Monday 17 December 2012

"As Well-Balanced as Ever"

I cannot leave unremarked one comment by the Head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme and Assorted Other Things, Roger Bland. He sent a rather sarcastic reply to my message to him drawing his attention to what the hapless MP Sir Bob Russell had said about artefact hunting. In it he suggested that my views on the topic were as "well-balanced as ever when it comes to discussing metal detecting" which, in the context of the letter, I take to mean that he is saying I do not present a "balanced" picture of artefact hunting. If my interpretation of that remark is correct, I find that totally ironic given that the presentation of the issue of artefact hunting and collecting (ie what Dr Bland refers to by the deliberately anorakish term of "metal detecting") which the PAS presents to the public which pays millions of pounds to support it is far from "balanced". It is a very one-sided picture which studiously avoids certain issues and stresses but simplifies others.

The aim of this blog is not to discuss "metal detecting". Artefact hunting in Britain - with and without metal detecting machines - is just one aspect of the series of issues that concern me and I talk about here. I think a lot of issues are simply being swept under the carpet, with nobody much willing to even begin to delve into the complexities behind the glib platitudes, obstructionism and outright deception which plague the whole subject of artefact collecting.  
Certainly it never has been my aim to present a "balanced" picture of artefact hunting and collecting if that would mean falsely praising aspects of the hobbies which I see as profoundly damaging, matters of concern and even dangerous (yes). I do not work for the PAS, I do not have to support their corporate policy of maintaining a discreet silence about certain matters. Unlike many 'jobsworth' archaeologists in Britain who'll also not put their head above the parapet, I am free to say what I think. What I think, unlike them, is that this is a serious problem. Since I find the whole mess profoundly worrying and I see few others willing to broach the subject, I feel I really ought to try and say something in a more public forum than the pages of journals nobody reads about the issues of concern.

Nobody will be looking for a "balanced" view of the issues of artefact hunting on a metal detecting forum, on artefact collectors' forums such as the Yahoo "Ancient Artifacts" discussion group, or Moneta-L, or any of the blogs of coin dealers and their mates. Frankly, I think most of us can see that (sadly, and worryingly) it would be futile to seek a 'balanced view' on the PAS website.

All of these places present one side of the story. Everything is hunky-dory and anyone who says it is not is a worthless idiot not worth listening to. This blog is different. I say everything is not hunky-dory. Far from it, it is crystal clear to me that there are serious problems with current policies in the UK, USA and elsewhere, and I am attempting to demonstrate them.

I say there is a lot of evidence that the damage that is being done to the archaeological record is on an appalling scale, and the fact that this is not being highlighted by those that should be talking about it is due entirely to institutional apathy (nobody wants to recognize a problem that would be their responsibility to sort out when there are no clear ways to achieve that without a huge effort). Its jobsworthism again.

I must have heard by now all the arguments which lead to "let's not do anything, let's not rock the boat". I have come to the conclusion myself, after some pretty searching consideration of them, that they are rubbish arguments. In my opinion they are a cop-out, ones that refuses to take any responsibility. Yet they are treated as mantras, dogma that is chanted any time the subject of "artefact hunting" in any form is raised. In the case of the "Metal Detecting" version of the mantras, they form the basis of a little cult with its head temple in a little house in Bloomsbury. What Roger Bland considers having a "balanced view" on "metal detecting" means unquestioning acceptance of these PAS dogmas. Apparently, anybody who questions them with any insistence must be by definition a heretic (a "troll") - and as such somebody to be shunned and ignored by those that look to Bloomsbury for salvation.

But I would be really interested to get Dr Bland and a few of his FLOs down the pub one day, a little country pub by a lazy river, well away from the ears of any tekkies. I'd like to get them in a quiet corner, with good beer and nibbles, look them in the eye and try and divine for myself whether he, whether his carefully marshalled acolytes, actually believe in their heart of archaeological hearts that what they say really is the one and only truth about artefact hunting. I would be very disappointed to find out that they do. I would be immeasurably more disappointed to find out they do not.

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