Wednesday 11 April 2012

Focus on Metal Detecting: Nigel Talks Sense

It strikes me that this is very well put, it is part of a letter which Nigel Swift (he of Heritage Action fame) sent me concerning my earlier post about Roy Friendship Taylor and touching on the Council for British Archaeology endorsement of and involvement in the "Britain's Secret Treasures" programme.

Paul, I think the ITV spokesman unwittingly proved how the concerns about this programme are justified. He said “The series will of course refer responsibly throughout to the best practice methods to be used by amateur archaeologists” yet seems blissfully unaware that artefact hunters are light years from being amateur archaeologists (inter alia, they pocket what they find!) and the responsibility code is light years away from best practice (he should ask English Heritage what is). Where did he get such ideas?

There are two fundamental points about the programme that still trouble me.

First, I feel the only consequence of the programme we can be confident about will be an expansion of artefact hunting - and that is contrary to intended policy, which comprises containment and mitigation, not expansion. In addition, since the "responsibility" message has been largely ignored by the majority of existing detectorists, there are no realistic grounds for hoping most of the new entrants to the activity will act differently from their established colleagues.

Second, “responsible detecting” is not a satisfactory constituent of the Festival as it doesn't bridge the ethical and practical gulf between Archaeology and Artefact Hunting. The Code [of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting in England and Wales] doesn’t define accepted “good practice”, only what could be extracted from the signatories. It doesn't preclude random, unstructured, unlimited, self-serving or commercial activity, all things that professional archaeologists are ethically obliged to avoid and amateur archaeologists scorn to do and in any case it is not adopted by national or local detecting organisations. On that basis I don't see how it has a place in a Festival of Archaeology - which, while it may be a broad church, still has to have membership conditions else it is meaningless. Shouldn't Archaeology seek to maximise public knowledge gain, not personal object gain, for minimum damage? Responsible detecting doesn't do that, it merely gives a patently reluctant nod of acknowledgement towards such concepts.

I realise those views are represented in some quarters as fundamentalist and a block to "compromise" but fundamentalism is no more than conservation without unnecessary compromise, is it not? While the compromise may have been forced upon the profession by parliament, a move to extend it to the point of "conditional acceptance" is unforced and therefore, to me at least, incomprehensible. I feel someone has to keep banging on about this else la différence will become progressively blurred in the public mind. Archaeologists may know very well how strictly bound they are by their own ethics, but how is a landowner to know that a man with an ultra deep-seeking detector, a personal recommendation from Roger Bland and now a Festival tee-shirt is bound by just about nothing? 

There was more, but it hints at something less public. It seems to me that it should be precisely the CBA who should be "banging on" about the differences between artefact hunting and archaeology, and the nature of the forced compromise. The CBA cannot do that by taking part in the programme glorifying the "wottalotta stuff we got" view of heritage antipreservation. 

An analogy to this might be English Heritage saying: "we've allowed people to get rid of a lot of fourteenth century timber buildings in the last ten years, but we've been recording 90 000 hand-forged 14th century timber roofing batten nails annually in the process. Wottalotta nails!! Yay!!!". 

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