Monday 11 April 2011

Some Reported UK Artefact Hunters' Hauls

There has been some desultory discussion in the UK of Heritage Action's Erosion Counter (a model of the demolition of Britain's archaeological record by artefact hunters in search of collectables). Most of the time though supporters of current policies on artefact hunting and collecting over there either dismiss it as "too high" or ignore it. I cannot think of a single case however of anyone 'on that side of the fence' ever proposing an alternative model.

As I have said here before I do not think the figures quoted are "too high". On the contrary I think it is a very low estimate of what is happening in the fields, week after week, month after month, year after year and has been going on since the 1970s. It is a tragic picture. And its happening right under the noses of British archaeologists.

To recap, the model that HA produced (based on information derived from metal detectorists' own writings on the matter) is the statistical equivalent of each of ten thousand detectorists finding an average of just over thirty recordable objects a year. As we heard on the RallyUK forum, Mr Evan Hart found 200+ Roman coins and a load of other stuff in the past few weeks. While I am sure there are pathetic individuals who call themselves "metal detectorists" who may find three recordable objects a year and still persist, there are many more with access to "productive" sites that can find well over thirty objects a year with their eyes closed.

Among those that have denounced Heritage Action's figures is, surprisingly, the Portable Antiquities Scheme, British archaeology's outreach to the public in portable antiquity matters (so an organization that one would have thought highly interested in establishing such figures). They've even come onto this blog to say the figures are "too high" - but offering none of their own. Oddly enough on trawling through some old Annual reports I find that at the beginning of their period of operation (coming up to fifteen years now) they were reporting the size of some of the artefact collectors' collections they were coming across. This presumably in those early days was intended to show the government who they expected to fork out for it, how much extra money they needed to cope with recording all that stuff. Gradually the realisation must have set in that the figures of unrecorded stuff were counter productive in two ways, firstly it showed "Whitehall" that they were not making much headway mitigating the information lost as these masses of items leave the archaeological record for some personal collection in a council estate garden shed, and secondly metal detecting was being shown in a bad light - which hardly favours "partnership".

For what it is worth then, the annual report for 1997-8 (p. 29) tells of a single artefact hunter in South Ferriby who had a collection of 12000 objects (if the collector had started artefact hunting in 1970, that's a find rate of 444 objects a year). The 1998-9 annual report (p. 47) mentions a collection in Hampshire that the PAS had learnt of containing 17,500 objects (that'd be 625 objects a year) "Other large collections are known to exist in Yorkshire,
Worcestershire and elsewhere". While undoubtedly these are extremes, I have seen a private Essex collection that fills a garden shed, I have heard from a reliable source of a garage with fertiliser sacks full of sorted artefacts in Norfolk, and so on. These certainly suggests that a finds rate of 30 objects a year is by no means unachievable by the average "metal detectorist", even if they only go out a few weekends a year.

We really know too little (after all that publicly-funded PAS liaison with these people) about collecting patterns to say how typical or atypical collections of (say) more than a thousand recordable objects are out there. I think it is time we, and the British public, knew more. I think furthermore it is time we started asking why, in fact, despite a Scheme of fifty people working away in "partnership" with British artefact hunters we still do not know any more about this than we did in the mid 1990s. That too is a tragic misunderstanding of the role the PAS should be playing in keeping the British public informed about portable antiquities issues.

[the sound of pigeons cooing in Bloomsbury Square]

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