Friday, 13 May 2011

The PAS database: What people collect in the UK


The PAS database is an interesting thing, there are so many data there, but then again so many things you can't fathom out due to the lack of data (unless you have some kind of special access to the hidden bits I suppose). But what can a mere member of the general public make of it? Well, the PAS keep plugging the "wotta lotta stuff" angle: in our database today there are x hundred thousand artefacts, in x hundred thousand records and x thousand ordinary blokes like you contributed. (Today, if anyone is interested, the respective "numbers" are 697,904 objects, 440,991 records, 18,984 people involved. Hooray, eh?)

But never mind the quantity, what about the quality? To what degree are the artefacts being reported by Joe Public at all representative of the bits of the British archaeological record they came from? I would argue - from several points of view - not at all. Obviously what the PAS records is only a reflection of what people bring it, and when most of their "partners" are artefact collectors, its going to reflect what people collect from the archaeological record, what they select from its rich variety for their own purposes. And artefact collectors do not collect just any old thing, and they do not collect representatively, they collect highly selectively, "selective pickup" we can call their process of exploiting the archaeological record.

Let us have a look at the quantities of material from two different categories as represented in the PAS database. Coins and non-coins. Search for "coin" on their database, and you get the answer

You searched for:
Object type: COIN
Your search returned 224357 results. You are viewing 1 - 30.

So 224000 of the records (or is that artefacts? Who knows?) on the database are COINS. Roughly a half. But there are very few sites and assemblages where coins make up half of - even the metal - finds. There is usually lots of pottery though. The search engine does not like the word "ceramic" or "pottery", nor "potsherd". The word "pot" produces quite a surprising result:

You searched for:
Object type: pot
Your search returned 593 results. You are viewing 1 - 30.

Whoah!! Ten thousand metal detectorists have been scanning thousands of 'productive sites' of all periods and in coming up to a decade and a half, only stooped to pick up five hundred handfuls of pottery? They must be stomping over hundreds of thousands of ancient and Medieval potsherds without taking the slightest interest. The same with:

Object type: Tile
Your search returned 586 results.
That's a pretty skewed picture of the British archaeological record, that's without doing a search for animal bone, slag, oystershell etc.

What about periods of the collected artefacts? More serious skewing. Let us do a Statistical analysis of the database for Wednesday 1st January 1997 until Thursday 12th May 2011 for example, let us look at the artefacts put into the database by period as a proportion of the total of 440 745 records. There are 15 299 Prehistoric and Stone Age items in the database (i.e., 3% of the material comes from a period several dozen centuries long). Of these 772 items were Palaeolithic, 5920 were Mesolithic, while the Neolithic was represented by 8100 finds. There were 5204 Bronze Age items (1%), and 46 845 Iron Age ones (11% of the total, mostly single coin finds). The largest group was Romano-British items (191 711 items –44%, again with a high proportion of coins). The Early Medieval period was represented by 16 786 finds (4%), mostly personal ornaments, while there were 91728 (15%) Medieval finds (among which coins and personal ornaments predominate). The database record also contains records of 64954 Post Medieval and 1679 modern items (together 15% of the total - but this material is selected out by the PAS rather than artefact hunters). Just 6385 items were of unknown date. This is very similar to the proportions of finds sold on eBay to collectors, lots of Roman, lots of coins, lots of ethnically-assignable personal ornament, little anything else.

Due to the manner in which it is collected, the PAS database is not providing a very accurate picture of what evidence for past activity is out in the fields of Britain.

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