Friday, 10 September 2010

'A' is for Apathy and Archaeology

It is the ninth of September so I think that a thread on the 'Britarch' British academic archaeological discussion forum run by the council for British Archaeology about the archaeological record as a finite resource which fizzled out on the first has ended. Its dynamics repays some examination as it shows a little of what is going on in British archaeology today. Archaeologist Pete Clark [from one of my former employers Canterbury Archaeological Trust] started it when he contributed:
A quote from Nigel Mills’ ‘Buckles 1250–1800: A collectors’ Price Guide’: ‘Although buckles remain one of the commonest of artefacts from the medieval period, the supply of fresh material from the ground found by metal detectorists is dwindling’ Are we really approaching the end of this particular ‘finite resource'?
(I am not sure the reference is correct but this seems to be a 1997 book). Quick as a flash, some metal detector using artefact hunters that are allowed by its moderators to inhabit the list start a discussion to deflect the criticism (that the author means new "types"). Then somebody (not a detectorist) had the temerity to mention the Heritage Action Erosion Counter and its implications but on that, the discussion petered out with one of the tekkies asserting that
"Heritage Action's 'figures' are based on nothing but presumptions, inaccuracies and a obvious anti detecting/PAS stance".*
That finished the discussion before it had even started. So much for British archaeologists' concern and reflections on (and interest in) the notion of the archaeological record as a finite resource. It seems that there really is nobody over there willing to actually develop any discussion of the matter the moment the tekkies make their presence felt.

Since getting involved in writing about the illicit trade and associated issues, I have been threatened a number of times. Sometimes it is clearly just bravado, sometimes it looks like a more serious threat. Fortunately being based in Poland puts me at a safer distance from British metal detectorists and US coin dealers and collectors than most (I am always aware though that the international antiquities trade however does have links with some not-very-nice people here in Eastern Europe however). I learn privately that several colleagues also engaged in discussions of the issues have also been harrassed by the dealers' lobby, and received over the past couple of years some very real threats, including some serious enough to involve the police. Last night I was saddened to hear of another such case.

Now as far as I am concerned, all that these people who are being harrassed and threatened are doing is openly discussing an issue that should be openly discussed by more than the relatively small group of people that stick their necks out and devote some of their time to doing so. There is nothing wrong in anyone expressing the view that the archaeological heritage deserves better protection from illicit exploitation than it gets, there is nothing wrong with expressing an opinion about specific cases which show the weaknesses of the present sorry sad situation. There is nothing wrong with expressing the need for, and urging change. Its just words, and those referred to in such discussions can use their words to show the other side of the story. They rarely do. Just react with mindless agression.

But over in Britain, it seems most of the time that nobody really could give a damn. The vast majority of British archaeologists are 'quite comfortable thanks' that they have the PAS to "deal with" the collecting problem. They do not really care what it does and does not do, for them, its "not my problem". Actually saying something might expose them to a detectorist or antiquities dealer saying "boo!" to them or something, and they cannot cope with that. Let the PAS deal with them. Let the PAS tell the public that artefact hunting with metal detecting by its "partners" the collectors is a great help to archaeologists (as it gets all the nice goodies out of the soil and either onto the market or sometimes when the goody is nice and glittery into museum showcases). They let the PAS outreach inform the public that this, and largely only this is the real aim of the "archaeology" they represent. Let the British government say for decades that the illicit antiquities trade is a problem and that they "will" (one day) do something about it in Britain, and then for decades do absolutely nothing of any consequence because there are too many interests in NOT doing anything.

I am sorry, it just makes me feel really angry when I hear of my friends suffering harrassment from the Dark Side merely for writing about matters that should be of concern to all archaeologists everywhere while the British archaeologists who are de facto "partners" of the erosive artefact collecting hobby and industry sit there farting into their chairs and cannot even lift a finger to do anything about the problem. What is the matter with them?

Do they actually believe that the archaeological record is a finite resource or for them is that just a useful slogan to get public sympathy rather than a prompt for action?

*Comment on the above: Well, they are not, and the author of those words sidesteps the obvious question of by how much would they require "correction" to make the situation acceptable. In fact, I think they do not need correction downwards, and rather than being a reflection of a bias against PAS and detecting they are good reason to question both - not that either detectorists or the PAS will be interested in supplying any answers.

Vignette: British archaeologists, is your office chair comfy? You just sit there and let the collectors carry on digging up and selling the remains of the archaeological record to the highest bidder under your noses.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for highlighting this Paul. We were rather too discouraged by the echoing silence to respond but you have encouraged us to so we've said our piece this morning - see the Britarch list.

What's the betting? No support from archaeologists and bare faced denials from detectorists?! Makes yer proud to be British.....

Paul Barford said...

Let the record also show that posts by Heritage Action (name speaks for itself) are MODERATED on that unmoderated archaeological discussion list. Perhaps encouraging silence over these issues is a deliberate stance by the CBA? Surely not.

Anonymous said...

I don't know. It's pretty insulting, for sure. Maybe lay conservationists are the wrong sort of "community archaeology" and we'd get more respect (and praise) if we picked things up and took them home as our own. Worth a try maybe!

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