Monday 8 August 2011

Portable Antiquities Scheme: Telling it Like it Is

This intelligent response by Heritageaction (identity known to me) is in danger of being lost in the long exchange about the PAS below a recent post about its latest piece of story-spinning. It might usefully start a new thread of its own, though I think we can confidently predict that nobody at all from the PAS will be joining in the discussion. Here HA responds to a suggestion by a London antiquity collector that other countries are in some way "jealous" of the way England and Wales (fail to) protect the archaeological heritage in the ground from being looted away by artefact hunters armed with metal detectors. [The bold font is mine, but I could easily get carried away here and put quite a number of the things HA writes here in bold to emphasise them, a number of crucial and eminently cogent arguments are succinctly presented here, it's worth reading several times]:
By what measure [is] the loss of 2,500,000 artefacts (with their associated contexts and sites) [...] compensated for by the far, far smaller number of artefacts reported to PAS [?]. The laissez-faire/voluntary reporting/PAS system effectively says “It is worth entirely losing most of the record in order to get to hear about some of it”. I disagree.

One might ask why anyone would support such a proposition when it is avoidable at a stroke of the legislative pen? Well.....

First, it wasn’t intended to work like this. It was intended that the great majority of detectorists could be persuaded. It is now brutally clear they can’t. All that remains is to admit the experiment has failed. How much longer will that take, and at what annual rate of cultural loss?

Second, quangos like all life forms fight like tigers for their own survival and by a quirk of fate, Britain has set up a taxpayer funded quango whose survival and continued funding depends not only upon emphasizing its own success but also, tragically, praising the very activity whose depredations it was set up to reduce. Imagine, the only country in the world funding a vast pro-metal detecting PR department when elsewhere it is simply heavily regulated or banned!

Third, yes, many archaeologists go along with it (though not with huge enthusiasm in most cases), why wouldn’t they, given the spin and the constant parading of a few “good guys” rather than the majority of others? They are also constantly told the division is between a few criminals and the “responsible majority” which is a complete falsehood. The division is between a few criminals, a minority of responsible detectorists and a majority who are most certainly not responsible. The harm detecting causes reflects those three groups. The worst damage is perfectly legal. Ever heard PAS admit that? Yet it’s pretty clearly in their stats.

I’m not an archaeologist, I’m just an ordinary punter and taxpayer, but I’ve studied all this for almost as long as Paul – for many hours every day for many years. I don’t believe the official line, full stop.

Fourth, the support PAS has overseas is not really what they say it is. It is absolute amongst dealers all right (what does that tell us?) But it is not at all widespread amongst archaeologists in my experience. In fact I would say most that I have been in contact with think Britain is irresponsible with it’s heritage and have no time for the way metal detecting has been officially protected, promoted and flattered. A good proof of that is this: of 197 countries, 197 have declined to adopt the PAS model.
That includes the US where many of the people advocating this as 'the best system' for heritage protection actually live and trade dugup antiquities. Not for nothing is the destruction of archaeological sites by looters armed with metal detectors known in several regions of the continent as "the English Disease". Is that an expression of admiration? Let us be clear here and differentiate between the reporting of accidental finds, the reporting of finds made deliberately during the exploitive destruction of the archaeological record by artefact hunters, and protecting the archaeological record from deliberate destruction. these are three different things, and in which of them is the "British System" praised abroad? Primarily in the first, never in the third. Setting up a PAS in Basra self-evidently would not have stopped the looting of archaeological sites in southern Iraq.

Vignette: No bull (Copyblogger).


kyri said...

dont shoot the mesenger,i just quoted what brian cook said,i wasnt in rome at that archaeological meeting in 1993.i agree that metal detecting has got out of hand but they have also made some great discoveries which may never have come to light.
more legislation would drive everything underground,it wont stop the metal detecting at all.
what system would heritageaction prefer to have instead?personaly i collect greek ceramics,and armour not anything that metal detectors in the uk would find.btw im also a british taxpayer with no axe to grind,it wouldnt bother me personally if they band metal detecting tommorow but i dont think that will solve the problem of i said befor,dose heritageaction realy know what is coming out of the ground in ireland,cyprus or turkey.we will never know for sure but believe me the stuff is coming out just like in the uk and draconian laws are not stopping it.

