Sunday 15 April 2012

£150K Research Project to Justify PAS Database as an "Archaeological Tool"

Artefact hunters with metal detectors think any kind of criticism of their hobby can be answered by ignoring the issue of site preservation and the simpler argument that they are bringing finds to light that would otherwise 'not be known' including to archaeologists.  Dick Stout for example criticises me for discussing "finds that detectorists make"  Let me be blunt Mr. Barford, "why didn't you or your fellow archaeologists find them first?" [...] If we didn't search for them, recover them and share them, you and your compadres sure as hell wouldn't even know about them. End of story... well of course the use of information obtained from artefact hunters and collectors for archaeological research is by no means such as simple story.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme was set up fifteen years ago with the intention that the information which it recorded about "funds made by members of the public" would be of use for archaeological research and conservation purposes. Thus it was it blundered on collecting lots and lots of "data" from various sources. That certain of us questioned the basic assumption underlying this accumulation went unheeded by the Scheme and it supporters for over a decade. Then in Jan 2009 under an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award, Katherine Robbins (a former PAS data-enterer) began a PhD at Southampton University: "How representative is (sic) the data collected by the Portable Antiquities Scheme? A geostatistical investigation" (supervisors Dr Graeme Earl in the Archaeological Computing Research Group at the University of Southampton and Dr Roger Bland) in which she is analysing the data gathered by PAS in three pilot areas (Hampshire, the Isle of Wight and Northamptonshire).  

We learn today that the British Museum has now been awarded  a Leverhulme Trust 3-year Research Project Grant of £149,805 for the project, 'The Portable Antiquities Scheme database as a tool for archaeological research' which starts today. The Principal Investigator is Roger Bland, Keeper, Department of Portable Antiquities & Treasure, while Katherine Robbins has been appointed as his Research Assistant.
The project will analyse the factors that underlie the Portable Antiquities Scheme database [...]. It will analyse the spatial distribution of the data, comparing it with other datasets; it will also survey finders and will produce a report and web resource which will enable the many researchers who use the data to understand the biases in the dataset.[...] There is an urgent need to understand in greater detail the factors that influence the geographical distribution of the data and the relationships between collection practice, artefact type and space. The project will therefore answer the question: what underlying factors govern the spatial distribution of finds recorded by the PAS? By providing a clear analysis of the factors underlying the dataset, this project will enable the rapidly growing PAS database to be exploited to the full in future research on the archaeology of the UK [...]  This study will help to transform the use of the PAS database in research.

The work will involve the mapping of information from the PAS database against key archaeological datasets, especially Historic Environment Records. Spatial statistical techniques (within a Geographic Information System) will be used to "generate intensity maps of find locations and selected classes of finds". The project will then "explore correlations between the intensity maps and will build a model to incorporate information relating to finder activity and other perceived biases". It is planned that "finder and Finds Liaison Officer practice" will be analysed "using a combination of statistical techniques with qualitative data from questionnaires and surveys". The output is a spring 2014 conference, online publications and a book.
There will also be a Report written by Robbins and Bland which will bring together the results of the project to produce a definitive study of the data recorded in the PAS database. This will identify and analyse key features of the data and will define the best ways to present the data, with their inherent biases, in a transparent fashion. This will be a British Museum Research Paper available in print and online. In addition, guidance for researchers on how to interpret the spatial distribution of PAS data will be developed on the PAS website, besides articles in popular magazines and two peer-reviewed journals.
All very laudable I am sure, and certainly worth seeing after all these years of "data" collection. Perhaps its rather late to be finding out - after fourteen million quid have been spent on it - what use these "data" are, and whether to make them more useful some other methodology should have been introduced earlier in the Scheme into their collection and archivisation.

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