Thursday, 14 November 2013

Metal Detecting "Hoik and Have" versus "Doing Good"

housingbloke (Ben /Pete) left a comment on my blog post "The New Golden Age of Looting" which gave me pause for thought:
[...]  I read your site with interest and it has got me thinking as to whether or not what I do is 'right'. Whilst I love finding anything really and researching what it is I appreciate that what i have pulled from the ground cannot be put back as such. Having watched a channel 4 programme last week about looting in Egypt I also appreciate that in some ways what I do isn't perhaps that far removed from such looting and this combined with your blog has got me thinking about what I do. Having read your blog I was wondering if you think I am benefiting society by finding and recording finds or not as such finds have been removed from their context (although obviously they may never otherwise be found? I ask this question sitting on the fence so to speak as I am just interested. If the answer is no then in your eyes what if anything can a metal detectorist do to become a value to society or is the only answer not to metal detect. With thanks Ben
 I've been blogging away here since the summer of 2008 and this is literally the first time any of Britain's 10,000 (probably now c. 16000) has actually asked me that question.

My first thought was that this is a tekkie wind-up. I get (notice) about a dozen provocative posts  a month trying to entrap me into saying something that then can be bounced all over the tekkie forums. This one certainly could be construed to be aiming for that ("See? Barford wants to end metal detecting") but after looking at it for a while, I think there is a good chance that this is a genuine question, and deserves a proper answer.

But what? In normal circumstances I would (should) say "pop along to your local FLO and have a chat with them, they'll help you sort out your problem". That is what they are paid for (and I am not). But what would they tell him if he rolls up and says he's been reading the PACHI blog and therefore has some questions?  Head office is on record as saying rather unhelpfully "Barford is a Troll [ignore him]", Wales reportedly tells their detectorist partners "Barford is an idiot [ignore him]". Other detectorists all over the country report the same kind of comment about this blog from their respective FLOs, whether truthfully or not I could not say, but detectorists are told that the PAS and my fellow archaeologists over in the UK "all" have a dismissive approach to anything written here. The last time an FLO timidly suggested on the PAS forum that "maybe Barford and Swift have a point there", the Scheme nearly had another "recording strike" on their hands and the independent UKDFD was set up. So, basically I have no confidence whatsoever that sending Housingbloke to the PAS is going to be (from my own point of view) any help at all. I would be very glad to be proven wrong there. Fifteen million pounds is an awful lot of money.

So, what about "go and see your local archaeological unit (if there still is one)"? From what I see, most UK archaeologists go along with the PAS spiel (the superficial fluffy bunny approach), and moreover would probably send the tekkie to the PAS, after all, this is "their problem".

So this is my own view. I do not think, the way it is done now, artefact hunting is particularly socially useful. From the point of view of preserving the archaeological record I am sure it is on the whole (as Housingbloke observed) profoundly damaging. It also encourages the wrong approach to the archaeological record  (and those professionals and amateurs who study it by archaeological methodology) in the public eye. Personally, I think there are many ways one can go about making discoveries in the "fresh air in the peace and quiet" and indulging an interest in history and ancient history and "things past" without digging (just the) metal artefacts up and making a collection of them. I appreciate that the opportunities for doing so may well have been much more abundant when I was living and working in the UK, from what I see from here, its now getting pretty grim over there. However, I refuse to believe that it is, or should be, hopeless there, but that depends where Housingbloke actually lives.

But what an individual should actually do as a consequence depends on a lot of circumstances including what their aim is.  Housingbloke mentions going on commercial rallies. Personally I would say that truly ethical (detectorists and archaeologists) should stay away from them (all of them), they are just putting money into the pockets of the fixers of organized commercial looting expeditions. The token recording exercises that take place are not a satisfactory mitigation, and probably never can be, of the erosion. Never will such rallies approach the standard required for any degree of proper mitigation (aimed at for example in the first Water Newton Rally - and just look what happened there).