Paul Barford said...

“ they have also made some great discoveries which may never have come to light
Well we are rather losing sight of the fact that the original POST ON MY BLOG which started this is precisely about that aspect, that everything found with a metal detector has to be depicted in the press as a “great discovery” whether it is or not. Here (Whiddon Down hoard) we have a transparent case of making up a false story to make a “great discovery”.

The point about preservation (see the above post) is that we don’t want everything “coming to light” within a few decades (even if they are our decades). The idea of preservation is to leave something – and in our case untrashed archaeological sites and assemblages, but it could be rhinos and whales, panda cubs, meteorite strewn fields or natural gas deposits - for future generations. This is a conservation issue not one of how we can get as much stuff out of the ground as possible NOW.

The history of archaeology is full of great discoveries (Tutankhamun’s tomb, the first Snettisham torcs, the Llyn Cerrig Bach hoard, Mildenhall Treasure, Sutton Hoo, the Jorvik Helmet, Lindow man, the Ice Man loads and loads of others) found without a metal detector. What we are seeing is the wholescale and deliberate emptying of the archaeological record of selected goodies with state sanction.

”more legislation would drive everything underground”
Would it? Is metal detecting an “underground” activity in Poland? Well, no it is not. I know lots of metal detectorists. The ones I know do not have any problem giving me their hand, because these guys are truly responsible, and truly stay within our (rather tough laws). There are some who that does not suit, but the police (and my colleagues) are very vigilant and sooner or later these people are ‘persuaded’ that there’s lots of fun things you can do in the Polish countryside with metal detectors and not break the law, so is it worth the risk? I really do not buy this argument at all.

”dose heritageaction realy know what is coming out of the ground in ireland,cyprus or turkey.we will never know for sure but believe me the stuff is coming out just like in the uk and draconian laws are not stopping it.

and what are responsible collectors doing about it? Are they reporting people selling material obtained in flagrant violation of a law? Have you ever reported anyone?

You see, we are coming back time and time again to the question, if collectors took action to stop this, it would stop. But collectors don’t take action, in fact many of them buy these things knowing full well where it comes from.

It is not the laws which are at fault, it is the greedy selfish bastards who find feeble excuses for ignoring their existence, and even organize themselves into “collectors’ guilds” as an institutionalised form of their greedy selfish small-mindedness that are the problem here. These are the people that facilitate the “going underground”, because even when “underground”, they provide a market from which items “surface”.

This is the problem the laws will have to address. At the moment though with the PAS faffing around persuading people "collecting is OK", we are not going to get that legislative change.

Of course it actually is the PAS which should be LEADING that movement, but it will not as that would upset their various

Anonymous said...

“more legislation would drive everything underground,it wont stop the metal detecting at all”.

Pardon me, but this is a mantra mouthed by every non-reporting and unwilling-to-co-operate metal detectorist bar none and by PAS - and it has no demonstrable merit. It is NOT said by any reporting detectorist (check this out for yourself) and it is not hard to see what lies behind such a sharp difference of opinion. Those who have a vested interest in the status quo (non-reporting detectorists and PAS) have an interest in saying change won’t work and will make things worse not better. Those detectorists who already behave themselves have nothing to fear from change and don’t see licensing as a big deal or even a minute one.(Imagine - a proportion of detectorists say yes, legislate by all means, while PAS doesn't support that call and never has, not once!)

I think you can take it as dead certain that it is possible to devise a system that prevents wholesale loss of our history. Rocket science it ain’t. The trick is to choose a strategy that works not one that doesn’t....

