Saturday 12 November 2011

Detecting Under the Microscope 12: A report on the Bishop Burton Rally

A while back I discussed the statements published in national newspapers which gave the public the impression that PAS finds advisor Dr Kevin Leahy, FSA, MIfA National Adviser supported the Bishop's Burton (East Yorkshire) commercial artefact hunting "festival" , 23 – 25 September, 2011 and suggested that the public were not being given a very accurate picture of archaeological method and thinking on such issues by this type of PAS "outreach".

Over on the Federation of Independent Detectorists website there is copied and pasted a report written 27/09/11 by the same Kevin Leahy on the rally (currently second article down). This sounds grim. There were 400 "detectorists" spread over a massive area ("with 59 large fields being fully, or partially, open"). PAS presence was patchy, 12 man days in all including 4 of them by non-PAS volunteers, leahy describes the experience as "three fraught days".
We were made welcome by the organisers, the detectorists and the landowner but some mention was made of the problems involved in setting up this rally with regards to Natural England. As I was not privy to these matters no comment was made.
Maps were available and were "invaluable"
Field[s] were numbered and detectorists were asked to tell us in which quarter of the field finds had been made. During the course of the rally 220 finds were reported by 118 of the detectorists. This was not impressive considering the number of people involved but it is likely that the very size of the area available weighed against recording: the long trip back to the base would have taken up valuable detecting time. This rally covered too large an area.
Without maps it would have been impossible to do any recording under these circumstances, but frankly "which quarter of the field" something was in is no useful record at all of find distribution patterns. Three days detecting by 400 people should be producing more than 0.18 finds a day per person (half a find each over the whole long weekend). English Nature should be preventing the erosion of the archaeological record on land for which it is responsible and subsidising, there should have been more than "problems" from them, there should have been a total ban on conservation scheme land. Dr Leahy mentions his contacts with the media.
I did two recordings for regional TV. In both cases I talked about the positive work of the PAS and did not disclose my real frustrations over rallies. The issue of English Nature was not mentioned. Also present was a young researcher from ITV who was looking into them doing a programme on metal detector rallies as a follow-up to 'Mud Men'. Again, I kept my opinions to myself and tried to steer him towards something more constructive and interesting on finds. I think that it is extremely unlikely that this proposal will go ahead and, if it does, I do not think that the PAS should be involved in any way.
What is NOT explained is why a PAS official is NOT giving the public media an accurate picture of his "real frustrations over rallies". Surely is that not what archaeological outreach to the public is all about? Outreach that is costing the public millions of pounds and the loss of millions of artefacts from the archaeological record, a precious heritage in which they are all stakeholders in common, and the PAS official when asked to comment hides from the public what he thinks about what is going on?

But look at the next bit, ITV want to make a "programme on metal detector rallies" and states: "I do not think that the PAS should be involved in any way". That's a change from the PAS position on a projected programme about Treasure Hunting just under a year ago which the preparatory material they were discussing (not "binning") showed clearly that it threatened to misinform the public in a thoroughly disturbing manner. The PAS should not be involved in any way, EXCEPT to say that these things should not be happening. that would be proper archaeological outreach, but they do not really seem to have the stomach for that.

Note that Dr Leahy reports that three treasure finds were seen at this rally, of which two did not come from the rally at all, and the third (presumably found during the rally) left the site with the finder, who was going to report it to his local FLO (not the Coroner as the Treasure Act lays down?). This emphasises how important these rallies actually are in the PAS contacts with metal detectorists, without them the PAS would not be "contacting" so many of them, and would be getting vastly fewer artefacts in their database.

Dr Leahy also records his misgivings about the fact that some of the finders were people who had come over from the Continent to attend the rally, and he suspected would not be in the country long enough to arrange export licence formalities, and (since it would be much simpler) could be tempted to smuggle their finds out of the country. He records the fact that it was unclear what a PAS employee should do in such a case, and what powers he has to prevent such an eventuality (actually, none). The rally was attended by at least ten detectorists from the Netherlands, one German and one Canadian. There may have been other foreign detector users there of whom the PAS was unaware. It would be interesting whether there was any followup to this by the PAS to determine if an export licence was applied for (which would be in the PAS remit as part of its monitoring activities).

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