The PAS was intended to instil "best practice". Instead of establishing quite what that is, explaining it in terms they can understand to the metal detecting community and standing firm against anything that infringes those principles, the PAS has adopted a largely passive "what can we do?" approach to most of the issues (see above), and debased the concept de facto to "record finds with us". All the rest is to a large extent ignored. When there is a report in the media, very rarely is a PAS person quoted as saying that something was done wrong by the "finder" (read "seeker"). EVERY time they venture to do so instead of keeping schtumm, there is, there is a backlash, tekkies moaning. See what happened for example in the Tamworth coffin case when the FLO said the only sensible thing an archaeologist could say about what happened there. This set tekkies off bitterly complaining about her 'attitude'. Generally archaeologists don't like tekkies complaining about them and getting abusive, I can understand that. Some metal detector users, as we have seen, are very abusive people indeed.

So how to tell Housingbloke what is "best practiece"? Where's the PAS literature on it? Where's the CBA guide? the RESCUE guidelines, the FLO position statement, the ALGAO Guidance notes? The all-inclusive PAS 'artefact hunting best-practice in theory and practice' conference publication?  Nowhere, that's where. There's an English heritage policy document on this, but is says clearly that its not for hobbyist artefact hunters. Cowards. Why NOT? Why not define some optimum standards for artefact hunting to which truly responsible ethical artefact hunters can aspire? Why go for the lowest common denominator? How much of that intact archaeological record do we think is left that we can still consider squandering ever-increasingly large portions of it year in, year out? That is sheer irresponsibility on the part of the entire British archaeological community.

Housingbloke wonders after reading my blog whether I think he is "benefiting society by finding and recording finds or not as such finds have been removed from their context". Certainly I am more pleased to hear that if he really must "remove finds from context" he says he's showing "all" the finds he made to the PAS (and not the pirate UKDFD). That is certainly preferable to the person who shows only a part of what they find, or the guy who hoiks it all away and shows nothing. The latter two categories are (I am certain) in the majority, however much everyone tries to deny that.

The question is whether removing (just the collectable) metal objects from a much more complex archaeological entity (site or assemblage) is actually "benefiting society". I suppose one could argue that in these dumb-down days there could be grounds for arguing that these days "society" probably does not really care all that much, since they have been fed for so long now with the PAS "better out than in" poison. This I think is an unbelievably short-sighted policy, if it deserves such a term at all. I think British archaeology has completely dropped the ball here, with absolutely no thought for the consequences.

The second question is to what degree, where finds are reported to the PAS, the record that is made preserves context in an archaeologically significant form. To take one example, a detectorist finds a brooch in the ploughsoil of a field in Kent and hoiks it out for his collection. Three weeks later he takes it to the PAS with the findspot details. Thirteen years later the site is excavated because Anglo-Saxon graves were found in drain-laying. Will it always be possible to link the reported brooch to one of the seventeen discrete scatters of artefacts within a few metres of each other located by a pre-excavation survey of the surface evidence? So far the database has been discussed in terms of the usability of the individual pieces of "data" (sic) compared in broad areas, across a region, the country, and in relation to each other (as dots on a Kossinnian dot distribution map). What about the usability of the metal detected and reported data within a site and in comparison with other data, separately recovered? To what extent are these "data" usable to reconstruct the context from which the items were individually hoiked (sometimes by different individuals at different times and to differing criteria of selection and recording standards)?

If we are aiming to conserve at least part of the archaeological record as a resource for others to use (maybe future generations), hoiking all the datable metalwork out of a surface site for personal entertainment and profit is not helping anyone. In the majority of cases such finds, hidden away for a generation in a ephemeral personal collection, even with an (often) skimpy record in the PAS database  which gives no information on the context of deposition and discovery are of no "benefit to society" either now or in the future. The issues here are about conservation and preservation, not "collectors' rights" and "access to the past", these are separate questions, not equivalences. 

The question was: "what if anything can a metal detectorist do to become a value to society?" From a conservation point of view, the answer surely is to use the tool as something which aids the production of as full information as possible about the bit of the resource exploited.  Not to use it in away that erodes the resource, bit by bit and in a manner totally without system or plan. Primum non nocere.

