Saturday, 13 November 2010

A Book to Buy and Think About

Metal Detecting and Archaeology edited by Suzie Thomas and Peter Stone. Date of publication unclear (it says 2008 on the title page, 2009 on the reverse). Boydell and Brewer (the most wonderful publishers in the World) and the International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies, Newcastle University (hmmm). ISBN 978-1-84383-415-1.

For a long time I resisted getting this book, I knew it would only make me angry. I saw the conspectus before it was written and it was clear in what direction the author was going, a direction which I do not think very helpful. Neither do I now, after having read it, though I must admit there were some persuasive bits in it. Declared interest, I was invited to contribute but declined (see page 6 of the book, and here).

The volume is the result of a June 2009 meeting in Newcastle called "Buried treasure: Building Bridges", a title guaranteed to raise the hackles of anyone who cares about real archaeology. It seems to me that the title of the book does not fit its contents. Instead of "Metal Detecting and Archaeology" it should have been "The Portable Antiquities Scheme, Treasure and Archaeology", because - despite a few token outsiders, that is clearly the focus of the book. There is no discussion of the meaning of the term "metal detecting" (not all users of metal detectors, whether in the UK or outside, use them to hunt archaeological artefacts). The topic is treated outside the context of private collecting and the issues surrounding it. There is not even a presentation of what this "metal detector is and what it (and different types of it) does and does not do and the implications of technological change. this is of course important if one is going to use the "data" produced by "metal detecting" an archaeological site or artefact scatter in archaeological interpretation. The latter is of course the direction the book is going. Likewise there is scandalously little real discussion (though there is some fluffy glibness on it from some of the FLOs invited) of the relationship between artefact hunting and collecting and the preservation of archaeological evidence in situ. I also feel the book would have benefitted from a more detailed presentation of the current legislative background of the UK (the region which is the topic of most of the texts in the book) which confuses foreign (and it seems even some local) readers - even if this was not presented in the wider context of other systems of legislation of metal detecting which would have been the ideal.

There is a good forward by Lord Redesdale, an introduction by Suzie with a whole load of points I'd take issue with - but as she so nicely mentions (p. 6) I declined at the time. The first three chapters are by token foreigners and it really seems to me that they are there mostly I feel to make the point that there are problems with other systems and the PAS is the "best way forward". What I find amusing is the volume by rights should have started with the embarrassing rant of metal detectorist Trevor Austin who opened the original conference (now shoved into chapter 10, pp. 119-124).

Peter Addyman's "Before the Portable Antiquities Scheme" (pp. 51-62) is full of really useful information about a confusing situation which it is good to see summarised. I would have liked (especially in the light of the strident phrasing of Trevor Austin later on in the book) to see more about the participation of metal detector users with museums in pre-PAS days. In Denison and Dobinson's report on Metal detecting in England, the tabulated information of their survey extrapolated across Britain would indicate a rather high level of reporting of finds made by detectorists and other members of the public was going on before the PAS was set up. Today this is played down in order to emphasise the "success of the PAS", but it would be useful to see a proper study of this aspect of public engagement in archaeology one day.

I also very much liked Alan Saville's "Treasure Trove and metal Detecting in Scotland" (pp87-98) which is one of the clearest expositions of the Scottish system you could wish for, there are a number of earlier texts available but all leave the reader confused. Another highlight of the volume (leaving the reader thirsty for more) is Julian Richards' and John Naylor's presentation of the VASLE Project (pp. 167--179 - the project is now of course published). Tony Pollard's "[...] metal Detecting and Battlefield Archaeology" (pp. 181-202) has a slow beginning but makes a number of very important points. Suze Thomas' contribution "Wanborough Revisited: The rights and wrongs of treasure trove law in England and Wales" (pp 153-165) like Addyman's text is a useful summary of the events surrounding this seminal case. One wonders though why she as editor did not edit out the bits that overlap with Addyman and her own introduction to the volume and place it between Addyman and Bland's texts which seems the wholly logical place for it. Declan Hurl on metal detecting on Northern Ireland (pp. 99-105) is useful [I have written to the relevant offices a number of times with specific questions about artefact hunting in Northern Ireland over the years, none of which ever received a reply, I find some of the questions answered here].

