Saturday, 18 January 2014

Focus on UK Metal Detecting: "Six Month Round up Video"

Detectorists in denial, who all dismiss the Heritage Action Artefact Erosion Counter might like to try to provide their own commentary on the video to which I link below. It was posted on You Tube just recently and is called "Six month round up video! Metal detecting UK # 55. Its author was an artefact hunter calling himself "Addictedtobleeps" who lives in the South East. "All of this stuff is from [since?] August". Before discussing it, I would like to make one thing clear. This is one of  a whole series of videos by various people that show basically the same sort of thing, I chose this one because it usefully brings up in one place quite a lot of the points that in my opinion need discussing. I am not singling out (still less "attacking") the video's author because I think he is doing anything different from his fellows. On the contrary I think what we see here is perfectly typical of the activities of the 10 000 other active artefact hunters of the UK searching for and collecting historical objects. As such, I firmly believe that the issues this film raises equally applicable to the activities of all of them. But let's just run through this example.

"Six month round up video! Metal detecting UK # 55" (posted on You Tube by 'Addicted to bleeps') 

The first three minutes ("Hello, bleepers!") see him trying to be entertaining about his discards. We see him rummage through a pile of assorted metal fragments which he has separated out as 'junk' (and also used as a place to discard old sweet wrappers). The selection criteria are not clear (historical buttons apparently end up in the junk pile if they 'have no words' or pattern on them as "bad buttons"). the first point to make about these discards is that many of these fragmentary objects found in a buried context on an archaeological excavation would be archived as small finds and more carefully analysed. He says "this isn't everything either, I know I binned a lotta rusty stuff", so most of the iron artefacts - again which would on a proper archaeological project be archived, X-rayed and studied before any selection was made. This is the first point, objects are being selected from the beginning not for the information they provide about activities at different times at different places in the searched area, but for their collectability.

The latter point comes over in the next section of the video, when we hear the finder complaining he's found (and hoiked out of the ground) too many things to add to his growing collection. Not a hint here that he'd have done better to resist the greedy urge and leave finds where they were instead of hoiking them and then throwing them away (or melting them down, though "these ... blooming things... think people buy these", hinting at where some of these hoiked artefacts might end up). This is just pure selfish greed.

"There's a lotta stuff here I can do nothing with, it's such a shame, I can't... it's just all collecting" he laments. "I can't... keep all this stuff and its such a shame, it really is".  Why does he not draw the conclusion that if he'd not selfishly hoiked them to heap loose and unlabelled on his patio, these artefacts would potentially be in their context of deposition for researchers who could, indeed, "do something" with them. They can't now, he's trashed their context. "Thngs like this" he admits "might have some sortta historical significance", but here it is loose and chucked on his "lead pile"

None of these finds are in any way labelled. Should he decide to report them, where are the grid references going to come from? The problem is well-illustrated by the candid remark at 56 seconds in he pulls out an object hoiked out of the ground somewhere that he'd not looked at earlier "what is that?" he asks himself "I don't remember finding that!" [chuckle]. How many more people taking finds to the FLO are desperately racking their brains trying to recall where they found this or that? How is that information retained with the object when the finder dies or splits up his collection? Why are none of these objects labelled?

His cleaning methods are exactly as recommended, distilled water with a little non-ionic surfactant sold by specialist conservation suppliers under the brand name "fairy liquid" (soft on the hands of the coin fairies you see).

The second (longer) part of the video shows "all the good stuff" he has selected out from the masses of objects he has hoiked from the ground and carted off home (many as we have seen for binning, melting down and selling off). The "good stuff" found since August overs a table top, "Yeahs, look, look look, finds a plenty [...] Its not all here, I've given some away" he says. "Normally 3-4 hour hunts" the subscript says. Six months, between 15 and 20 "digs" the finder adds. 

Eight "lead tokens and weights", some PAS-recordable (they like the bag seals with writing on them). "I got some nice ones, I really did [...]This one's very interesting, it looks very old [...] nice pattern on that one" - what the FLO said about their archaeological importance is not mentioned. Seven post-medieval buckles and a medieval strapend ("identified by my friend Adrian").  "Some nice buckles, got some nice buckles this time around, actually [...] haven't had these dated or aged yet". 

