Sunday 15 April 2012

PAS: 150K to show Everything is OK?

Roger Bland's  Leverhulme Trust 3-year Research Project  'The Portable Antiquities Scheme database as a tool for archaeological research' which starts today will, it says on the box, "analyse the factors that underlie the Portable Antiquities Scheme database" in order to make it usable as an "archaeological tool".  Certainly a very useful thing to have done after all these years of "data" collection.

I do wonder what kind of "archaeology" numismatist Roger Bland wants to look at. The principle Investigator has a somewhat vested interest in the Portable Antiquities Scheme being vindicated, rather than shown to be based on faulty assumptions and with a flawed methodology. Anyway Dr Bland is a numismatist rather than an archaeological theorist. The title of the project tends to suggest that the idea of the project is to prove that the PAS database IS an archaeological tool, rather than explore more holistically WHETHER it can be used as such. The way it is described in the press release is not too encouraging:
It will analyse the spatial distribution of the data, comparing it with other datasets[...] 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?  [...]
The methodology of the work described indicates that it 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".
So basically what is being looked at are the factors which produce the distribution of dots on a map. Dot distribution maps were a basic technique of ordering information in nineteenth century archaeology. Modern archaeology has come a long way in its methodology(ies) since the days of Gustav Kossinna and Cyril Fox. In the press release of this 150k research programme there is no indication that other types of archaeological use are anywhere contemplated.

For example I was struck by the discussion on the (pro-artefact hunting) BAJR archaeological forum
where one (anonymous) member describes his or her experiences with using metal detectorists on an archaeological project:
On the Catterick Metal Detecting Project a few years back [...], apart from recording the objects and their locations, we also recorded who found what, what type of machine they'd been using at the time, ground conditions and also detectorist behaviour: whatever you did they were unable to stick to 'organised' searches, resulting in completely false 'hotspots' where areas were deemed to be 'rich' and hence stripped of every last microscopic scrap of metal using more and more sophisticated equipment at the expense of adjacent areas that probably contained just as many finds, and this was all just in one field. One would suspect that the PAS is to some extent recording similar behaviour at a rather more macro scale. 
David Connolly, pro-collecting archaeologist, made a notable remark in response:
Something I also noted as well when I did the Rallies. the Brownian motion of detectorists - This was back in 2007-9 when I did a similar numbered finds, GPS etc... names... and took machine type. but was never sure why 
Well, it's obvious why, but the significance of this remark is his reference to "doing the rallies" concerns his attempts to use participants on commercial artefact hunting rallies to produce archaeological information - he produced two somewhat controversial reports to show that rallies could be (in his opinion) a "jolly good thing" for archaeology which do not mention this effect at all, yet make much use of dot distribution maps of finds made across a site without too much discussion of the biases.
Of course PAS data do not tend to contain findspots recorded to the accuracy of a few metres or so which would allow site assemblages to be reconstructed in any detail, neither does it contain records of material that was not noticed, not collected, or that which was collected and not shown to the PAS.

This of course is a key omission in the reported scope of the project. Just what is being collected in the field, and what is not? What is being shown to the PAS, and what is not? How much of the latter category of material is removed from sites and not getting onto the database? Obviously what the database contains is not archaeological information, but information about collectables. No amount of dot distribution maps and sophisticated statistical macro-study of spatial patterns is going to be able to substitute for the full richness of the information not being recorded because finds are being hoiked out of the ground by people after collectables not archaeological information. Will this be the conclusion of the report? I sincerely doubt that in the circumstances. But let us wait and see.

Who is on the academic panel supervising this grant?

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