Thursday 21 March 2013

Renewed Focus on UK Artefact Hunting: Tekkies Criticise but Unable to Produce their own Figures

Mike Heyworth was challenged by the UK detecting milieu over the Heritage Action Artefact Erosion Counter. He informs them that: "The HA Artefact Erosion Counter is based on a series of assumptions, many of which are untestable which is partly why it is regarded with scepticism and even hostility by some vested interests". Of course that was misquoted by a tekkie blogger, leaving off the last bit, which was then used to suggest that the CBA says the Counter is "tosh".

Are the assumptions on which this algorithm based "untestable"? Of course not. After fifteen years of liaison with artefact hunters we should be in possession of information about the contents of a whole load of personal artefact collections, no? If we had catalogues of even several hundred of these collections, we'd have the data with which to test that model. The fact that so far we've not that many catalogues means the focus of the PAS outreach has lain elsewhere, but the model is indeed testable - it just needs the application of a little will to get it done. Does that will exist among those who "partner" artefact hunters?

The CBA director says that "the methodology behind the Counter is open  to debate". Well, it is not in fact, for the very simple reason  that this methodology is not yet published. The model is published, but the methodology used to put it together is set out in detail in a forthcoming book, so any debate on that would be premature. But as Heyworth points out, this is not the issue. Instead, he correctly observes that "the key question is whether it provides a  reasonable basis from which to consider the scale of the loss of knowledge caused by metal detecting when finds are not reported to the Portable  Antiquities Scheme (in England and Wales).  I think it serves its purpose in this regard". So what figures would UK metal detectorists claim for the scale of the loss of knowledge caused by the non-reporting of archaeological finds removed from the archaeological record? And on what evidence do they base their figures?

It is of course immensely easy to criticise somebody else's efforts to get a the picture straight. It is less easy to present reasoned counter-arguments in support of an alternative picture. But that is precisely what the Heritage Action Artefact Erosion Counter demands. By how much would it have to be "wrong' to make the discrepancy acceptable? Tekkies want the easy way out, the appeal to authority to say it is "simply wrong/untestable(ed)". If they want to "defend the hobby" against what they see as "unjustified" criticism, then let them put in the footwork and produce an alternative counter, and put it up online for us to test. Can they do that? Dare they?

And for the record, I am firmly of the opinion that the HAAEC is not a "load of tosh", but a realistic though conservative estimate of the true situation. This week Roger Bland has published a new, higher, estimate of the number of active metal detectorists in England and Wales, and while I think he does not go high enough (by several thousand), it is still some 20% larger than the number used as the basis of the artefact erosion counter.

Finally, one might raise the question of the quoting of private emails on the internet without the author's permission. Mr Howland promised to show Mike Heyworth a copy of what he wrote before sending it for publication. He did not keep that promise, simply published a private email verbatim and then proceeds to put his own spin on it.  


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