Sunday 3 April 2011

Archaeology, the Press and the Treasure Hunter

A comment was posted below the article in the Independent discussed above by one "Alan" a metal detectorist (and I bet I know which one, hi, Tet) moans:
Why do people (and the press) always have to concentrate on the negative side of the hobby ? Yes there are villains armed with metal detectors, but there have also been 691,566 items recorded on the PAS database, by responsible detectorists. Items which would otherwise be still in the ground".
Well, this is entirely the problem isn't it? First of all any longterm contact with the British press coverage of "metal detecting" will show it is currently FAR from balanced, but I would argue the imbalance is the other way. We hear much more from the newspapers of the fluffy-bunny-partnership brand of talk about the issues surrounding portable antiquity mining and collecting (views deriving almost entirely from the stable of the PAS) and very little is said about the ethos of treating archaeological record as a source of collectables for private entertainment and profit. There is no balance whatsoever there, the general public is kept very much in the dark about the concerns many people have about current policies. Good for RESCUE for daring to say what they think. Let's see more of this open debate of these issues in the press. Secondly, is it the "negative side" of the hobby to discuss what is suitable treatment of the topic of artefact hunting for the public media? I can think of many more negative aspects of the hobby than using it to present archaeology as a big hunt for gold and silver for big cash rewards.

Thirdly we see the old deceit that the "only" problem with "metal detecting" is that some people do it illegally. That of course is not at all the main problem with mining archaeological assemblages and sites for collectables. This is a smokescreen argument of no importance for the wider debate. But again, this is precisely the way the debate is presented by the British press, who do not know any better because that basically is the creed on the basis of which the PAS functions.

One has to laugh when you see a "responsible detectorist" say that if we did not have metal detecting, all those items would still be in the ground. Well, that's like saying all those elephants, seals and whales would still be alive in their natural habitat if we did not have poaching and culls. The idea of preservation of the archaeological record in Britain, as in Iraq, Egypt, Belize and just about anywhere in the world except in an artefact hunter's head actually does consist on the various elements of archaeological assemblages and sites remaining in the ground. Again we see the tyranny of the object-centric view, to which the myth of plough and agrochemical damage, or scrap metal hunting locals, or undersea disturbances is added by the treasure hunter as some kind of justification for the finds (funnily enough, just the ones they want to collect) needing to be 'rescued" and "given a good home".

Those "691,566 items recorded on the PAS database" alone represent 691,566 holes in the archaeological record somewhere. But on the same sites, many more holes were dug to retrieve contemporary metal artefacts, including metal objects which are archaeological artefacts, metalworking waste, strip fragments, nails, studs, totally illegible coins etc etc which are removed from their context and not "recorded on the PAS database" because they are not kept by the collector who is only interested in adding objects (not shapeless, broken old tat) to their collection.

Collecting is collecting, proper investigation of the contents of an archaeological site is another thing entirely. Its what archaeologists do. It is what distinguishes archaeology from geegaw collection. This of course is a distinction supporters of the PAS simply do not admit (which perhaps tells you something about supporters of the PAS maybe?).

I'd say that on most of the metal-containing sites I have worked on, about 80% of the metal bits at least from archaeological deposits are the kind of stuff that you will not find in collectors' collections, you will not find on the PAS or UKDFD databases. So 691566 items that were shown to the PAS represents a vastly greater number of holes in the archaeological record (and no, I am not talking about cartridge cases and beer can ring pulls).

But then even when we look at the recordable minimum of an assemblage, by no means is it being shown to the PAS. The Heritage Action counter is of course summarily dismissed by artefact hunter and PAS alike (how could it not be if they are to remain true to their creed?). Nevertheless I have never seen any attempt to produce a rival model, or justify rejecting the HA one, and I really can see no reason to question it, indeed I am beginning to think it is a serious underestimate.

The HA counter tells us that instead of Alan's 691 566 objects in the PAS database for it to have been a 100% success, there should now be something like 4,154,816 recordable items there. So it's been about sixteen percent successful. That is a pretty expensive 84% failure. Not only is the PAS "not stopping" people deliberately digging stuff up, not only is it not stopping "artefacts vanishing into private collections or being sold on the internet", if the HA model is correct, it has not actually been even learning about the existence and then disappearance of five sixths of them.

Basically, I think if we are to look more deeply into these issues, it really is pretty difficult not to have a somewhat negative approach to the phenomenon of the plundering of the British archaeological record for collectables for personal entertainment and profit and the rather pathetic policy response to the issues which England has adopted.

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