Saturday 25 December 2010

The Questions Metal Detectorists Ask (1)

Some metal detecting bloke called P.A. Hewitt sent some comments to Candice Jarman's blog which the blog owner regards as "pertinent" (to what?) and "important", so Candice repeats them, in a post called: 'How about answering some questions Mr Barford!' (for somebody who claims to be a secretary in a legal firm, Mr Jarman's lack of a firm grasp on the punctuation of written English is puzzling). The fourth question is a renewed call for personal details, and querying the right of an observer to question or comment on what he sees happening. I'll deal with the other three in consecutive posts.
1. Most finds by detectorists (and fieldwalkers) are made in soil disturbed by ploughing and are therefore NOT in archaeological context other than in very broad area. Indeed, many items found are probably isolated losses, dropped long ago, with no archaeological context anyway. So how are the finds 'decontextualised'?
This is the argument trotted out by the ACCG too. Many finds made by artefact hunters are coming from them searching 'productive sites', the location of which they guard jealously (there would be no reason NOT to release findspot details of genuine isolated chance finds, searching the spot would find no others, yet detectorists guard ALL findspot information of all of their finds). The precise distribution of finds in ploughsoil is often the subject of archaeological study the bibliography of the works in English on the 'archaeology of the ploughsoil' which discusses this and which I put on the PAS Forum a while back seems not to have made much of an impact in the world of metal detecting [I hereby give the PAS permission to put this up as a stand-alone page or incorporated into a broader resource on the topic on their website to explain this as part of their outreach to "finders"]. The objects entering private artefact collections are decontextualised by being taken from these complex patterns without the information on the distribution of other components of the pattern not fully documented because the finds are not "collectables" in the commercial sense. This is what makes the difference between what an artefact hunter does and the work of a true amateur archaeologist (some of the works in the above-cited bibliography were written for the latter). Potential archaeological data contained in ploughsoil is none the less potential archaeological data, which is precisely why the PAS is being funded to record its findspots. The sad fact is however that in few cases is the quality of the data thus recorded sufficient to do more that the most basic of archaeological analyses.

The ignorance of the variety of techniques, research strategies and what archaeologists really do exhibited by this post is typical of the sort of results achieved by thirteen years of PAS "archaeological outreach" to this milieu. Please do not take my word for it, make 2011 the year you all log onto a closed-access metal detectorist forum or two to see what attitudes and depth of knowledge about the wider context of artefact hunting they reveal.

Frankly, I do not see this so much as a "question for Barford" from UK metal detectorists as one which after thirteen years of PAS outreach is somewhat misdirected. This really IS a question for the PAS [if the PAS would like to pay me a fee for doing their work for them, that is fine, but I bet it will not], so my question is, why are these people coming to me with these questions and not to the PAS? Is it because they are observant enough to notice that PAS "archaeological outreach" has for thirteen years consistently failed to address such questions?

UPDATE 30/12/10:
Mr "Candice" (who claims not to be a metal detectorist) boldly lies in answer. He claims that I am inventing the notion that metal detectorists do hours of research to try and locate what they call 'productive sites'. He paints a picture that UK metal detectorists wander aimlessly about the countryside in areas totally away from any indications of past human activity in the hope of finding the odd off-site find which has as much archaeological significance as a "50p dropped in the street" and that "hoards are rarely found". This is in effect the same argument used by the ACCG (Dave Welsh in particular) and it may be significant that Candice (not a metal detectorist) uses US spelling in his posts. In fact any familiarity with what bona fide artefact hunters do shows that Candice is trying to pull a fast one. Look at any "how to" guide to the hobby of "metal detecting" (David Villenueva wrote a couple worth looking at in this regard), look on the websites, look at how commercial artefact hunting rallies are marketed to see the fallacy of what Candice glibly asserts. Don't take my word for it, check it out by joining an MD forum or two and see whether the "finders" are talking there about "their" 'productive sites'. Those of you who live in the UK, go out and talk to a metal detectorist in a field near you. Go out and see what they are doing.

Given that ninety percent of all archaeological sites in England and Wales (both those known and those yet to be registered) are on private farmland, it really is irrelevant to whether the finds collected by artefact hunters come from archaeologically significant patterns that as Candice says: "most metal detector finds are found on private farmland". Work (only now) being done under the aegis of the PAS will show to what extent the areas targetted by artefact hunters in England and Wales are "far from known archaeological sites".

Finally if most of the finds being made by artefact hunters "represent isolated losses. [...] that happened long ago" of no more archaeological significance than a modern 50p coin dropped in the street what in blazes does the PAS think it is doing recording all those meaningless data at great public expense and thereby also legitimising artefact hunting?

This really IS a question for the PAS, why are these people coming to me with these questions and accusations about what the PAS do and not to the PAS? Is it because they are observant enough to notice that PAS "archaeological outreach" has for thirteen years, while being very supportive of this hobby and these hobbyists as long as they "show them the stuff", has consistently failed to address such questions?

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