Sunday, 8 January 2012

Professor Karl, The PAS and the Austrian Denkmalschutzgesetz (VII): The Scale of Erosion Caused by Artefact Hunters in Austria

In discussing an earlier summary account of the paper "On the Highway to Hell: Thoughts on the Unintended Consequences for Portable Antiquities of § 11(1) Austrian Denkmalschutzgesetz"by Professor Raimund Karl of Bangor University, I asked “How Many Active Metal Detectorists Are There in Austria?”. The question of course should have read, “how many artefact hunters”, but never mind. The summary of the paper published in British Archaeology indicated a figure like "between 2-3000 metal detectorists" which seemed rather too high to me. I suggested that “ If the proportions were the same as in the UK, the number of detectorists in Austria would be nearer 1400 (so about one seventh of the UK tekkie population)”. What Karl actually says (page 120) is:
It is, of course, impossible to provide a precise number of metal detectorists operating in Austria. […] At best, what one can give is a rough estimate of possible numbers both past and present. […] The preliminary results of the author’s questionnaire survey among metal detectorists, on the other hand, make it clear that at least 1000 but probably more likely somewhere between 2000 and 3000 individuals in Austria practise the hobby today, possibly even more. […] The estimate of at least 1000 and possibly more than twice that number of metal detectorists in Austria is also supported by the figures of the membership of the most frequented internet platform for Austrian metal detectorists, which has around 550 members.
There also emerge some other interesting figures from Karls’s survey (p. 120-1):
Also, these metal detectorists seem to be quite active. As far as can be gathered from the responses already received, the majority seem to be searching between 25 and 49 days per year, with a considerable percentage searching even more frequently (Figure 6), on average about four hours per day (Figure 7). This means that an estimated 2000 metal detectorists are currently operating in Austria, who search on average 4 hours per day, 35 days per year. Thus metal detectorists in Austria spend an estimated 280,000 hours actively searching for archaeological finds every year.
(How difficult would it have been for PAS with their thirteen million quid funding to gather such data for England and Wales?) So, how many finds are they removing from the archaeological record in Austria? First of all, let us be sure that we are not comparing chalk with cheese, the term “metal detecting” is very imprecise, in Poland close familiarity with the milieu reveals that large numbers of metal detector owners go out on the twentieth century battlefields and WW2 military sites and look for recent militaria there, and do not search for ancient artefacts. The same may apply to Austria. Karl notes:
Even if some individuals may only exclusively look for more recent items like World War II memorabilia, which perhaps are not covered by the provisions of §§ 8 and 11(1) DMSG, […]
but noticeably (and, in the context of his own argument puzzlingly) makes no attempt to define how many “some” is – this obviously has the potential of affecting his conclusions quite considerably if the patterns of “activity of these “detectorists” were revealed to be the same as in nearby Poland.

There also emerge some other interesting figures from Karls’s survey (p. 120-1):
It seems incredibly unlikely that these hours go to waste without anyone finding anything worthy of reporting. Even if one assumes that the average metal detectorist makes only one noteworthy discovery per 10–20 hours of searching, this should result in numbers of finds comparable to those reported to the PAS (taking the difference in size between Austria and the PAS area into account).
So what he is saying is that the average detectorist could be finding seven to fourteen (140/10 to 20) reportable artefacts a year (but that average could be heightened by the “considerable percentage searching even more frequently” than 49 days per year).

I have no personal experience of productive sites in Austria, but my feeling there is something wrong here. Are the metal detectorists Karl spoke to using next-to-useless jerry-made East European machines, or simply too thick to find a productive site? Most of Austria was within the Roman Empire, the limes runs through its northern half. There are fantastic Early Medieval cemeteries. Not to mention the Medieval and post-Medieval period when the area was not exactly a cultural backwater. In England a good ‘productive’ Roman site could produce half a dozen recordable artefacts (coins, brooch bits, other personal ornament, belt fittings or whatever) in a weekend’s detecting - as many a YouTube video or "look wot I found yestaday" posts to tekkie forums amply show. Are Roman sites in Austria bald of such items? (In which situation, I would say the case is even stronger for preventing what little there is from being hoovered up by collectors!).

I note that a little further down (p122) Dr Karl notes a database of 600 Roman brooches alone collected in just a few years “by several metal detectorists in one part of Austria […] from an area of c. 10 by 15 km”. Depending on how many “several” is, that is suggestive (brooches not being the commonest metal artefact types these sites would produce) that in parts of Austria at least there are sites which produce more than seven to fourteen finds in a whole year’s detecting.

Part of the problem might be that his respondents were deliberately underplaying the degree to which their hobby is depleting the archaeological record (Karl rejects that possibility out of hand). Another problem what we understand by the term “find”. A collector recognises as items worthy of collection a vastly narrow range of the bits and pieces (even of metal alone) which when uncovered by an archaeological survey would be treated as archaeological evidence. I think artefact hunters in Austria are finding and not reporting many more finds than Professor Karl's preliminary study indicates. If the laws were enforced and we saw some raids on the homes of those that have been plundering the archaeological record for collectables in spite of the law, I argue we'd learn a bit more about the patterns and scale of this activity than can be got by fraternising with them...

Vignette: Erosion, a conservation issue (copyright Dan L. Perlman).

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