In Ireland if you go out with a detector you get arrested. In Northern Ireland if you detect without a license you get arrested. If you ask archaeologists, landowners, government or police in either of those places they will assure you loads of illicit or unreported stuff does NOT come out of the ground. Both systems, North and South, work well. If anyone tells you they won’t work here you should check to see if they are a PAS spokesman. Or an irresponsible detectorist. Or a dodgy antiquities dealer. (They will be!)

Paul used the phrase "greedy selfish bastards". How rude. And how true. How else would you characterise those that are guilty of cultural vandalism and those that knowingly stand by and watch them?

kyri said...

paul,on the one side we have dave welsh calling people marxists and satanists and on the other we have you calling collectors selfish bastards.there are alot of ethical collectors out there and i feel that there are also alot of collectors who are ignorant of the facts were looting and the trade are concernd,i wouldnt necessearily say that they are selfish bastards,they just have to be educated.look at how many collectors have bequeathed their collections to there countrys or have gifted pieces hardly selfish acts.antiquitie collectors are famous for their philanphropy.
heritageaction,so you dont realy know what is coming out of the ground in source countrys,do you.
you say
"if you ask land
owners,archaeologists, police,gove",

who is asking the looters,asking the "landowners",well thats like asking dealers if they do anything wrong.
if your idea of legislation is to license metal detectorists,im all for it.any ethical metal detector shouldnt have a problem with that.
as for the pas,well lets just agree to differ on that.

Paul Barford said...

Let's be accurate here, what I said was "It is not the laws which are at fault, it is the greedy selfish bastards who find feeble excuses for ignoring their existence". It is quite clear I am referring not to the ethical responsibly behaving ones who respect the fact that there ARE laws, but the self-centred ones who pretend those laws do not apply to them or what they collect. Or, as you say, keep themselves ignorant of the facts of the matter because it suits them (they can hardly fail to be aware that there are controversies, just find it convenient not to go too deeply into what they consist of). There are a lot of them around, just take a look at the forums and they clearly dominate.

Welsh also compares preservationists to Nazis.

kyri said...

heritageaction,after reading an article by eamon p.kelly on protecting irelands archaeological heritage, it appears that your right,at least on the face of it,that legislation did help curtail irelands free for all of the 1970s,when metal detectors were getting find £10 and a slap on the wrist.i wont go into details,as you probably know allready but hundreds of hoards and realy important pieces were found and sold on to antiquities dealers as far away as the usa and australia.the national museum of ireland was having to buy its own cultural objects on the open market.
it seems that fines of up to £50,000 and five year prison terms for cultural property theft have helpd to deter the weekend metal detector,allthough i still think the profesionall looters in ireland,some of them with links to paramilitarys might still be active.maybe we should follow the irish line with heavy fines for non declaration of finds and make it law that everything must be reported and licenses issued.this might be the right way,the responsible detectorists of which im sure they are many,should hopefully be happy to comply,all this should work as long as there is a suitable reward scheme in operation with it,although personally i would put a financial limit of say 100k.after all the detectorists say that "were not in it for the money but for the love of history".

Anonymous said...

Kyri -

"if your idea of legislation is to license metal detectorists,im all for it.any ethical metal detector shouldnt have a problem with that."

Fine, I agree wholeheartedly with every word. Trouble is, most metal detectorists absolutely refuse to agree with licensing for reasons discernable(and have threatened chaos if it is even considered). How do you feel about that? And most fresh British dug ups that get bought by collectors come from that very group for sure (as dealers don't quote PAS reference numbers on the goods so percentage-wise the origin of most of them is indisputable). How do you feel about that? And PAS has never once in 14 years called for the licensing that is so obviously needed and which you and I desire. How do you feel about that?

It seems to me that in that short remark "if your idea of legislation is to license metal detectorists,im all for it" you have endorsed everything Paul and I have ever said and rightly condemned the behaviour of most metal detectorists and PAS. Or have I misinterpreted your words?

kyri said...

hi heritageaction.i dont agree with all that you and paul have said about the for licensing metaldetectors,i agree with you %100.well overdue.

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