Thursday 13 September 2012

Cultural Property Immigration: the UK's Polish "Historical Explorers"


A British reader, disturbed by what they saw there ("how dare they?" she said), passed on to me several months ago a link to the following group of metal detector users in the UK, asking what I thought. I've been meaning to get around to them for some time, so this seems an opportunity to do so. The link  (Klub PHEC THESAURUS ) is to what was said to be "the official website of Polish Historical Exploration Club - PHEC THESAURUS" (apparently affiliated in some way to The group's members are Poles living in the UK, who meet mainly through the Internet, "although we do try to organise special research projects in many different parts of the country". One might be forgiven that the contacts are maintained through their webpage. They claim to be "a friendly group" who "invite[s] you to learn more about us, our projects and aims and view some of our many finds". Let's do that.

The club was formed in London three years ago (June 2009) "with the aim of creating a friendly meeting place for anybody interested in metal detecting and historical exploration", and it will "welcome anyone genuinely interested in history, research and preserving of our common heritage". Well, that's me, isn't it? I was particularly interested in the reference (in the Polish language bits of the page) to a club Code of Practice which I wanted to see, and I assumed there was a forum. The trouble is when I tried to register on the website a while back to see what they had there for the visitor, after filling in the gubbins, I got a message that a moderator would vet my application. Silence. Then a few hours later my tracking software shows me that a reader pored over several posts on my blog and did a quick search to see if I'd written anything about 'PHEC Thesaurus' and when it turns up negative, went away disinterested in what else may be here. My rejection letter came ten hours later.

Then things get really confusing. It turns out there are other webpages for this group, in Polish, and on one of them is the forum they use. Most of this is the sort of jabber you find on metal detecting forums, but there, after all, was the club's Code of Practice ("Kod w oryginale można znaleźć tu:" - pity that it's the NCMD link they give)

The problem is that the historical exploration these folk are doing is not in the Polish historical record in libraries and archives of the United Kingdom, they are instead searching Britain's archaeological record for artefacts to collect.  "It's legal innit?" I'm sure they'd intone with the rest. But that is not the point.

Their homepage goes on to assure us in English:
PHEC THESAURUS is fully affiliated with the National Council for Metal Detecting and we stress the importance of the Code of Practice on Responsible Metal Detecting in England and Wales and educational aspect of our hobby, including sharing of our aims and ideas with detectorists in other countries. We particularly like to support and educate our colleagues in places where for various reasons metal detecting is restricted. 
Now that sounds almost OK, doesn't it? Let's ignore the fact that the NCMD has at almost every step of the process of creating effective liaison with responsible detectors had a policy of obstruction and has even gone back on agreements made (for example about the code of practice). What are the Polaks to do? Actually go to an insurance company themselves and get a third party insurance policy for themselves?  Well, yes, that is what detectorist Richard Lincoln ("Sheddy") told me in a comment to another post many tekkies in the UK are doing.

What is interesting is that part of the Polish text that appears on the 'about the club' page does not appear in the English translation:
Klub ma także na celu pokazanie koleżankom i kolegom mieszkającym na stałe w Polsce, jak mogą wyglądać poszukiwania w kraju o racjonalnym podejściu do poszukiwaczy i zachęceniu ich do zmiany panującego w Polsce prawa. W tym celu organizowane są zloty "Poszukiwania Bez Granic", na które zapraszamy gości z Polski i innych krajów. 
This is rendered into English somewhat differently on another part of the website:
Detecting without borders
One of our aims was to show our detecting friends in Poland how the system works in the United Kingdom. We want them to appreciate how sensible law relating to metal detecting works in practice and how similar laws could be implemented elsewhere. In order to do this we try to organise regular searches and invite guests from Poland and other countries. We call those meetings "Detecting Without Borders" and apart from having a great time, during them we stress the educational aspect: photographing and cataloguing of finds, contacts with archaeologists, how to apply for an export licence, visits in museums etc.
Now what the Polish text actually says  ("i zachęceniu ich do zmiany panującego w Polsce prawa') is "encourage them to change the law in Poland". No explanation is offered why. [Also it is not clear why metal detectorists from Poland would need to be educated about British export licence procedure - hardly very useful back home]. On what basis is it their intent that Polish law-makers would be convinced to introduce English-style "heritage protection"laws to Poland? 

So these "Detecting Without Borders" meetings (we find out elsewhere these are fee-paying meetings) are commercial rallies which exploit the laws of Britain and the fragile and finite resource that is its archaeological record for political purposes. To get people fired up to change the antiquities preservation laws in Poland to something like Britain's current damaging free-for-all?

So where are these people hunting for collectables?
Among our current projects are search for the remains and artefacts from the XVIth century ship, which sank on the Welsh coast with a cargo of silver, research of the lost battlefields and search for the remains of planes shot down during the II World War, especially those which were piloted by Polish airmen. 
So, a treasure -filled ship, battlefields and aircraft crash sites. The investigation of shipwrecks is not a task that an amateur treasure-hunting society should undertake lightly. To do properly it needs considerable resources. Like shipwrecks, battlefield sites are extremely sensitive and their information content trashed by ad hoc collecting. Polish pilot or not, PHECT make no mention of their awareness of the permits needed to search military aircraft crash sites in the UK (no links on their webpage), I hope that is just an oversight. 

I really wonder how these people would feel if a team of Israeli artefact hunters decided they were going to do some "detecting without borders" and went over to Poland to rip up the Polish archaeological record for some collectables to take home as trophies. Or a team of Russian metal detectorists following the path of the Victorious Red Army across eastern Poland in 1939 and returned home bearing fragments of Polish uniform with insignia and personal items from Polish soldiers killed on the battlefields? What does "Detecting without borders" mean? That anybody has the right to walk into a foreign country and take away just what they feel like if the law does not stop them? What about if there is a law, but the detectorists don't like it? (See the post about the 'anonymous email address').

That the archaeological record of Great Britain is up for grabs to individual British collectors is one thing. That it is exploited for financial gain in commercial artefact hunting rallies is even worse. That the profits are made from offering metal detecting holidays to foreign tourists who then walk off with the stuff is even more worrying. I see no difference between what PHECT is doing and the various metal detecting holiday firms are up to.

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