Sunday, 8 January 2012

Professor Karl, The PAS and the Austrian Denkmalschutzgesetz (III): The “Jolly Good Collector” Model

The basic problem discussed in Raimund Karl’s "On the Highway to Hell: Thoughts on the Unintended Consequences for Portable Antiquities of § 11(1) Austrian Denkmalschutzgesetz" which interests me here is the issue he discusses of the use of metal detectors for artefact hunting and the fact that this can only legally be undertaken with a permit (rather than a licence) and the current law states that the latter can only be awarded to archaeology graduates. This means that people finding stuff cannot come forward to report it because (unless they lie about simply "stumbling upon it while walking the dog") that would involve to admitting illegal activity, so they keep quiet about it.

I really must express my disagreement with his approach to these issues. After setting out the fundamental bits of the law he is discussing (pp 111-3) [and for the coineys and suchlike who cannot be bothered to read it for themselves, the reward system], he then discusses: "The public and the prohibition against digging for finds" (pp 114-5). Dr Karl treats artefact hunters with metal detectors not as collectors, but
"amateur historians or amateur archaeologists who have, over the past forty years, increasingly started to use modern technology — metal detectors — in the search for archaeological objects [...], the overwhelming majority of amateur archaeologists walk the fields, meadows and forests of Austria with a metal detector in their hands".
Instead of artefact hunting and collecting, he talks of artefact hunters being involved in "metal detector surveys" (sic). This is pure PAS-prompted wishy-washyness. There is a great difference between a big game hunter and an ecologist, in the same way as there is a big difference between artefact collectors and what normally would be considered to be archaeologists (see below - the discussion of "fibulology"). The PAS does not (want to) see that, and that is what they tell the public. It seems from what he writes here that Dr Karl has uncritically swallowed this hook line and sinker.

So, on that premise Dr Karl passes lightly over the next issue
"these members of the public continue not just to search for but also to find and dig up archaeological objects, even if they are legally prohibited from doing so".
There he stops.
"the majority of offenders will not necessarily stop their (now) outlawed activities just because they have been forbidden, but may rather choose to continue with them and simply keep them concealed from the authorities".
Ah, they are "forced" to go underground. Arguing for the preservation of the archaeological record from this sort of exploitation is dismissed by this British-based academic as ivory-tower nastiness: “It is high time to stop preaching against the evils of the uneducated and uncooperative public”. (Should we should go out with arms outstretched in friendliness to every artefact hunter in the world, pat them on the head and say “welcome friend, see you are interested in archaeological finds too, wonderful!”?). Hmmm.

The paper makes no mention of whether stopping artefact hunters from digging out collectables is desirable or not, what the author depicts as undesirable is that in Austria these people who "of course" carry on plundering sites are "forced” by the law to do it in secret. We simply lose sight of the whole issue of preserving archaeological sites from this kind of plunder. Since Dr Karl is writing in Wales, I place the blame for this on the shoulders of the PAS which has for thirteen years been steadily rooting out from the consciousness of the public and the profession that artefact hunting for collectables is nothing more than plunder of the archaeological record.

Naming looters and collectors "amateur archaeologists" (ie perverting the meaning of the word archaeologist to become mere artefactology) may be one way out of dealing with the problem, except it merely sidesteps it. So, when for professor Karl is a looter a looter? Why are the people who go out with metal detectors on archaeological sites in the Austrian countryside with no permits and no ability to report the finds they collect (or those they dig up and discard) not looters plain and simple? What is in a name?

I am a bit puzzled by the comment further down the paper (p. 126):
This is of course not to say that there are no ‘black sheep’, no ‘nighthawks’ among Austrian metal detectorists.
The British euphemism for illegal artefact hunting is stupid and vague from the outset, Karl introduces a different meaning in defining these “black sheep” as:
“some that do search for archaeological objects for material gains; and who will dig as deep as necessary to get at the golden treasures that they are seeking, destroying undisturbed stratigraphy in the process”.
This is NOT what the average British metal detectorist would regard as “nighthawking”. Here Professor Karl is confusing illegal activity (because all who go out metal detecting for relics in Austria without a permit are by definition illegally detecting – in other words “nighthawking”) with best practice (“fill in yer ‘oles”?). British metal detectorists who would not consider themselves nighthawks regularly sell their finds and dig out the vast majority of their Treasure finds (for which they get their head patted in PAS press releases and lots of public money rewards) from below plough level. Professor Karl's switching of the definition here is just plain dotty and dodging the issue – I wonder how he would have written that paragraph in his native German, without the intellectual prop of the English weasel-word “nighthawk”?

I’d also like to ask how “responsible” is it in fact to carry out a destructive activity on the archaeological record when (a) it is illegal and (b) because of this there is no possibility of arranging proper curation of the project archive and dissemination of the results? Is that real archaeology or is that merely ersatz, pretend, archaeology? Is it not irresponsible destruction, pure and simple?

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