Roger Bland's text (pp 63-85 and all the colour photos) promises to discuss the "Development and Future of the Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme", sadly it falls short of both. It is nevertheless an interesting text describing the operation of the TA and PAS for those who may not have seen his others all saying much the same. Some FLOs invited to contribute however produce pages of unremarkable pro-PAS fluff, but letting a few notable comments slip (Northern England in particular). I did find however Ceinwen Paynton's "The Portable Antiquities Scheme and Education" (pp. 202-211) a really good and inspiring read.

The text by Trevor Austin "Building Bridges between Metal Detectorists and Archaeologists" (pp 119-123) is a very interesting insight into the mindset of the detectorist, read "between the lines" the author says just a little too much. Please read it, the guy is priceless. He starts off by placing all the blame for everything on the archaeologists with whom "detectorists" had been pleading to cooperate with them from the very beginning and they were stubbornly refusing. The situation Austin describes (pp 119-20) however was on a different planet in a parallel universe. On this planet in this one, a search through the early archival numbers of UK hobby magazines such as "Treasure Hunter" or the (even rarer) newsletters and minutes of meetings of the ephemeral UK metal detecting clubs of the period would give a more objective picture of the source of the conflict. On page 120 Austin writes that the PAS "has been instrumental in awakening the general public and the media to our hobby of metal detecting" - but also it has "awoken" other organizations who ("not to be trumped by the PAS") are busily producing "reams of documents codes and guidelines" and sometimes - shock horror - "without consultation with the NCMD".
Today[,] I want to send a clear message to these bureaucrats: 'get off our case', and leave the responsible hobby alone. Attempts to inflict (sic) archaeological controls prevent serious cooperation: matters that relate to the detecting hobby should be channelled through the PAS. The Scheme had already suceeded in gaining our confidence (sic) while other bodies were messing about formulating rulebooks! [...] We will not tolerate meddling in the hobby or the Scheme.
Then a warning:
providing the PAS continues to treat the detector users as 'customers' and does not become over-confident (sic), then customers will remain loyal.
That is one of the purest expressions of the nature of the "partnership" seen through the eyes of the collector in "proper print", and we should thank Thomas and Stone for printing it. No rulez, gettoff are case, we'll arnser to th' PAS and not to the restof yer. But only if the PAS does not get "over-confident" about the loyalty of the detector users to the principles it stands for, and does not push its luck. So much then for instilling any of that "best practice" stuff, eh? This talk was based on an even more comical one he gave at a PAS conference a couple of years back about "empowerment of the detectorist" which had a memorable bit about the "Train to Liaisonville", remnants of which remain on page 123.

Austin was one of two metal detector using artefact hunters invited to contribute to the volume (which is odd, given the topic), but in order not to end on a wholly negaitve note, I'd like to draw well-deserved attention to the other contributiuon. Peter Spencer ("the construction of histories: numismatics and metal detecting") is a text which every coiney out there should read - not least because it is written by one of their own. Spencer, a collector since the 1970s and latterly dealer looks at how the range and quantities of the coins on the market have changed over the past forty years. It is clear that the metal detector has resulted not only (obviously) in substantial quantitative changes in the material coming onto the market, but also to a surprising degree substantial qualitative ones. This text should be required reading in any debate on the current state of the market in antiquities. it also should be a starting point for more detailed research into these patterns using old dealers catalogues and auction catalogues to produce regional overviews extending across the region producing and using coins in antiquity and the past. Claims that something was in an "old collection" could then be checked for likelihood based on specific information about what old collections in the pre-contemporary period actually contained. I will probably return to this text later on.

It has to be said (though I am biased) that buying this book will not give the reader a full picture of the issues surrounding artefact hunting and collecting (popularly called "metal detecting") even in the UK. On the other hand, some of the the texts in the book certainly are among the canon of literature that anyone wanting to explore these issues will need to read and reflect upon, and for that reason whatever one's position on the issues of antiquity collecting, this is a book to read.

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