Saturday, 18 August 2012

Detecting Under the Microscope: "American Digger" Tries to put us Right

There is a discussion going on about metal detecting which seems worth drawing attention to. Dr Michael Barber state archaeologist of Virginia reacted to an article in the Smithfield Times about metal detectorists who were trying to gain access to historic properties to search for collectable artefacts. His comments were published in the newspaper. Here is the article (from its reproduction in Stout Standards):

[Click to enlarge]

Then Butch Holcombe from American Digger Magazine joined in and his reactions apparently from a Facebook discussion, are posted on "Stout Standards" too. Holcombe urges his readers: "Share this as much as you want, the truth must be told!" So, in that spirit, I am sure that in sharing the exchange of views, nobody will mind if I add my own comments to what both of them said.

Holcombe's text starts out dismissively with "How sad that such ignorant ideas should come from such a high position as the VA state archeologist" [my emphasis]. This sort of dismissive approach is of course typical of detectorists dealing with preservationists, it says 'I am not going to listen to what you say', right from the beginning. Personally on examining his arguments (basically a rehashing of the usual old ones), I rather think the way Mr Holcombe actually treats what was written indicates that the problem is in the lack of understanding from the other side. Let's take a look at the seven points Holcombe made in response to what Dr Barber said:
(1) as far as the Civil War, WHAT context? Most sites have been plowed, or at the least picked over since the fighting stopped by souvenir hunters. Besides,  there are volumes of records from that war. A bullet is just a bullet: if you want to know where it was fired from or who lost it, read the records.
Apparently this person has never read anything about battlefield archaeology, a sub-discipline actually to a large extent pioneered in the US by collaboration between archaeologists and metal detector users to survey these shallow sites (Battle of Little Big Horn anyone? Now the 'Rosebud battlefield'). Of course it a complete nonsense to state that the records and books contain any information about the past which we need. Apart from anything else, in that case, there would be no point in metal detectorists looking for artefacts either, would there?
(2) I know numerous relic hunters and have never seen anyone make a living of their finds. Those that do sell items make pennies on the dollar for  the time put in. Bullets and most buttons sell for $1-$5 on the retail market. Rare “$1000” items sell for that much because they are RARE. Most relic hunters never find those.
Mr Holcombe denies that there are people who hunt for artefacts to earn money. Is that true in the US? It certainly is true of regions like the Balkans, in the UK ("nighthawks") and elsewhere. Is the US (as in much else) required to be treated in some way by the rest of the world as an "exception" where the rules of the rest of the world do not apply? Because...?

He also seems to think that we should separate artefact hunting and collecting from the artefact trade. I see however no justification for this; it seems to me that they are part of precisely the same phenomenon. Not even Mr Holcombe can deny that there IS big money in the antiquities ("relics") trade in general. 
(3) Iron artifacts Do, DO, DO deteriorate in the ground! Any archeologist doubting this, don’t take our word for it: ask a metallurgist! Even brass and  lead deteriorate, just not quite as fast.
Weird. You know, instead of a "metallurgist", we could ask a meteorite hunter who'd tell us that iron meteorites which fell into the earth tens of thousands of years ago do not corrode away, because they can be found (and sold on eBay). I really find it anomalous that Mr Holcombe thinks an archaeologist (ie somebody who spends at least part of their time digging up and studying ancient metalwork taken precisely from the ground) would need to ask somebody else what state it is in. Ridiculously, if what he says was true, there would by now be no evidence whatsoever that there ever was an Iron Age (in Europe, not America)! I imagine that - like in Egypt - there are many desert sites in the US where the old iron is almost as well preserved as the day it was dropped.

In reality, a corrosion scientist (which is not "metallurgy") would tell anyone who asks that the rate and type of corrosion of even as reactive a metal such as iron depends to a large degree on the soils, the environment. In my experience as an archaeologists, iron objects - some of them several thousand years old - do not actually deteriorate beyond a certain point (when they are at equilibrium with their surroundings) until they are removed FROM those surroundings - exactly as Dr Barber says. And I can assure Mr Holcombe, I have personally excavated and handled many thousands of iron artefacts two or more millennia older than any iron artefact he is likely personally to dig up in the United States of America. Iron rusts. Yes, but that is no reason why all and any iron or any other metal object should be hoiked out of the archaeological record into an ephemeral and undocumented private collection. Again we are seeing an artefact-centred reasoning and not a site-centred one.Finally, it seems to me from looking at their videos, US detectorists (like their British counterparts) often discriminate out and discard iron objects as of less (historical? Commercial? Collectability?) interest than the non-ferrous ones.
(4) Museums sell off their extra artifacts, to the private market. Yet that is ok in the professional’s eyes? Can someone explain the difference?
Is not the deaccessioning of items from museum reserve collections what (US in particular) collectors would like to happen more often?  As far as I am aware the  main problem they have is that there is a much larger body of opinion that it is NOT "OK in the professionals' eyes" (!). It seems to me that here one bunch of US collectors cannot get its act together with a second. The difference between selling off something already out of the ground and properly documented and emptying the archaeological record of fresh finds to sell is quite a considerable one, in terms of site preservation, if nothing else. Again, artefact-centred reasoning at the expense of site-centred approaches.
(5) Yes archeologists are slow because they do record every detail (and must wait for funding). Part of that is commendable, but if a site is being destroyed  is it not better to salvage SOMETHING than nothing? This reeks of a “If we can’t have it neither should you” mentality.
(6) Oh, I see, he says that such sites should be off limits because it encourages selling relics. So, this means it is better that they be destroyed by bulldozers?  What kind of logic is that?
(7) Ah, and the “Reality” TV shows! If archeologists really believe that is what relic hunters do, then relic hunters should believe Indiana Jones does what real  archeologists do.
To what extent is artefact hunting in the US in fact restricted to sites threatened by certain and imminent destruction? There is no mention of that in any US metal detectorists' code of practice/ethics I have seen (I am happy to be pointed to any exceptions). Are the sites which we are discussing in Smithfield about to be bulldozed?

As for the notion of "salvaging something is better than nothing", there is a big body of archaeological literature about that going back to the 1960s in the UK (and I'd bet in the US too). This can be discussed another time maybe - suffice to say I do not accept for a moment that second-best information is a basis for reliable interpretations of the past, and I wonder how many archaeologists would disagree with that.

Note though what has happened here. The primary reason given by Virginia's state archaeologist  for not approving of artefact hunting and collecting on historic sites in Smithfield is the conservation issue. He (quite rightly) writes that if one digs out the artefacts without proper observation and documentation of the stratigraphy, distribution and associations, information is lost. A handful of historic artefacts becomes just that, rather than being material that could have been used for a more holistic interpretation of the past if more careful and systematic means had been used to get them out of the ground. All that Butch Holcombe sees here however is an ownership issue. We may also note how much he concentrates on the financial aspects (points 2, 4 and 7). Because  he is unconcerned about sites, he is as dismissive of the conservation issue ("what context?") as he is keen to deny the idea that artefact hunters and dealers might make any money from artefact hunting and artefact trading.

I think the final point also got entirely missed out of Mr Holcombe's retort. Let's reiterate it, that in the manner in which it is carried out in the USA and bearing in mind what Dr Barber says earlier on:
Metal detecting for "relics" on private land is legal, but can it be morally justified? 
Mr Holcombe in fact did not even try.

[PS: The American Digger magazine and the accompanying Facebook bleed are real eye-openers!]


UMRGOLF said...

This article is a heap of hot trash. You should be ashamed.

Paul Barford said...

Thank you for your considered contribution to the discussion. It is a shame that your criticism does not extend to actually articulating where you disagree and why.

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