Tuesday 8 May 2012

Mad Cows and Questioning Bloomsbury

Mad cows and Englishmen have an excuse... (by No48_Semmel)

Bloomsbury's Portable Antiquities Scheme is starting to take an interest (after how many years?) in the Heritage Action Erosion Counter:

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What an extraordinary exchange. Sarah May is Monographs Editor at the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology and Senior Archaeologist at English Heritage, so should know better. Its a shame that English Heritage does not share a bit of "anxiety about what might have been lost" through current British policies on several aspects of heritage, including its approach to the legalised looting of the British archaeological record for collectables for personal collection and sale.

And now it turns out that the only British response to deal with the "metal detecting problem" is not adequately resourced to actually deal with it - so in other words, the solution is not working because it is too expensive to do it properly. Let us remember that some months ago the PAS was proudly announcing they had fulfilled their "fifth aim". Do I need to remind readers what it was?
To define the nature and scope of a scheme for recording portable antiquities in the longer term, to access the likely costs and to identify resources to enable it to be put into practice.

"Publish your algorithm properly and I can comment" saith the PAS IT specialist. Later though we see this:

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So the computer bloke has been doing a bit of digging on the Heritage Action web page and "found the javascript" (I wonder if he can change it too?)....

Now the actual basis of the figures take up half a chapter of a forthcoming text, and neither Nigel Swift nor I have any intention of undercutting sales by publishing it here. Suffice to say it attempts to deal with the extreme secrecy of the detecting community about who goes out how many hours a year and how many recordable finds they make. Luckily they are a boastful bunch, so over the years on their forums various snippets of information have appeared which - to cut a long story short - led us to the conclusion that if eight thousand blokes are out there doing it at the rates the information we could garner from forum posts about "my weekend" etc, the weekly haul of recordable finds should be somewhere over 5600 items (average 0.64 a week per statistical searcher). That makes about 30 finds a year for each. Now obviously there are the poor saps who go out twice a year and find a single bent nail, but the forums reveal there are not a few individuals in the detecting community who can go out for a day's detecting and find 15-30 decent recordable items in one go. And among these are the ones who month after month report they've found "more". Have a look for example at the signatures under posts on forums like Detecting Wales to see how many finds individuals have made up to may this year, or look at a whole range of You Tube videos, or rally reports. A statistical thirty archaeological finds a year is a conservative figure.

So the Erosion counter ticks over at a rate which reflects that. We thought it would look stupid if it ticked as fast in the night as in the day (we'd also be accused of saying there were as many 'nighthawks' as "responsible detectorists" which of course everybody would deny - even though we do not know the actual number in either group), so we got the Javascript writers to jig it  to slow down to a minimal rate (a nominal 10% of the daytime rate) in the hours of darkness. Daniel Pett's quibble concerning the day/night split is supremely irrelevant except as a smokescreen put up by him. Once again, where are HIS figures?

As for "we didn't allow for foot and mouth"! That really is just childish sniping. (UPDATE 9th may 2012: I decided that sounded too much like a cop-out, so I did look at the figures. I think the results show pretty conclusively what a pathetically inadequate excuse it is).

What I think is worth emphasising however is that the HA counter figures are based on my old estimate of 10 000 detectorists in the UK (how I came by that is I believe somewhere described on this blog). That I (still) think was about the right figure in the first half of the decade 2000-2010. Certain evidence (among it, some emerging from PAS figures) suggest that this figure by now should be something like 16000 (and by inference most of them in the area of Britain covered by PAS "outreach"). PAS "archaeological outreach" has had the effect of making the hobby of artefact hunting and collecting more popular. That, I would argue is a scandal in its own right, and quite at odds with what the PAS might have been thought 15 years ago to have been set up for. It is also part of the reason why the PAS now realises it has not the resources to cope with the increasing rate at which finds are being hoiked out  and taken away. If my estimate of the current figure is valid, it means that the HA counter should now be ticking away 60% faster than it was when we set it up all those years ago. Mr Pett may accuse us of not taking into account mad cow disease, but neither does the Counter take account of the mad increase in the number of people out there hoiking finds out

