Friday 21 May 2010

Artefact Hunters and Collectors Might Have Unrecognised Vital Pieces of Information Stashed Away


Fieldwork is underway to find the true location of the Battle of Roundway (a key battle in the English Civil War in July 1643, a victory for the Royalists over the Parliamentarians). Historian Alan Carter, who recently settled in Devizes and set up the Devizes Heritage website, has been interested in the area of Roundway Down where in the 1970s a local metal detectorist Keith Genever found 12 cannon balls varying in size from two pounds to six pounds. Working with amateur archaeologists, Phil Hancock and Bill Underwood, Carter has been mapping the distribution of finds in the ploughsoil, and this pins down the site of the bombardment of the Parliamentary infantry square of 2,000 men. The map seriously questions the location of the battle as promulgated by generations of historians based on some finds of the nineteenth century, and the four men are planning an exhibition in July, the anniversary of the battle, to show what has been found and what this means in pinpointing the battleground.

Mr Carter said that he was very keen to speak to anyone who has found items that might have originated from the battle to add their precise findspot o the project's map.

Alan Carter's Devizes Heritage website, about the history, archaeology, the green areas and open spaces around Devizes and its villages can be found here. This is a typical example of the sort of work done by an increasing number of people who take an interest in the history and environment of the place where they live. A history which is enhanced as here by the study of the remains of the past in that environment. Let us note that what is the subject of this work are scattered topsoil finds in ploughed fields; the type of context artefact dealers and collectors across the Atlantic (what do they know?) time and time again claim are not significant. Well, here it can be seen that, properly studied, the distribution of finds across a project area, even in the ploughsoil does produce historically useful information. (Of course one of the best examples of this kind of battlefield survey remains the pioneering work at the Little Bug Horn battle site in the US, so it is odd that US collectors are seemingly unaware of the potential of these kinds of sites.)

Note that metal detectorists that may have searched any of the fields around the newly-identified site will have unknowingly removed evidence. Evidence that Carter and his team are appealing to be made known. More to the point, a metal detectorist searching the area for Roman coins may well have placed any lead shot in his "scrap bucket" without even giving it a thought where in the field precisely it was from, let alone now after decades being able to remember. Broken pieces of iron sheet - totally uncollectable as broken pieces of iron sheet- however might have been worth a second glance before being binned had the metal detectorist known he was on a Civil War battlefield where armed men were being shot at with cannon.

Most of the not-immediately-identifiable-as-collectable finds from metal detecting in England in fact get discarded well before a PAS FLO or anyone else sees any of them. Huge amounts of potential archaeological information are being thrown away daily by the "discoverers" because the latter do not recognise a particular piece of corroded piece of metal as anything that can be used as evidence or a collectable (or saleable commodity). Artefact hunting is not archaeological field survey.

Let us also note that this evidence has been lying in the fields around Roundway Down for some 370 years threatened only by being at risk of being taken away by artefract hunters. It needed a field survey to make sense of it, adding to our knowledge of the history of the place to the benefit of all wo live there. This survey was done now or it could have been done in a decade, a century hence - as long as the basic evidence survives in patterns that can be interpreted. This of course could equally apply to evidence of Roman or Anglo-Saxon landuse, to prehistoric settlement patterns or post- Medieval farming practices.

The unrecorded removal of archaeological material from ploughsoil sites like this so that foreign collectors Tom, Dick and Harriet can have some "pieces of past all of their own" regardless of where they came from or how they got there, clearly destroys this type of evidence. Collectors - especially overseas - protest loudly about those who they say "restrict their rights" in an effort to protect sites like this from commercial vandalism by artefact hunters. What "rights", I ask, do they have to deprive the inhabitants of Devizes of the evidence for their local history? Or the citizens of Dubrovnik or Durostenum ?

Why actually would it be an infringement of "collectors' rights" to ask collectors to only collect responsibly in a manner that does not contribute to the continued erosion of the historic record of "source countries", by which local communities are impoverished, by which we are all impoverished? While those "collectors' rights" translate to irresponsible individual greed at others' exspense, it seems to me that those of us interested in the preservation of the historic environment as a source of information about the past should continue to oppose them, and not allow greedy collectors and the dealers that supply them steamroller other broader interests.

Photo: Metal detector using Artefact hunter Keith Genever, front, with, back from left, Bill Underwood, Phil Hancock and Alan Carter ready to defend their local heritage from the irresponsible looters and those that irresponsibly finance the activity by no-questions-asked collecting? (Photo: This is Wiltshire)


Anonymous said...

No no, there must be some mistake, these people can’t possibly have harvested vast amounts of historical knowledge from the spatial context of items in the plough soil. It must be a radical lefty lie – after all was it not Mr Sayles himself that assured us that context was an inconsequential source of archaeological knowledge?

“The contribution of numismatics to history, art history, economics, philosophy, religion, astronomy, biology and a host of other disciplines far surpasses the meagre information provided by the context in which a coin is found.”

These amateur archaeologists are clearly rendering a great disservice to the people of Britain with their pitiful attempts to wrench a modicum of knowledge out of their finds. They should stick all the items in bags (and sell them to collector-scholars in the States for proper study, evidently.

Damien Huffer said...

Very lucid post, Paul! I can personally think of several sites in Southeast Asia, where I work, that only came to archaeological light after either looters were apprehended in the midst of their work, or local farmers were asked about where the little collections of, say, Neolithic adzes on their home's family alter came from. They'll at least usually remember which area of their fields they found them in, and sometimes subsequent excavation and survey has led to major discoveries.

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