The EH document shows the way. Metal detectorists all-too-frequently as a justification tell everyone they are "researching the past" that they are recording their finds in order to "map history". Many of them put that kind of phrasing in the letters they write to landowners. Most of them are lying. There is no intention to do a proper methodological metal detector survey of anything, collect the material in a systematic way, study it and publish it. Most metal detectorists want just to 'hoik and have', they are collectors of things, geegaws, not data. From a conservation point of view what should be being done with those metal detectors is basically a form of landscape archaeology, the systematic analysis of the patterns of finds being made and then creating a permanent record of it and a deposition of the archive somewhere. Obviously some metal detectorists, as we see from what they write (and how) are simply not up to this task, so the question emerges just what it is they think they are doing.

It is of course impossible to say what Housingbloke (and those in the detecting milieu that are coming, for whatever reason, to the same realisation) "should" do. In the end it's up to them and their conscience, it's up to them to decide how they should proceed, to fulfil their own needs in a way that does the least damage and produces the most benefit from a precious, finite and fragile resource.

Vignette: Sustainable management: The kind of 'good' of interest here.


Unknown said...

Hi Paul...

Thanks for such a well rounded post in relation to this subject. I have been a metal detectorist for around 4 years now and have always been keen to see how archeologists and metal detectorists can work together. I think a lot of what you say is worthy of note and agree that metal detectorists should assess the way in which they conduct their operations to make the activity more ethical. The ethical code for metal detecting that i have recently been checking out is probably a bridge too far for many and it leaves much to be desired in relation to leaving the responsibility for the finds in the hands of the landowners. As i have tried to say before, not all metal detectorists are as bad as what is frequently made out and to be honest, the better ones amongst us would relish the opportunity to operate within one single code. Thanks once again for a thorough and thought provoking post.

Paul Barford said...

Well, frankly working together is the only way forward.

This "ethical code" I assume is the version proposed by Heritage Action. The "landowner" issue derives entirely from the way the law is constructed in parts of the UK. You cannot have a code of ethics which goes against the law! England and Wales could go the way of Scotland for example by redefining "Treasure" which would then place deciding what happens to finds much more in the hands of the state, though if you think what HA have produced is "a bridge too far for many", I shudder to think what those "many" would make of a redefinition of Treasure.

"not all metal detectorists are as bad as ..." but it is the large numbers who are which produce the problems. You must be aware though that current publicity from the PAS et al is that is suggesting that almost all detectorists in the country should be classed as "the better ones amongst [you]" which is why people like me to try and bring some reality and balance back into the debate they've highjacked are emphasising that this is buy no means the actual case. Only by this means can we (perhaps) get the discussion reopened.

Unknown said...

I take your point on the legal status of the finds in the UK, but unfortunaltey, handing the responsibility of reporting the finds over to the landowner would be a backwards step as most are not interested. Better to get them processed by the people who understand their importance and then reach an agreement on the ownership in an honest and open fashion (and i totally accept that this doesnt happen in some cases)...! Some of us are listening Paul and we are responding as best we can...

Detectorbloke said...

Thank you for your reply to my comment and I hope that your family member is on the mend. It was certainly interesting to read and has given me food for thought.

I'm happy for you to post the first bit of my comment that you left out in regard to why I took up detecting. I think at least considering the wide range of reasons why people take it up can be of use when looking at possible solutions.

Also, forgive me if i did, but I don't think i mentioned going to any rally's as I haven't ever been to one. I did mention being part of a club (which is only made up of about 5 people!).

The reason I won't go to a rally is that I've heard many a tale of finds being planted and general lies about the fields that are going to be detected.

I will ponder some more and then may well comment again.



Paul Barford said...

if you remember you posted the comment here:

You said you had no "land" of your own.

Detectorbloke said...

Hi Paul. Cheers for putting up the whole comment. I should have made it clearer that on having no land when i first started out i joined a club who did and tagged along with a mate who did until I got some permissions of my own.

I was tempted to go to a commercial rally but many seem to exploit folks without land of their own.

Anyway a minor point really and thanks again for your response.

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