Monday 27 February 2012

English Heritage: "Jolly Good Thing this metal detecting"

Bob Preece, Yorkshire Post's Crime Correspondent, notes that Yorkshire’s heritage is being ruined by "opportunist metal thieves" and shameless graffiti vandals: "They are ruining historic sites for everybody and depriving historians of the chance to learn more about the region’s past". British police, despite costly special training to investigate heritage crime, cannot cope and call on volunteers to help them monitor monuments for signs of damage and graffiti. With the aim of raising such vigilantes, a conference was held in York over the weekend hosted by English Heritage, together with the city’s council and archaeological trust.

Of note was what was said about artefact hunting, generally regarded as culture-theft and destructive in most countries across the civilized world. Not so in Britain, there are two types of archaeological erosion there it seems:
English Heritage expert Pete Wilson said “nighthawks” had long been suspected of destroying valuable archaeological evidence at Iron Age sites in the Yorkshire Wolds. Sites near the old Roman road Dere Street, running through the Vales of York and Mowbray, are also thought to have been targeted. “There are stories of sites of archaeological interest being targeted to order,” Dr Wilson said. “There are signs of a network of metal detectorists being commissioned to go to Iron Age sites that might have swords or armour. “The challenge is that, even if you can catch somebody and get them arrested, then get them convicted, the site is still there and potentially vulnerable to other people doing the same. “It is impossible to say how many nighthawks there are and it is an unfortunate term because some do their looting during the day".
duh. So, Mr Wilson, you admit you have criminals with metal detectors digging stuff up to sell to collectors. One approach is to recruit Yorkshire housewives to peer out from behind their lacy curtains to see if there are any suspicious vehicles in the vicinity of the local Iron Age barrow cemetery or hillfort and rush out waving their rolling pins at anyone who gets a metal detector and spade out of the boot of their car there. Another approach, surely, is to deal with the market in the British Isles for illicitly-obtained artefacts, isn't it? Where's the problem in that? Well, Mr Wilson it seems would have a problem with that, you see he thinks (and has told everybody):
“There might be 10,000 responsible, legal detectorists and we might only be talking about a couple of hundred nighthawks, but they can have a devastating effect. “Meanwhile responsible detectorists have contributed so much. There have been something like 26 PhD and Masters papers written, based on material that has been found by detectorists.”
I'll come back to that ACCG-like notion of looters "contributing so much" to knowledge by depleting the archaeological record. Let's look at the numbers he gives first .

This guy works for English Heritage a cash-gobbling state-funded heritage organization, supposedly in charge of it all. If anyone should know the scale of the threat to the English Heritage from this source, it should be - surely it is logical to assume - the blokes in English Heritage. But what does English Heritage Bloke Peter Wilson "know" after fourteen years of PAS outreach for fourteen million quid? There "might be" this, and "we might be talking" that. What he's saying is that after all this time and all this liaison, he really does not know anything about the scale of the problem. That is just one whopping big English heritage scandal. (By the way, the "ten thousand' was a number I was promoting several years back, it referred to the whole UK, not PASland, England and Wales.)

Well, according to the PAS database in the past year " Quantities of objects and records found Date from: 2011-02-27 Date to: 2012-02-27" we get Total records: 51675 (Total objects recorded: 73061). So basically 8000 detectorists would have found 244000 recordable artefacts according to the Heritage Action algorithm, but only 52000 of those finds generated a PAS record last year. That is each English and Welsh detectorist found and reported only 7.3 recordable items a year? The internet is full of videos of individual detectorists emptying out their finds pouches in the course of pulling out the collectables from the ground in the field that have found that many artefacts in (less than) a single day's detecting. Also have a look at some of the figures for self-recorders for that year.

A figure of 59000 items juxtaposed with the HA algorithm shows that this is the equivalent of 1934 of Wilson's "ten thousand" (sic) being responsible and reporting to the PAS all of what recordable items they've found, rather than the odd rally find and thing taken to a club meeting. That's about twenty percent, isn't it Mr Wilson? So EIGHTY PERCENT of the detecting in the region English heritage is concerned with is done irresponsibly, ie totally clandestinely with no record being generated.

Mr Wilson and his English Heritage mates really seem not to be in much of a position to challenge the Heritage Action algorithm if the best they can come up with is that there "might be" this, and "we might be talking" that. Pathetic.

Bob Preece, 'Monumental cost to heritage as thieves and graffiti youths strike', Yorkshire Post, 25th February 2012.

1 comment:

Paul Barford said...

Nigel Swift has problems sending comments directly and has asked me to post this: "Bravo Paul! Thank goodness you are there to say these things.

I too was very surprised by what Pete Wilson said, specifically because English Heritage are usually conspicuously careful not to support what shouldn't be supported. Why Mr Wilson took such a PAS-like public line is a puzzle as I get the feeling that intra-EH sentiment is very different".

Nigel, there is of course the possibility he was misquoted, but no matter, that is what the British public are being fed as the opinion of English Heritage.

The utter failure of heritage professionals to take a stand on artefact hunting is having disastrous effects on public perceptions of archaeology and the heritage.

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