Monday 23 September 2013

Archaeology of a Beach Bar: Paul Barford Goes "Metal Detecting"

I have spent the last three days on the Polish coast at Dębki, in Gdańsk Pomerania. Yesterday morning I was walking along the beach watching the sun rise and the wind whipping across the sands as the waves crashed to the shore. After going a while I came across a levelled place above the high water mark, it is where for the in the summer season a bar stood on the beach. Like much else in the resort it had been taken down for the winder to be re-erected when the tourists return. Despite the intense wind erosion, since the building was taken down about two weeks ago, you could still see in the low raking light of the rising sun the sand slightly mounded, a few centimetres, on the seaward side and slightly lowered on the landward side to make a level platform on which the building stood.  The outline of the building was about 6 x 12 m. In the low raking light you could see where the floor joists had compressed the sand, which now stood up as ridges as the softer sand around was stripped away by the wind. What was more interesting was the scatter of objects exposed by the wind. I thought I'd take a look at them, specifically the metal ones.

I walked over the area looking for all the metal exposed by the wind and noting what was where. What could you tell from the archaeological traces, and observing the horizontal spread and what of that would be deduced if the artefacts were hoiked out in the normal manner during artefact hunting?

The first thing that I would say is that merely looking at the metal already gave a very distorted picture. There were artefacts eroding out of the sand of other materials, and some of them added information about what had been going on there which added to the beer bottle caps (below). Among them were the plastic stirrers from coffee (no cups, they'd obviously all ended up in the rubbish and taken off site, but small stirrers could get dropped in the sand, or fall through the slats of the wooden floor. There were a enormous number of cigarette butts (odd, because smoking in public places is now banned in Poland) and fragments of cigarette packs. There were also a relatively large number of the plastic stoppers of soft drink bottles. So the bar served other things too. A plastic knife suggested some bar food, or maybe more?

The building itself was represented mainly be a large number of surprisingly heavily corroded wood screws of varying size, but mainly relatively small 40-60mm. There were also many roofing washers, some used, some apparently unused. The interesting fact about them is that (apart from some scattered behind the building see below) almost all of them were found lying in five rows running perpendicular to the long axis of the building. The most obvious interpretation is that this was a six-bay building of prefabricated units and the screws and washedrs dropped in the sand got there as each segment was erected and then dismantled. They dropped off the edge of the roof, embedded themselves in the sand and only reappeared when the building was gone and the wind eroded the area. Obviously this pattern would not be recovered in metal detecting unless the individual hidden  metal finds were hoiked out of the ground as a result of systematic sweeping and plotting within the nearest 10/20cm.

Another interesting horizontal pattern was seen in the case of the bottle caps. The building was a bar which sold enormous quantities of alcoholic drinks through the entire summer to hundreds of beachgoers. One might then expect to find traces of that. Again the plastic beer-glasses that were used were all taken away in the rubbish, none were left in the sand. In terms of the metal artefacts one would be looking for the crown caps of bottled beers, and maybe ringpulls from beer cans. In fact not a single one was found within the building. A number were found outside, where perhaps they'd been trampled into the sand outside the bar.  Inside however there were a number of coca-cola and sprite bottle tops (two ringpulls could have been from beer or soft drink cans). A possible interpretation of this is that when there was a wooden floor, any bottle tops etc falling onto the floor were swept up and taken away. What is lying in the sand is debris left by those building the structure, and those taking them down. And these workmen it would seem were not drinking alcohol at work. Again this fact would possibly not have emerged since metal detecting would be unable to define the unseen limits of the building.   

Round the back of the building was a scatter of miscellaneous items and screws. It looks as if here had been a storage area (possible of tools) and in it had been the various metal bits and bobs that handymen generally hang on to, odd screws, bits of wire. Here were found parts of some electronic equipment (sound system?) and a barbecue grill (not collected).

The fact that only a single nail was found suggests that screws had been used exclusively in order to dismantle the structure (perhaps repeatedly). Probably larger bolts were used, but were taken away together with the components (in order to be reused). The screws presumably had been used in smaller wooden or metal elements used to clasp the larger units together. Only one screw was found that had been sheared off (probably with something like a cold-chisel) showing the building had been dismantled and not left to fall down.

Tin tacks and a staple come from announcements, and administrative documents. Some cable clips (plastic but with metal nails) and one short length of copper electrical cable show there was electricity  - but all the rest of the cable had been taken away.  There were a couple of pieces connected with clothing, the fly button of a pair of jeans, a badge. No coins were found.

But here's the crunch. Virtually all of the items I have been discussing were iron. Most UK metal detectorists set their machines to discriminate out the iron.

I found it was possible to observe the traces in situ and come to a number of tentative conclusions about the human activity they represented. A metal detectorist turning up with a bag full of different sized screws, a badge and some bottle tops hoiked out of holes in the ground in conditions which do not allow their relation to other features (the 'soilmarks' of the floor joists, the low relief that betrayed the outline of the building) would have been unable to say whether they represented a building, a boat or a coconut shy stall, or anything at all. Here observation of the exact horizontal context was interpretable in terms of the activities there (the differing distribution of soft drink and beer bottle tops) which the normal manner of metal detecting sites would not have revealed. Lastly, most metal detectorists do not bother with nails and iron 'junk' and they'd have missed this. And yet the beach bar is a highly important part of the stay of many young people at Dębki, and has left traces in the archaeological record - but if it was metal detected in normal circumstances, it would simply not register. Also the sensitive evidence all preserved to a depth of a few centimetres, would be badly damaged if somebody with a detector hoiked out most of the metal objects, disrupting the characteristic pattern.

Metal detecting is not archaeology. 

No comments:

Creative Commons License
Ten utwór jest dostępny na licencji Creative Commons Uznanie autorstwa-Bez utworów zależnych 3.0 Unported.