Monday 14 November 2011

Detecting Under the Microscope 13: Finds or Portable Antiquities? What is Being Thrown Away?

Those nasty "detractors" of the depletion of the archaeological record by unregulated artefact hunting are accused by John Winter of making up stories of the rate of erosion. After thirteen years of public funded (costing at least thirteen million quid) liaison and partnership, one might thought the Portable Antiquities Scheme might have provided some proper figures on the basis of which the effects of this activity on the archaeological record could be reliably assessed. Of course the Bloomsbury Good Old Boys have done no such thing. However an attempt is at last being made to rectify this omission by Katherine Robbins at Southampton University, who has initiated a survey among "metal detectorists" to try and find out just what it is they get up to in the fields. Question seven of this survey, if the tekkies answer it honestly, seems likely to provide a measure of the veracity of the Heritage Action Erosion Counter algorithm...

7.) On average, how many pre 1700AD finds do you collect each time you go out?
Or does it? What does an archaeologist consider a "find" and what does an artefact collector? What would an archaeologist record from an investigated area, and what does a collector think worth stooping for? The imp[ortant fact that is so often ignored is that artefact collecting is not ersatz archaeology, it is something else entirely. Collecting costume Barbie dolls is not ethnography, still less ethnology.

Collectors accumulate "finds" very selectively (but at the same time randomly). What they take from the fields has no relation to what was there in the first place. The aim of artefact collecting is not to make a collection which is a representative sample of an assemblage, but is a selection of collectables from that assemblage.

To take an example, if we search the PAS database (today 470,264 records) for "key" we find 1673 Roman to post-medieval examples. If we look for lock mechanism, we find nine items. There are very few examples of the collection of any part of the mechanism that articulated within the lock with them. If we look for "lock" we get 199 hits, but most of them are knobs all for some reason interpreted as from Roman "lock pins" (though other interpretations are possible) and cast copper alloy slide bolts from Roman padlocks. Yet locks in which a key is turned each have a number of moving parts, precision made, differentially tempered. Just those bits of metal are not as "collectable" as a key. Here's one mechanism for example:
Which of these pieces would join the average metal detectorist's collection? How many of them would thence turn up on a FLO's desk? What is happening in the fields is the equivalent pieces of the ancient locks to which those keys fitted are simply being dug out of their place in the archaeological record and being discarded by collectors. The information they contain about lock typology, development, manufacturing techniques is simply being lost because artefact hunters are not doing archaeology, but looking for geegaws to collect (or sell). Lock mechanism fragments most frequently end up in the scrap bucket and not in anyone's collection, still less on anyone's database.

Another example are tools. Many of the metal objects "metal detectorists" collect and sell are decorated with inscribed lines or 'chip carving' or zig-zag (rocker) tracer lines. The tools that made these marks would be small iron spikes with a tempered steel (or at worst work-hardened) and sharpened ends. This type of decoration is very common. How many of the tools that made it have been found by metal detectorists? Interestingly there is not even a category "tracer" in the PAS keywords list. Perhaps they'd go under 'burins' (a steel burin could be used for woodworking, and leather working - making the stitch holes in shoes for example) so there should be a lot of tracers and burins resulting from 10000 tekkies searching "productive" sites up and down the country. A search of the PAS database reveals 32 - all of flint - have been collected and reported. Many Roman metal objects have traces on them of having been finished with 'needle file' like tools - where are they in the PAS database? The saws used to cut the teeth of the bone combs on Roman and post-Roman sites? The list of things that are not being collected by artefact hunters is a long one. Typing "waste" gets some metalworking waste (mostly lead) but 91 fragments is surely no guide whatsoever to either the quantities of metalworking waste in the post-Roman archaeological sites of Britain. After all, the 400 000 metal detected objects on the database had to be made some time somewhere. Artefact hunters might pick up the odd piece from time to time as a curiosity, but generally not information. Most of the evidence for post-Roman (or earlier even) metal working dug up from archaeological assemblages by metal detectorists probably goes in the scrap bucket.

Therefore artefact hunters could be taking from the archaeological many more "pre 1700AD finds" than will register in their conscience as something that may be archaeological evidence that may be reportable to the PAS. The answer they give to Robbins' question 7 will therefore reflect that perception. I suspect also the individuals answering the questionnaire will include an unknown number deliberately trying to create "statistics' which prove the "detractors" wrong and it is unclear how Ms Robbins intends analysing the results she gets to filter out this effect. Still, it will be interesting to see what answer they give.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Detectorists will fiddle the result? Maybe, but the last time that happened (by Mr Connolly announcing in advance to the respondents that the purpose was to discredit the Heritage Action figures) it all went wrong as his figures for how much they found STILL ended up higher than ours! And he was stuck with presenting them to the PAS conference!

Thus, despite Mr Winter saying our figures are ludicrously high, they are lower than Mr Connolly's and indeed the detectorists' own Kevmar survey figures so I don't think we need worry ours are ludicrous unless he's saying the others are super-ludicrous!

I note that Ms Robbins doesn't think our figures are too high either as she asks about whether people find between 1 to 13 recordable items per trip. Our estimate is based on the assumption they find a lot less than one(Mr Winter please note)so it'll be impossible to fiddle this survey to the required degree unless there's a sudden mysterious alteration to the question! I DO hope no-one advises her to do that -or to bury the results somehow. Beware Ms Robbins, keep to academic truth and don't listen to advice that in any way asks you to compromise it. And if any such pressures are brought then reporting them would be a valid part of your paper I suppose.

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