Tuesday 28 December 2010

Gill on PAS as Preservation (4): Gabriel Moshenska responds


Gabriel Moshenska of London University's Institute of Archaeology sent a text, „Portable Antiquities, Pragmatism and the ‘Precious Things’ ” which I have to say, and typically for the supporters of artefact hunting, totally misrepresents the nature of the debate. It uses a series of straw man arguments to engage with some imaginary hysterical critics of artefact hunting, failing to engage with their real arguments and concerns (which he dismisses as "staggeringly unimportant") and ultimately failing even to engage with what Gill wrote. One is left to wonder why this is.

Moshenska fetishises the “finds” at the expense of allowing the question Gill asks about the site they come from to surface. This is well demonstrated by the analogy the author chooses in his response to Gill to describe what he sees as a form of “hysteria” surrounding the debate on policies connected with artefact hunting: “Within archaeology the small faction of anti-metal detector zealots often resemble the grotesque Tubbs in The League of Gentlemen clutching her snow-globes and shrieking ‘Don’t touch the Precious Things!’ (BBC 1999-2002)”. Gill however was talking about sites, not who owns the artefacts taken from them which it is understandable is the focus of the collectors and dealers’ debate, less understandable is to see it here from the pen of an archaeologist – albeit, as can be seen, a supporter of the PAS.

Moshenska declares himself to be a “pragmatist”. He states that “the campaigns against […] metal detectors” (sic) are characterised by an “unwillingness to consider the wider context”. Actually, I would disagree, it is supporters of the artefact hunters like Moshenska who are quite demonstrably failing to see it and Britain’s limp-wristed response to it in the wider context of its relationship to the wider debate on commercial looting of the global archaeological heritage. I do not know if Moshenska has heard of the Monuments At Risk Surveys. He makes no reference to it when writing:

It would be instructive to create a […] chart ranking the various threats to archaeological heritage in Britain; from coastal erosion and ploughing to worms and moles. Despite serving as a lightning-rod for knee-jerk heritage protectionism I seriously doubt that metal detecting would make a prominent appearance on any such ranking. Thus not only is the metal detecting debate needlessly divisive and intemperate, it is also staggeringly unimportant.
Astoundingly we are told as if it needed no explanation or justification:
There are parts of the world where looting poses a serious threat to archaeological heritage and our ability to interpret the past. Britain is not one of these places. Nonetheless there are serious threats to archaeological heritage in Britain. Metal detecting is not one of these.
For Moshenska the consideration of artefact hunting as in any way related to looting is therefore “unhelpful”. Like US coiney Dave Welsh, he points out that metal detecting is done in fields and in ploughed fields “buried artefacts are annually shuffled through the upper half metre of topsoil, bringing them within the limited range of most modern metal detectors”. Like Austin he denies that “some undisturbed archaeological material is being removed from its archaeological context” below the ploughsoil. He thus ridicules the concern expressed about the implications of “depth advantage” metal detecting (discussed elsewhere in this blog) as “incongruous” and makes the astonishing statement that: “if we are truly concerned with the protection of archaeological heritage then this is of roughly equivalent unimportance to the question of whether rabbits are digging deeper burrows in response to global warming”. Except rabbits are not doing what they do in response to UK government policy on archaeological heritage mismanagement.

In response to Gill’s concerns, Moshenska seems to be expressing an opinion that it is not important that the Scheme is not providing much mitigation of information loss due to artefact hunting, because it is a “voluntary recording scheme”. This rather misses the point of whether better mitigation would not be provided if it were not. The respondent accuses Gill of “explicit injustice towards PAS” and “its hard-earned relationship with the metal detecting community [which] offers a practical, pragmatic and proven solution to this problem [“metal detecting without reporting finds”]” (except it does not) as if that was the only concern that Gill had raised. Moshenska also points out that “making money from selling finds is not inherently illegal in Britain”. But Gill was discussing an ethical issue.

Moshenska considers that rather than “to bridge the gap between the archaeological community and those involved in metal detecting”, the task in hand is “to mend the divide within the archaeological community” caused by debating collecting issues. He falls into the well-worn trope of referring to the archaeological community’s “widespread elitism and class snobbery” concerning artefact hunters. (There is an egregious example of a twisted sentence when he says: “The amateur’s disdain for the professional has no place in twenty-first century archaeology”, I’m pretty sure he meant that to go the other way round.) He dismisses those who question current policies on collecting as “doom-mongers wringing their hands at what they no doubt regard as metal detectorists’ proletarian insurgency into the archaeological domain” – perhaps he could do well to read what the concerns are, they are rather of the inability of PAS outreach to bring ten thousand (or how many it is) artefact hunters and collectors, proletarian or not, into the archaeological fold. Moshenska therefore also sees non-compliance as a legacy of the “the history of the ‘STOP’ campaign and the long-standing animosity between metal detectorists and the archaeological establishment” (“some opponents of metal detecting would like to see it made illegal, or at least severely restricted”). He reckons that “doom-mongers wringing their hands” at the damage artefact hunting is doing to the archaeological record and archaeology as a discipline should turn their attention instead to what he regards as “the real, tangible threats to archaeological heritage”. As if looting for entertainment and profit was not in fact a real and tangible threat to the global archaeological heritage.

Frankly I see Moshenska’s response as an archetypical expression of the failure of its supporters to see UK metal detecting in its wider context and I consider this a disappointing, rather flat and flippant contribution to the discussion.


Any non-British reader confused by the "precious things" reference might (or might not) appreciate this You Tube clip from the BBC series to which Moshenska refers:

I understand there's good metal detecting land around Royston Vasey (aka Hadfield), but (unlike Crosby Garrett 130 km up the M6) apparently some of the locals do not take too kindly to 'outsiders' in their fields.

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