Thursday, 5 August 2010

So „How many” did you say it was?

One might have thought getting numbers out of the computer was a pretty straightforward process, so when one sees figures like the number of finds recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme between 1st Jan 2008 and 31st Dec 2008 in a government report, one assumes they are going to be pretty reliable… well, that is the assumption. A report by the British Department of Culture Media and Sport published 23/07/2010 Treasure and Portable Antiquities annual statistical release 2008 reckons the number is 53,346 finds were recorded on the Portable Antiquities database. Well, they’d had over a year and half to press the buttons and check and double check the figures, so it must be right. Right?

Nah. It seems it still is too much to expect that the PAS could get their figures to agree. Just three days later, a rival guestimate appeared on the PAS website: Another milestone reached posted July 26th, 2010 by Daniel Pett. There the number is reported as: 56449, the previously invisible records of a mere 3100 finds (5.5%) more “found” somwhere. The PAS attempts to explain this discrepancy:
You might wonder why these figures don’t always match the Annual Reports; well, the database is constantly being worked on, errors corrected, finds removed if duplicate records and so on.
So, "so on" covers three thousand records found in the back of a cupboard just three days after the official DCMS report was published? This is ridiculous. The error is nearly 6%. It is by no means the first time such discrepancies have been observed between the figures claimed from year to year. What else are the published figures getting wrong?

Well, look at the tables in the DCMS summary, in the northeast hardly any finds were being reported in 2008 by metal detectorists, even though we know the area is crawling with them. Wales has pretty poor showings for 2008, and what happened to all those "fieldwalking" finds that were included in earlier Annual Reports?

Also let us note that nearly half of the material being reported comes from the metal detecting of Roman sites, which fits closely with what we have seen is commercially most valued on the internet market. British Prehistory is poorly represented as is (my own favourite) the Early Medieval period.

Also take note at this thinly veiled attempt by the PAS to vindicate their "partners" the metal detectorists:
# In 2008, 806 finds of Treasure were reported.[...] # In 2008 82 parties waived their right to a reward in 51 cases of Treasure, allowing them to be acquired by museums at no (or reduced) public cost.
But in 755 they did not. Were the 20 among the 51 cases who did not resign from the reward, "finders" or grasping landowners? More importantly than trying to dispel the vision of "treasure hunters", an archaeological outreach scheme should be reporting statistics such as in how many of the 806 cases was there anything left in the ground for archaeologists to investigate. What proportion of these finds came from topsoil and how many were found below ploughsoil? How many came from sites known to have produced archaeological finds in the past?

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