. This finds rate (even without taking into account Connolly's "89%" recording rate) means that in the same 4.33 hours ten thousand detectorists could be finding 9140 recordable artefacts. There is more than a slight discrepancy between the two sets of figures that Connolly presents in his "analysis". In fact he ignores the implications of the data set provided by the rally he himself helped organize.

But then, it is just as hard to account for Connolly's other omission. I am sure he is aware that there was another survey carried out by UK metal detector users back in 2005. Nevertheless he does not even mention it. Why? In this earlier survey, "detectorists" were asked to list everything found in a three hour search, and the results were published on the UKDN detecting forum (the link is now broken). The results of thirty nine metal detecting sessions in various regions of the country were presented online, and they were surprisingly consistent. It is interesting to note that several of the participants called the results “typical”, while some emphasised they normally had “better” results (meaning a higher ratio of interesting finds). In all, the full results of over 127 hours detecting were presented for scrutiny. Of the 39 metal detector users taking part, in just those three hours 19 of them found between 1 and 7 items which fall into the category of ‘reportable’, 127 man-hours of detecting produced in total 52 items of this nature alongside many more other metal finds. This figure would be the equivalent of ten thousand people finding 19244 recordable items in those 4.33 hours detecting. Considerably more than the five test cases presented at the Newcastle conference by David Connolly. Why were the implications of these figures ignored?

There is however evidence that finds recovery rates can be much higher. On this blog I discussed a YouTube video some UK metal detectorists had made of their exploits in Suffolk. The video was almost immediately withdrawn when I pointed out its implications, which were clear. A single weekend's detecting can produce a relatively large number of recordable finds.

Now, ten thousand detector users is a low estimate, but obviously if each of them is finding objects at the rate indicated by any of the figures mentioned above, then the number of finds leaving the "productive sites" of the fields of Britain for eBay and various scattered personal collections is potentially - and disturbingly - huge.

Connolly rightly says that - shabbily despite a dozen years of liaison - we do not know for sure how many hours different groups of metal detectorists spend out in the fields in the UK. Obviously this is something the PAS should have been able to found out by now, that they have not indicates that they have different priorities than creating an understandinfg of how the data that they accumulate are actually generated - surely fundamental to their informed interpretation and understanding. We learn from forums tha some detector using artefact hunters certainly spend every free moment out on their "productive sites", I've noted a couple of these in my blog as I recall. Terry Herbert comes to mind, home all day on a disability allowance. Others of course, less involved, go out maybe a few hours on the odd sunny weekend. Many however pay lots of cash to go on "club digs" and rallies so may spend longer out in the field. Up north there are groups that hold such meetings almost every weekend in the detecting season.

Perhaps it would not be going too far to assume that, to earn the name, the average metal detector using artefact hunter could go out fifteen times in a year, the equivalent of once a month and a couple of days more in the holiday season. That is a total of 65 hours a year. I believe that is a fair estimate. So how many finds a year would that produce? About thirty recordable items a year, a head.

Connolly criticises (at 19:01 of his presentation) the Heritage Action Erosion Counter because it "ticks away and is based on dodgy statistics". Now, I know for a fact that Connolly has not actually seen the figures on which it is based, but prejudges them - on the basis, it would seem, of his desire to present the metal detectorist as "not much of a threat" in order to then argue that co-operation with their denudation of archaeological assemblages would be an "opportunity". In fact the rate at which the HA counter is ticking is based on much better statistics than those he attempts to marshal to demonstrate that it is wrong.
The rate at which it is ticking is just under thirty recordable finds per person a year. A not unreasonable number - but numbers have a habit of adding up the longer one refuses to see a problem and do something about it. And I would say that daft-headed attempts to pretend "there is no problem" by British archaeologists like Mr Connolly are part OF the problem.
UPDATE: Heritage Action's reaction can now be seen here: "Metal detecting: Heritage Action vindicated at Portable Antiquities conference".
" Mr Connolly went onto a detectorists forum and asked people to tell him what they found in a single session in order, as he told them, to “show that all current statistics are flawed” and achieve a situation where “the only people with stats will be us” (“us”, Mr Connolly??)"

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