Tuesday 28 December 2010

Gill on PAS as Preservation (2): Trevor Austin responds

Austin has written a somewhat confrontational and at the same time defensive response to Gill’s article. The text shows very well the mindset of collectors which one is up against in any attempt to collaborate with them. It will be noted that while Gill wrote about current policies and how they reflect the protection of the archaeological information contained in the archaeological record, Austin has concentrated his reply on protecting the hobby he represents from any kind of questioning. I would have thought however that one of the characteristics of the "responsible detectorist" (which is what Austin's NCMD claims to represent) is to be concerned about the sort of issues that Gill raises. Austin has set out instead primarily to show why PAS recording figures are not as high as might be hoped. In this sense the choice of Austin as the respondent was a particularly good (or bad) one depending on one’s position in the debate.

Instead of discussing what Gill wrote about site preservation, Austin expends a substantial amount of the space alloted to him to showing „when and why the PAS came into being” as an antidote to what he says is a text based on „rely[ing] on selective published PAS statistics or anecdotal and bigoted statements made by uninformed self opiniated groups who have no practical knowledge of the hobby to support his hypothesis”.

Austin's historical presentation is somewhat one-sided, the reader would do well to see it in the context of Addyman 2009 and Thomas 2009 and earlier literature. Significant is Austin’s conclusion that information loss is the result of „decades of archaeological non-co-operation” (in what?) and a refusal of archaeology to see the „opportunity metal detecting presented them with” (what, to have all exposed archaeological sites stripped of metal objects?). This is not really true. What however is true and can be documented is that when the archaeologists (CBA and EH) set about creating a report showing the potential benefits of that co-operation, it was Mr Austin’s organization, the NCMD, which refused to take part in its writing. Austin has tried this "we wanted to build bridges but it was the archaeologists who turned us away" ploy before (Austin 2009), but in fact the antagonism had its origin in both sides, it was the artefact hunters who saw archaeology as the threat to their new hobby.

Austin is derisive of the HA artefact erosion counter mentioned by Gill, but offers no figures of his own. He however offers several excuses why the PAS database does not contain all of the finds taken by artefact hunters:

1) the above-mentioned perceived antagonism of the archaeological world to artefact hunting and collecting,

2) the landowner may withhold permission (but then the responsible detectorist would avoid working such land),

3) The PAS does not record finds less than 300 years old, so such finds do not appear on its database (but then, neither do they appear in the HA erosion counter, do they?),

4) The problem is the low funding level applied to support metal detecting. The PAS has limited resources and Austin alleges that when it has reached its annual target (55000 objects), it turns artefact hunters away. That is just five objects per detectorist per year. (Frankly that is the first time I've heard anything like this, certainly this calls for PAS clarification, are they turning detectorists away?)

Nowhere does Austin acknowledge that a reason why the PAS database contains only what he admits is a „token figure” of records is that UK metal detectorists are digging stuff up they have no intention of reporting. Eighty percent of the material on the UKDFD last year was not reported to the PAS.

Austin simply does not accept that artefacts are sometimes removed by metal detectorists and other diggers from undisturbed archaeological deposits from below topsoil/ploughsoil levels. This is according to him „mere speculation and just another example of the uncorroberated statements levelled at the hobby and PAS alike”. Well, there is plenty of evidence otherwise (some of it mentioned in this blog). Personally, having seen the deep holes dug into sites by artefact hunters (both in the media they themselves produce as well as in the field) I would see the opposite statement as an uncorroborated one. But then, if this were not so, why would artefact hunters be interested in getting „depth advantage” machines like the GPX 5000?

Austin is derisive of the mention of the Icklingham bronzes (notable for the puerile interjection: „(excuse me while I pick up my violin)” which the Papers' editor thoughtfully left) and dismisses mentions of illegal artefact hunting as mere „scaremongering”. He suggests that the mention of this egregious case of looting by Gill is a result of „archaeology” having „little new information to add to this issue”. He also states that the farmer at Icklingham whose land is raided „remains a single example”. Well, first of all it is not archaeology but the police which investigate illegal artefact hunting, secondly he fails to note that the background of Gill’s research was the reason why it is mentioned. Thirdly that this is not an „isolated” instance, whether or not he wishes to acknowledge it, is known to many metal detectorists, some of them no doubt in Mr Austin’s own organization (for example here). Far from being a defence of the hobby, the pretence that in the whole of the UK only one farm is ever raided by illegal artefact hunters only lays the hobby open to ridicule.

Even more ridiculous is the suggestion of the spokesman for the metal detectorists (wholly illogically and in fact libellously) that „the archaeologists” are deliberately encouraging the looting of this one site to discredit artefact hunting ! According to Austin, „a protected site of national importance has been sacrificed whilst EH turned a blind eye to the long term loss of material and damage to maintain this opportunity”. It is unclear what he expects English Heritage to do on this private property to stop metal detectorists searching this land illegally.

Austin seems to count Gill as one of „those who oppose [...] the Treasure Act” who is „pursing some dogmatic fantasy”. He presents a whole load of figures to show that under the Treasure Act more Treasure than ever is being dug up by artefact hunters. But to what degree is this a symptom of „success” and – given the fact that large number of these „finds” are retrieved under less than ideal conditions - to what degree is it a sign that a certain portion of the finite and limited archaeological resource has in the past decade or so been irrevocably damaged by the increasing scope and quantity of officially sanctioned artefact hunting?


Addyman, P. V. 2009, ‘Before the Portable Antiquities Scheme’, pp 51-62 in: Thomas and Stone (eds) 2009.

Austin, T. 2009, Building Bridges between Metal Detectorists and Archaeologists, pp. 119-123 in Thomas and Stone eds 2009.

Thomas, S. 2009, ‘Wanborough Revisited: the Rights and Wrongs of Treasure trove law in England and Wales’, pp 153-165 in: Thomas and Stone eds 2009.

Thomas, S. and P. Stone eds 2009, ‘Metal Detecting and Archaeology’, Boydell Press, Stowmarket.

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