Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Detectorists and Scheduled Sites

A comment on the "nighthawking" thread on "" seems worth drawing attention to. One "Fertling John" from Essex writes (Fri Sep 30, 2011) that he consider it "pointless" to consider "nighthawking" an offence on any scheduled site on arable land. He suggests "quite simply" that with every (sic) agricultural activity artefacts are "destroyed" and that even if such a site were to be investigated, he claims that the ploughsoil would inevitably be simply "bulldozed aside" (not recognising that excavation is just one of the methods in the modern archaeologist's toolchest). He proposes that "local detector clubs should be invited to search all scheduled arable sites to recover the artifacts from the plough soil under archaeological supervision". By that he seems to imagine (obviously not having actually read the relevant literature: Our Portable Past published several years ago by English Heritage on precisely this topic) that it is enough that people with metal detectors could hoik out the metal goodies and "they could then be plotted in say 100 sq metre squares" (does he mean 10x10 meter squares, or 100x100 metre ones?). Moreover the "huge quantity of ordinary" finds would be given to the "detectorist" and "retained by a museum" only if the artefact (so not the assemblage from an archaeological project) was "of local or national significance". This is the "win-win" as seen from the tekkie viewpoint, they get a huge number of finds to add to their collections or flog off on eBay the archaeologist gets a plot of the metal items shown to the nearest 100 metre squares and a site emptied of a large amount of the diagnostic artefacts. Who's going to archive the nails and lead fragments recovered from such a survey? And the worked stone, greyware body sherds, roof tile, animal bone, fired clay scraps and slag? These too are artefacts and by "Fertling John's" arguments all being "destroyed" to the same degree as the bits and pieces he and is detecting mates want to get their hands on. Then we have the ethical problem of archaeological supervision of a project which does not lead to the proper archivisation of the products. Or does Fertling John expect us not only to reject the principles of conservation in situ for the benefit of collectors, but also existing codes of practice and archaeological ethics?

The question is of course whether artefacts really are being "destroyed" by being in the soil to the degree that it is convenient for artefact hunters to claim. Some of the fields they search have been ploughed for centuries and been fertilised for as long - so if this is causing the scale of destruction the claim so universally, why are there artefacts in them at all? This is, in my opinion (and I've looked into it quite careully) just a convenient "common sense innit" myth - not based on any real case studies or soil science - both of which suggest something quite different from the "doom-and-gloom-unless-you-let-us-hoik-it-all-out" prognoses of the would-be benficiaries.

Vignette: Gridded Fieldwalking is also a means of studying archaeological evidence preserved in situ (from the cover of Our Portable Past).

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