Wednesday 17 March 2010

Scottish archaeologist - UK Artefact Hunting, "What's Missing?"

Scottish archaeologist David Connolly appeared at the Newcastle conference on building bridges between archaeology and artefact collecting. He has obligingly put his presentation "What's missing? Reality resources and reactions" online. This serves as a useful summary of what the problem is in the current "partnership" between British archaeologists and artefact hunters and collectors.

This is what he said before the conference he was going to do:

"Exploring the UK systems and preconceptions, this paper deals with the realities in the field and uses the author's previously gathered information along with statistical analysis that compares the two main processes of artefact collection – detecting and commercial archaeology. Drawing on a wealth of recent analysis and fieldwork, the purpose will be to reassess the directions taken, and argue for a focussed approach that acknowledges both the benefits and harsh realities when it comes to dealing with portable antiquities collection, sale and recording in the UK".
The talk fails to deliver the promise. There is a lot about what a wonderful "opportunity" (to get to see handfulls of loose archaeological artefacts) artefact hunting offers to the British object-oriented archaeologist, but the only "harsh reality" this speaker recognised is that there are "misconceptions on both sides" which stand in the way of full co-operation.

Archaeologist Connolly seems to regard the critics of current policies on collecting as his opponents. Here we have direct confirmation of the US dealers' lobby label of preservationists as "radical archaeologists". So David Connolly would have lots in common with Wayne Sayles, I wonder if they got together during the conference and swapped stories and jokes? Several times throughout the talk he refers to the theme of how bothersome it is that there are some critics of archaeologists entering into a site-damaging partnership with artefact collectors. He devoted the major part of the talk to attempting to show that "metal detecting" does relatively little damage to the British archaeological record. Now, I happen to be at the other end of Conolly's criticism, because have always maintained that (a) the damage is greater than most of the "fluffy bunny approach" mob will allow and (b) whatever the scale is, it is unacceptable and the British archaeological community should be taking steps to make this at least a form of damage to the UK archaeological record that is avoidable. Instead they are doing precisely the opposite in a quest to see more goodies out of the soil.

I will return to the specific "statistics" Connolly trundled out (to support his claim that the critics of the current status quo are wrong) in the post below this. Here I want to express my general thoughts on the whole talk. Dave really was thrashing about in the dark (slide 3) trying to find his niche as "Protector of the Collector". It was actually a bit nauseating, starting from the dedication to his mother onwards, really (first time I've heard that at an academic conference in several decades of going to them). Not unexpectedly there was lots of "fluffy bunny" we-are-all-good-mates padding (slides 16 and 17), but no real addressing of the problem how the archaeologist should be approaching the exploitation of the archaeological record as a source of collectables.

Connolly seems most concerned about "attitudes" to his mates the artefact hunters and collectors. He seems to present it as a plus that the critics of the current policies on artefact collecting are unable to say how many "metal detectorists" there are in the UK. I would say that after twelve years of a policy based on liaison, it is an extreme negative that the archaeological community of Great Britain still has no way of assessing how big the problem is (slides 2-3 " truth we don't know"). That actually is very disturbing.

Connolly does his best to defend the "metal detectorist" from criticism. He plays down the degree of illegal activity carried out by metal detector wielders, he quotes figures that of the "10320 Roman sites alone" in Norfolk only 23 have been the victim of illegal artefact hunting and say that is acceptable. That's 23 where the activity has been spotted, and we recall the reaction of one East Anglian "detectorist" to the figures given in that report.

But here we have a prime example of the deceit which is used by the pro-collecting lobby in Britain. They try to browbeat their listeners (and they have many) into believing that the "only problem" is with those people that use their metal detectors to find things illegally ("who are not real metal detectorists" - logic check there please?). the literature is full of this. It is a blatant fallacy that it is only illegal artefact hunting which is causing damage to the archaeological record. The non-recording of fnds is just as erosive. The statistics quoted by Connolly omit sites hoovered for artefacts by detector users who do not report their finds and supply proper provenances to the PAS. One might also ask the number of sites in Scotland (where Connolly actually works) that have been gone over by the many hundreds (?) of metal detectorists north of the border when (according to their annual reports) only some 300 sites have for the past couple of years been reported to the Treasure Trove Unit.

Connolly then passed on to the "defensive" attitudes of artefact hunters and their notion of a "Great Conspiracy" against them (sound familiar?). These of course are used as the explanation of why more "metal detector users": are not coming forward to report their shedfulls of finds (a typical example shown in the Mike Pegg video). With regard to this "they are out to get us" attitudes, Connolly notes: "These are now unusual statements and challenged by other detectorists". That statement itself of course was directly challenged at the conference itself when delegates opened their conference packs and found the letter from John Wells of the official representative of the "metal-detecting" community announcing that the NCMD would not participate in the conference because there is allegedly a great government conspiracy against metal detectorists going on. Connolly presumably got a conference pack but does not acknowledge that statement by the body which is the national representative of the metal detecting community. Perhaps he did not notice the letter - or was he hoping others had not?

Moving on, he came to what he portrays as "the Big Rally Debate". I am not going to discuss that here, I will be doing so elsewhere. Rallies are a huge weak point in the pro-collecting arguments in British archaeology. Connolly however seems at last to be recognising this (Slide 8), which is a step forward from his position two years ago and in another forum.

Connolly then discusses "Treasure Trove" (sic) and asks what is missing (Slide 9 and 15 - I'm not at all clear what the relevance of discarded sex toys is to the discussion). He points out that most Treasure finds both side of England's northern border are found by metal detector users and asks - apparently rhetorically - what this "means". I assume that he intends his audience to decide that, like deep ploughing tractor drivers - the disturbance of archaeological contexts with golden goodies in them by metal detector Treasure seeking people is "a jolly good thing". A view I myself would contest, for reasons I've given in this blog.

Then at slide 10, he has a "BIG question". It seems to me like a ridiculous one for an archaeologist to ask . Connolly asks whether anyone can name a site that has been "absolutely destroyed" by metal detecting. This is rhetorical, but what about "relatively destroyed"? What about "severely damaged"? What about "cognitive potential severely compromised?". This begs the question how absolute is absolute in the world of the pro-collecting apologists. There are no doubt significant archaeological sites sites in the UK which have had supermarkets and housing estates built over them with no archaeological mitigation which are not yet "absolutely destroyed" (in the corner under a tree that was not removed, half a pit has survived - but then that pit is meaningless now with the rest of the evidence around it that formed its context gone without record). The fact that nobody in Newcastle raised their voice in protest is symptomatic of the leeway the pro-collecting apologists are nowadays given in the UK - Wanborough comes to mind.


Anonymous said...

Many thanks for that article Paul.
Most timely.

We've made our own comments here

Paul Barford said...

I note that Mike Heyworth, the Director of the CBA has mentioned it on Twitter:

"More evidence that the Heritage Action Artefact Erosion Counter is in the right ball park? about 2 hours ago via TweetDeck ".

Good for HA. Perhaps not all archaeologists in Britain are being misled by the namby-pambies in their midst.

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