Friday 14 December 2012

Targeting Known Sites: An Example from Gloucestershire

In the post above I discuss a video posted in May 2012 by a metal detectorist who elsewhere holds that "History belongs to all of us, not just the museums" and blithely talks of watching him dig up "Treasures" to sell on eBay. The video shows him and his artefact hunter mates targeting a known Roman villa site in Gloucestershire (17 May 2012, 'Reserching [sic] a ploughed out Roman villa site').

Take a look at what these chaps are doing. Though they belong to a society which claims to be "specialists" in field surveying and its aim is to "map out the history of Gloucestershire, and [...] publish the information [...]", the absence from this video of any indication of detailed mapping of the precise findspot of the individually bagged finds is conspicuous. The site has an earthwork (a 'platform' is mentioned) and soil colour chages (attributed to "ash put down at the time") are visible across it, the finders note a discrete area with tesserae (from a tesselated floor). Yet, not once do we see them with a site plan in their hands marking the findspots of the objects they hoik out in relation to any of that - or any indication that their fieldwork has resulted in any kind of detailed plan of the site at all.   I see no individual bagging of finds being demonstrated, no GPS in action. Just a handful of coins and a "nice" brooch. Yet they are walking across a field of archaeological material, a pottery and tile assemblage, kicking the sherds about, but there is no indication that they are plotting the distribution (as one would do in a proper field survey of this type of site as detailed in the English Heritage manual "Our Portable Past") or collecting any of it for study and interpretation. The search is clearly for "fine objects", which are interpreted from extra-source knowledge, but no mention is made anywhere in the film of their use to tell us anything about the site they come from. The speaker announces "I am going to show you with the aid of a metal detector some of the objects that have come up from here". So his aim is showing off the objects as an end in themselves, rather than their use to tell us anything more complex. Coins and brooches are easy to narrativise, but where is the collection of the other types of activities on and around the peripheries of the site? The iron slag and smithing waste? Evidence of production, what glass has the site produced, bone pins, any jet and amber? What greywares were reaching the site in what quantities and in what periods?

In what way is this random and apparently undocumented hoiking producing any useful information about the siite, the full range of activities that went on there, the economic setting of the site, the zonation of activities across it and a whole host of questions that modern scholarship asks of research projects on the fragile and finite heritage of Roman villa sites in lowland Britain? Are these searchers (who believe in Bronze Age maize) even aware of the current research aims and priorities? If they are not, how can they collect data to be used to answer such questions? 

What we see is random hoiking. What we see is nothing else than the random depletion of the archaeological record and archaeological potential of this site.

There is a site here with earthworks, a recoverable plan and obviously a (once-)rich artefact assemblage in the topsoil being exploited as a mine for collectables. The blokes doing this are well aware of the existence and aims of the Portable Antiquities Scheme - for they ape it on the website of their own deceptively-named club. The PAS clunky database search seems to suggest that the items shown in the video are not in the PAS database  ("and publish the information on a national database"). One might ask quite how many of the finds hoiked over the years from this particular villa complex (with its earthworks and soil colour changes) are recorded at all on the PAS database, let alone with any degree of fine detail which would allow any proper archaeological study on the basis of that documentation. A simple presence/absence count is next to useless information when we already know there is a villa there.

Of course there is no chance whatsoever that the PAS ("wotta-lotta-stuff-we-got") is ever going to answer any more searching questions about cases like this, or even say how typical they are. What we do know is that when any attempt is made to quantify the data, it turns out that a lot of the (Roman in particular) finds on the PAS database are coming from precisely the same kind of targeting of known sites. To what extent then, is the PAS merely condoning the senseless destruction of the archaeological record on such sites without any kind of proper mitigation, and to what extent is such perpetual 'hoovering;' of the collectable items from sites adding to a more holistic picture of each of them?

UPDATE 15.12.12
Mr Taylor has contacted me to point out that he "was employed as Estate Manager on that 2000acre estate, and I could basically do what I please", I believe however it is the case that he is no longer the estrate manager of this particuular property. I certainly would not say he was looking after the historical assets of the property particularly well, inviting his mates onto the land to hoik out and take away all those finds which are then not reported on the PAS database. Taylor adds "shame there is now nothing left as I have hoovered it dry, but Hey Ho off too the next site.!". The reader can draw their own conclusions I think from that. I think also we will wait a long time for any kind of comment on that from the PAS or the Gloucestershire archaeologists. Don't hold your breath.
Oh, and that ford in the video they make such a thing of splashing through ("river full of trout")... If you find what seems to be this site on Google Earth, you discover there was a dry crossing just a few metres along the river, carefully kept out of shot for effect. What showoff buffoons these folk are.


domino said...

What you failed to mention is I was employed as Estate Manager on that 2000acre estate, and I could basically do what I please, as the site had been ploughed up many years ago. But a very nice video all the same, shame there is now nothing left as I have hoovered it dry, but Hey Ho off too the next site.!

domino said...

I'm sure I once sent them a dog poo to record which I had found on that field, but unfortunately it was Christmas, and was mistaken for a chocolate bar. Ever since then they have been talking a load of crap.

Paul Barford said...

Obviously then the material you sent them was inadequately labelled.

So you "sent" them just one object from this whole villa site you admit you have "hoovered clean", where are the rest of the finds, the rest of the archaeological evidence you have removed from it?

It is people like you that get "metal detectorists" a bad name,

I have already asked you to stop using any account name impersonating me.

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