Then his pile of "miscellaneous" unlabelled and unidentified objects and we see him making wild speculations about what they were (" 'oo knows?, 'ooo bloomin' knows"). Excitedly he pulls out objects and waves them in front of the camera: "This, oh God, I don't even know why I've got this [....] cool, I like it [...] Aaargh, there goes the sword pommel, nobody panic!" A silver object "from the Roman field [...] that's cool, still like that". Post medieval thimbles ['this is apparently Victorian, Adrian was explaining about that, but [I] forget what he said"], watch winders, buttons with pictures and writing on them, belt studs, halved medieval pilgrim badge. Then the pre-decimal and Georgian coins, a few post-medieval tokens and Nuremburg jettons, some Roman coins (one pierced) and some medieval hammered coins.

The HAAEC would predict that on this tabletop, in the heaps outside in the patio and the things the finder gave away and "binned", that if Mr "Addicted to bleeps" was an "average" detectorist, six months artefact hunting would produce some 15.5 PAS-recordable archaeological artefacts (which need not necessarily be collectable goodies or unique items). He's hoiked a lot of metal pieces. Certainly there are three Roman coins here, a medieval one, a strapend. The reader can decide for themselves if they think that among this pile of bits - "too many to keep" - the finder has hoiked ten other items that if they were found on an achaeological project (or by somebody else) would have been recorded. Sadly, although the finds have been seen by "Adrian and Steve", we do  not learn how many of these artefacts have yet been reported to the PAS (or indeed how many recordable items have been found and responsibly reported which are not shown in the video because the FLO is still processing them).

Also, if you listen to him talking, it becomes clear that he does not himself know all that much about the things he's found. No mention here of looking things up for himself in books (or even Wikipedia), most of what he says about the objects is repeating what "Adrian" (occasionally "Steve") said. Some of this, he admits he'd not learnt anything from and promptly forgotten. The point about this is that we are entirely dependent on the knowledge and understanding of what it is they are looking at of the finder for the selection of artefacts which are presented for recording. This becomes especially important when recovered material is being selected from the rest which is just "binned". How many tens of thousands of archaeological finds are being removed from the ground by these people each year which are "binned" (or sent off for melting down) totally unrecognised by their under-informed finders?  The original idea of PAS was that it was going to be educating finders to avoid this; that turned out to be a wholly naive idea and it seems that to a large degree any progress in that area comes from within the hobby rather than from the PAS.  

Another of the important issues which watching this video provides an excellent illustration of is that often (as is the case here) the artefact hunter's interests and those of the PAS do not actually coincide to any great degree. The "common ground" that is said in PAS mythologising to exist proves illusory, this video being a case in point. The finder enthuses more noticeably about what in our study of artefact hunting Nigel Swift and I classified as "all our yesterdays byegones". Some of these, in moments of PAS-quirkiness get into the PAS database, most do not (though they are included in the by-detectorists-for-detectorists UKDFD database, this being one of the differences between the two). In the video, the finder is almost dismissive about the real archaeological objects, passing over very quickly the Roman coins, the medieval hammered coin, but engages in great detail with the patterned buttons and modern coinage. It seems that certain parts of the "foreign land" which is the past are more familiar than the more distant ones which are more foreign, alien, to many British artefact hunters. This is important because all too often do we hear from the PAS in self-justification that these collectors are engaged in "the same thing" as archaeologists, but our own observations tell a quite different story (the contrast is even stronger in Poland, but that is another story).

The repetition with which we hear PAS telling these stories casts considerable doubt on the degree to which they are actually paying any real (academic) interest in what it is artefact hunters do, say or think - which is (one would have thought) the very basis of any kind of "liaison" (even pretend) and "outreach" (even pretend). This has been going on sixteen years now and has cost  over sixteen million quid. Yet even a simple, yet candid, video like this (and hundreds of others like it) raises all sorts of questions to which the PAS simply has no answers (and most likely, the way they've been going recently, never will have) and raises questions about just what it is in the way of instilling "best practice" among this milieu that they are actually achieving.

Deathly silence from Bloomsbury. Pigeons can be heard cooing in Russell Square. Nothing else except the traffic.

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