Wednesday 7 December 2011

Denkmalshits in England

Still on the topic of that BA discussion piece, I get really angry when I read something like the final sentence of that text which just betrays the usual superficial thinking we can expect from the pro-collecting milieu in British archaeology. The hapless anonymous author (let's call them "BA") has written a text in favour of partnership with the artefact hunters who hoover archaeological sites for collectable artefacts, and concludes it with the usual Britarchaeological mumbo-jumbo:
The law-breaking, abusive minority of English and Welsh detectorists, however, should be exposed and stopped. They poison the atmosphere for everyone.
Symptomatic is what BA omits, no mention here of the law-breaking, abusive fraction of Scottish and Northern Irelandish artefact hunting metal detectorists. Why? because there is no PAS there to defend. They do not "poison' any rose-tinted spectacle archaeological vision of "partnership", so for the purposes of this text they safely can be ignored, while those that sully the image of the Good Old Bloomsbury Boys of the PAS must be exposed and stopped. What is notable in the quoted passage, the motivation for doing so however is nothing to do with the archaeological damage they are doing, but because they are "poisoning the atmosphere" of the illusion that there is a real partnership between all archaeologists and all collectors, because there is "common ground" ("interest in the past") between them. This is just so much wishy-washy nonsense.

Quite apart from the superficiality of the notion, it is simply a deception to claim that the ONLY problem with artefact hunting and collecting in the UK (or England and Wales for those who want to be even more parochial) are those that do it illegally. The activity of exploiting archaeological sites merely as a "mine" for collectables is considered in every country in the world, except Antarctica and the British Isles, to be archaeologically destructive in its own right (which is why it is made illegal by the legislation of some 180 countries). That Britain is not one of those countries does not make the activity any less archaeologically-destructive whenever and however it happens.

There are large numbers of "detectorists" who act entirely within the lax law of the land, and yet have failed to embrace any principles of "best practice" (the question of unploughed upland pasture or woodland, targeting known sites and so on), who fail to report more than a small fraction of the recordable archaeological artefacts that they dig up, whose subsequent disposal of those finds provokes many questions (as yet unasked by the majority of British archaeologists). The problems of current policies on artefact hunting and collecting (and the position of the PAS in the centre of many of them) go well beyond the narrow issue of the individuals that raid scheduled sites or who trespass. In my opinion (expressed on this blog for example) between the simplistic dualistic extremes of "black" and "white" which are all that traditional discourse in the UK on metal detecting tends to encompas, what is of importance is the larger extent of "grey" artefact hunting between them. Several shades of grey in fact. THESE are the real problem, the one that the "partners versus nighthawks" model simply fails to recognise. Indeed, it obscures it and it is difficult [^conspiracy theory script on>] to avoid the suspicion that this may be deliberate [^conspiracy theory script off>].

Also not the sleight of hand argument, the use of the word "minority" among English and Welsh detectorists. How on earth does BA quantify the extent of a clandestine activity in the community as a whole? I suppose they might just believe the optimistic conclusions of the "Nighthawking Survey". I do not. Just yesterday three Anglo-Saxon thrymsas appeared on the market in Belgium "from an old European collection". The fact that to judge from the photo, two of them still had the same characteristic surface deposits on them rather suggests that they might not be separately-acquired old finds that really have been curated for years and years over on the continent. It is just as likely that they came from a metal detectorist who found them recently in Kent or east Anglia where most are found, and put them in his pocket and caught the overnight ferry to France. Who is to know? But then, if (despite the recommendations of the Nighthawking survey) we refuse to look more carefully at sales like this and where the items come from, who has any ability to say what the scale of illegal activity is in Britain involving metal detectors and the destruction of sites and assemblages in the search for collectables? There are only 21 thrymsas on the PAS database, but quite a few have "surfaced" on the market since it began in 1997 (all "old finds", "of course"). The refusal to look produces the inability to see, which of course is very much in the interest of the pro-collecting lobby.

So who does BA think should be "exposing" and "stopping" this "law-breaking, abusive minority of English and Welsh detectorists" who "poison the atmosphere for everyone"? The police? But then the British police since metal detecting started (in the mid 1970s) have shown themselves unable to deal (and in at least two cases known to the writer apparently grossly incompetent to deal with) this crime. I think I am right in saying that the fingers of both hands are enough to count the number of convictions there have been in the last decade, decade and a half. Is that correct? Maybe the PAS can tell us. So, why? I rather get the impression that BA is suggesting that it's the "unsung heroes of british heritage", the "partners' who should be "exposing" their fellow metal detector users, shopping them when they learn of illegal goings-on. Do they? Well, actually they do not, and there are a number of reasons for that, one of which is that the main concern is not the illegal activity itself, but what "people might think about the hobby" as a result, and there is a desire to play down the amount of disreputable activity that goes on - an illusion that would be hard to maintain is every example of bad practice and illegal activity was notified to an outside organization. maintaining a "clean" image of "the hobby" certainly seems to be the main, if not sole, concern of most tekkies who write on their forums in such cases. The events surrounding the Twinstead sovereign theft case was a good example of this.

This case illustrates very well the fallacy of the "only nighthawks are a problem" model. This as heritage Action has recently pointed out ('NEWS: Mass theft of sovereigns at a detecting rally (and what it means)') was a rally which gathered a random selection of tekkies, it was not a "nighthawks welcomed" rally. Among the artefact hunters taking part were no doubt many who would previously been indignant not to be placed in the category of "law abiding , responsible", they don't go out "at night", never knowingly raided a scheduled site or Site of Special Scientific Interest, follow the NCMD code, always close the gates, dont leave litter. Yet by its end, an unknown number of participants went home law-breakers. Either they did not know the law (unlikely, surely and hardly "responsible"), or they did not care, finders-keepers. But what they did puts them immediately in the 'black' category, the illegal detectorists. The ones BA says should be "exposed" and "stopped". The boundary between the two is not at all as rigid as the simplistic dichotomous traditional model would have it. The problem however, it should be recognised, is not the act of breaking the law, but the attitudes that lie behind that act, and those attitudes are deeply embedded in the whole artefact-hunting and collecting milieu (regardless of whether the individual has a metal detector in the cupboard under the stairs or not). It is this attitude and what it results in for the preservation of the archaeological record which is the problem, and which should have been and what should be the focus (but is not) of PAS archaeological "outreach".

Here is a fragment of archaeological landscape, the dots are metal objects found near the surface by a controlled metal detecting survey (the figure is from the VASLE project website), the blue line are cropmarks representing buried ditched enclosures.

Obviously a collector who gets on here (a "productive site") with a metal detector and goes over it a number of times who takes away what interests him or her from that pattern (all the coins, buckles and strapends) is going to distort the in situ artefact assemblage for future analysis. Even more so if they collect but later discard the other objects and parts of objects they do not want for their collection and will not sell on eBay. Indeed when this survey was done, the assemblage may already have been distorted by unknown episodes of artefact hunting in the 1970s and 1980s. A metal detectorist that takes those metal objects away and reporting only an eight-figure NGR (or six figure - but then up north the number of four figure NGRs is astonishing) is giving ZERO information about the plan of that artefact scatter. That is even if the results of the exploitation of that site are reported. All of this is quite unrelated to whether that artefact hunter was on the field with or without the landowner's permission and was working in full sunlight or after-hours by the light of a flashing LED. The fundamental problem with artefact hunting is not whether it is done legally, but that it is done at all in a manner which cannot be anything other than destructive of the archaeological record. I find it odd that BA should try to represent the problem as something which it is not.

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