Thursday 13 February 2014

"A Few Items Dont get Recorded by a Very Small Minority of Detectorists" Pull the Other One

UK metal detectorists are generally in denial about the rate at which artefact hunters all over the country are hoiking out archaeological material from sites and assemblages and just disappearing with it. Obviously knowing such a figure is fundamental to assessing the success of mitigation attempts like the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Oddly enough in their annual reports full of big numbers, pie charts and tables, this is one piece of information the PAS do not give and never have done.

A while ago Heritage Action, a grassroots conservation group attempted to fill the gap in the information available to the public about artefact hunting by producing their "Artefact Erosion Counter". This was quite a complex task as for some reason there always has been coyness in all milieus about certain facts (such as a reliable estimate of how many artefact hunters there are in England and Wales for a start, going on to how many hours searching they would be doing in an average year and how many recordable items different groups of artefact hunters would be finding per session). The absence of such basic information is astounding when you consider that archaeologists have been "partnering" these artefact hunters for several decades (in regions like Norfolk, before the PAS) and liaising with them nationwide for sixteen years at immense public cost.

Fortunately there were three surveys to start with and a close study of what people were writing on metal detecting forums gave some additional insight into how finds rates could be distributed in the population ("went out yesterday with Bazza and we were there four hours and this is what we found [photo]", "went out yesterday to my hammy field, three hours - found nothing, gutted"). It was on this basis that the algorithms for the Counter were written.

As is stressed by HA, this is a conservative estimate (I personally think there has been a sizeable increase in the numbers of detectorists since it was started, yet the rate at which it increases has remained constant). Among the questions it poses is "to what degree would this counter have to be wrong for the situation to be regarded as satisfactory". While many metal detectorists and their supporters are insistent that it is "wrong" (indeed they get quite insulting about it), none of them have ever answered that question.

One of them last night, Andy Baines, a detectorist who wants to take "a more ethical approach to metal detecting" wrote an insulting text on "Heritage Actions [sic] phoney artefact erosion counter" on his blog. In the text, his explanation of the use of the word "phoney", reveals he has not the slightest inkling of what it is about, neither has he read the text which explains that.As a result, he's decided it's not worth bothering with as it's all "tosh" and "phoney". In the comments he writes:
The AEC is literally a semi educated guess, the semi educated bit being that obviously a few items dont get recorded due to a very small minority of detctorists that do not do things by the book. Heritage action have just though of a number and timsed it by a thousand to make it look relevant
[by "timesed it" I assume Mr Baines meant "multiplied"]. All I can say is if he'd read the text, the metal detectorist would have seen that Heritage Action have not "just thought of a number and multiplied it to make it look relevant". That is as ridiculous an assertion as "a few items don't get recorded" due to "a very small minority of detectorists that do not do it by the book".

So how many is a "very small minority" according to Mr Baines? The latest PAS estimate was that there are over 8000 metal detectorists active in England and Wales (I personally think it is higher, now over ten thousand I would say - but let's use the PAS estimate for the sake of discussion). If  we look at the official PAS statistics for 2013, we find the total  number of reporting finders for that year (so metal detectorists, gardeners, builders, farmers etc etc) was just 3981 people. If we look at the table of objects reported by metal detectorists in 2013, we come to a total of 72170, divide that by 3981 and you get an average number of 18 metal detected finds per finder. Even if they were all metal detectorists (which patently they were not, but PAS does not split the figures) that means 4019+ metal detectorists did not report a single object in 2013. That's not a  "very small minority" it's more than half.

Mr Baines is inconsistent. A day later he posted on the same blog a text about eBay sales of artefacts
"A quick search of ebay uk with the keywords metal detector finds bring up hundreds of listings of detector found items, many of them are uncleaned and look like they were dug that day".
In fact the number of artefacts thrown up on eBay when I looked yesterday with that keyword was over 1110, but there were many other metal artefacts there whose description did not contain that keyword, yet they were all probably found with a metal detector. And yet the PAS database stats page shows (at the time of writing) that on Monday they recorded 105 objects, on Tuesday it was 147 objects, and Wednesday (that day he wrote) at the end of the day it was 146. So how many of those hundreds of metal detected items Mr Baines found on eBay had first been recorded with the PAS?

So how can a metal detectorist assert that the HA artefact erosion counter is "tosh" when in the next breath the same person writes about something which supports the idea that large numbers of finds are coming out of the ground and are being flogged off without being recorded? 

Mr Baines concludes his text addressing Heritage Action:
Pull the other one guys. Some of us are trying to make metal detecting more ethical but we dont need you guys ramming this fictional and majorly non reliable counter in the publics face.

I would ask just who it is that is trying to ram fiction into the public debate. Let us see the PAS producing their estimate on the basis of sixteen years' liaison and 'partnering' of the number of recordable artefacts being hoiked out of the ground without record. If the HA estimate is considered by artefact hunters to be "majorly unreliable", let us have the official reliable one from the Portable Antiquities Scheme.


P2Pinvested said...

Paul you forget that a huge amount of uk detectorists search the beaches and estuaries like myself. Finds from these places mainly consist of modern coinage and modern jewellery losses. For some reason you have got a little mixed up with thinking 8000 detectorists are all traipsing around history rich farmland.

Paul Barford said...

Quantify "a huge amount".

Time for another poll on your blog maybe? How many of your readers are exclusive beach detectorists, how many go to beaches as well as fields, and how many detect on land most of the time?

From my observations of the forums, it is not a huge amount writing in with "what I found on the beach yesterday" or their anecdotes about beach detecting. It also varies seasonally, people go beach detecting when they can't get on fields with crops or there are few rallies.

Not all detectorists in the UK live within easy travelling distance of a beach.

I do not think it is me "getting mixed up" but you who are trying to muddle the picture.

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