But again, where are PAS's figures? As Mr Pett says, PAS are "at the sharp end". PAS have been sitting on their actual figures for 15 years. Never published anything which can actually allow a detailed breakdown of patterns of finding and reporting of those artefact hunters that are its "partners", let alone any attempt at a consideration of those that are not. Heritage Action's basis for its figures have been there in black and white since the counter went up. Since then the PAS has produced absolutely nothing (that's nothing at all) that shows that the Erosion Counter should be ticking away at a different rate. Nothing! Now that is nothing short of scandalous in a publicly funded Scheme, costing millions of quid - which it now turns out from their own admission has not a hope in hell of achieving its proper aim while it's not getting MORE millions of quid a year to cope.
Time to stop the official dodging and diving, let's have some actual information out in the open about actual reporting patterns instead of generalised tabulated totals which may work well as propaganda of success, but tell us (or policymakers) nothing about the response of different segments of society to the PAS outreach.

So, what is the PAS estimate of the number of finds which are not being reported, and on what is that estimate based? Heritage Action is an amateur group - the PAS is a government-funded and state-supported public program. Who should be asking who to produce their figures? Anyone fancy doing a FOI request and a few letters to MPs to get some real answers out of the PAS?

And Sarah May, why is English Heritage not demanding these figures? Or do they have them and for some reason are not sharing them? "More transparency" I say. Let us see the data underlying official complacency about turning the archaeological record of Britain into a mine for 'collectables'.


David Gill said...

The issue of under-reporting was discussed by me in Papers of the Institute of Archaeology (see here): "These figures suggest that either there are many detectorists who find nothing, or that there is substantial under-reporting."

Gill, D. W. J. 2010. "The Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Treasure Act: Protecting the archaeology of England and Wales?" Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 20: 1-11.

Interestingly PAS was invited to respond to the paper but the single response by a member of PAS addressed the issue of the 'Crosby Garrett' Roman helmet.

Gill, D. W. J. 2010. "The Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Treasure Act: Protecting the archaeology of England and Wales? Reply to Austin, Barford, Moshenska, Renfrew and Worrell." Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 20: 33-40.

Why is PAS so reluctant to comment on under-reporting? What does under-reporting say about the activities of detectorists?

Paul Barford said...

" These figures suggest that either there are many detectorists who find nothing, or that there is substantial under-reporting."

So we have another "coin fairies/coin elves" situation since large numbers of finds(PAS: how many?) appear on eBay which have no PAS numbers attached. I really do not believe for a minute that ne can be an artefact hunter who finds no artefacts.

What we do find are artefact hunters who declare themselves as against co-operation with archaeologists - like John Howland ('Malamute Saloon') whom I discussed here the other day.

"PAS was invited to respond to the paper but the single response by a member of PAS..."

Yes, that was disgusting. Reflects very badly.

"Why is PAS so reluctant to comment on under-reporting? What does under-reporting say about the activities of detectorists?"

More to the point, what does such reluctance tell us about the activities of the PAS? Like the Grail in the court of the Fisher King in Perceval, le Conte du Graal of Chrétien de Troyes, whom do they serve? The answer to that question would "heal the Wasted Land", but nobody is asking the question.

Anonymous said...

Mr Gill, a point of clarification - the Counter is based on the activities of active detectorists (in numbers not disputed by PAS), not occasional ones, so the possibility that such people are out in the fields year after year finding nothing is hardly credible. Under-reporting isn't one of two explanations, it's the only one.

Incidentally, the justification for the finds rate is well documented alongside the counter. That finds rate is all that matters and I find the fact that the only criticisms of our figures there have ever been by a taxpayer funded body comprise
1.) "you can't prove the day/night split" and
2.) "you didn't allow for foot-and-mouth"
.... pretty telling.

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