Sunday, 2 March 2014

Archaeological Wanderings on "Metal Detecting" (1)

Prompted by the recent discussions of the "Near Maidstone Anglo-Saxon Grave Trashing", archaeologist Dr Ben Jervis (who works for English Heritage as Assistant Inspector of Ancient Monuments) has written "Some Thoughts on Metal Detecting and Archaeology" on his blog (1st March 2014). His interest in the topic is unclear, I've not come across the name in connection with previous discussion of the topic, nor is he a contributing member (not under that name) of any metal detectorist forums I watch. Why he wrote this text is not really clear (but it is interesting to note who is forwarding it in the social media). The view which Jervis presents is essentially a restatement of the establishment fluffy bunny school's position concerning artefact hunting in the UK. He refers to the discussion of the destruction by artefact hunters of an Anglo-Saxon grave on a known archaeological site  "Near Maidstone on the A20". His blog text decries the unfortunate appearance of: 
voices who have accused detectorists of desecrating history using, in some cases, very vindictive and aggressive language. 
So, out come the two tired mantras ("we are not nighthawks" and "most  of us are [in some vaguely undefined way] responsible" ):  
I am not, for one minute, condoning the activities of the group of irresponsible metal detectorists who do not report their finds to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, or those who illegally search without permission of the landowner, or on Scheduled Monuments. Neither, however, do I think painting a caricature of all detectorists as committing a crime against archaeology is particularly constructive or helpful.
Surely it is a matter of debate whether artefact hunting in any form is ever actually "good" for the preservation of archaeological sites and the archaeological record. It would seem that the good Doctor is of the opinion that it is. I disagree with him, and if he's game, am prepared to say why I beg to differ and debate it with him.What I think is not at all "constructive" or "helpful" is simply skipping over this question and not engaging with it. Professor David Gill raised a number of issues relating to this in his PIA paper. Sadly, the Portable Antiquities Scheme - the very people one would hope would - declined to take part in the discussion of the points he raised.

Dr Jervis then brings out the ersatz archaeology argument. Like Mr Tompa and coin collectors in the States, and metal detectorists everywhere (like Dick Stout)  he apparently thinks getting stuff out of the ground and recorded trumps conservation of what is in the ground:
A great number of finds are recovered (sic), in the first instance, through less than scientific means and the dataset created by the PAS has been used by a wide range of researchers who have made discoveries or advances in understanding which would simply not have occurred without the finds collected and reported by responsible detectorists and detecting clubs.
The first point is that closer familiarity with the projects in the list to which Jervis links shows that much of this "understanding" is only the sort that can be represented by a dot-distribution map, the tried and tested methodology of the culture-historical typology-based antiquitist approaches of the 1870-1890s. Very little of the so-called data from the PAS records can be used to address the more sophisticated questions of other types raised by more contemporary approaches. The second (and one I've discussed on this blog enough times to not want to go through it all again now) is that one simply cannot treat the material gathered to feed an individual's artefact collection as the equivalent of what would be sampled and collected by an archaeologist from the same assemblage. The two are not by any means the same. This then raises the general question, to what extent does this "gain" in knowledge balance the loss of knowledge caused by the manner in which selected objects are removed from a site (even if its a surface site) through wholly uncontrolled and inadequately-documented collecting by private individuals?

Is it enough to call the archaeological record a "shared resource" and thus shrug off the need to ensure that what is by now a badly fragmented and finite record is managed in as sustainable way as possible? Is what is happening to the archaeological record really any kind of sustainable management that we can be proud of and hold up as a pattern for others to aspire to? I say no, and again am willing to discuss why.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme and current Treasure Process are social experiments that have been going now for sixteen years, they have together cost untold millions of pounds. And how well is this system doing? Oddly enough, while the PAS will quote all manner of big numbers, they are all about "wottalotta-stuff-we-got". Basic statistics such as how many active artefact hunters there are in England and Wales, how many recordable objects (and other objects) the average one in various categories finds a year, and therefore how many objects are not being recorded, these are figures completely missing from the official contribution to the heritage debate. Why? How many other government-sponsored schemes are allowed to run so long without a proper assessment of needs and success rate of current methods?  Dr Jervis however seems unconcerned by this, "we done good" seems somehow to return as an easily repeated PAS message-de-jour

Here is the problem. Some of us think we are not "doing good". Some of us think we've cocked-up on a massive scale with this. Not everybody will come right out and say it, but from time to time something happens, Crosby Garrett was one of them, this A20 grave is another, where even the normally meek and silent archaeologists venture to murmur a few sentences of disapproval and puzzlement why organizations like Dr Jervis' English Heritage are doing nothing to address these issues. An interesting case was the facebook thread in which several archaeologists we'd not heard from before were expressing concern about current policies on artefact hunting and collecting. Slowly I think the tide is turning and the length of time that the archaeological establishment can blithely brush aside the concerns like this is running out.

Meanwhile Dr Jervis represents the "Don't rock the boat, maybe we can all work together" school of thought of the 1990s. Odd though isn't it, that sixteen years after we "started' doing this, voices are still being raised that yes, if only we can "start doing this" everything will be hunky-dory. Meanwhile unknown, but certainly very large number of individual pieces of archaeological evidence are hoiked out of the archaeological record and into a collector's pocket all over the country, day in, day out (and I am NOT talking about those that are pilfered at night).

The PAS will soon be celebrating their "millionth" object. I am really hoping it will coincide with the HA artefct erosion counter (the one Dr Jervis ignores) ticking its five millionth object. Four in five recordable artefacts are going into somebody's pocket through current policies without even the most basic of records. And when it's all gone, let the PAS not stand in front of us all with a copy of its database on a tablet and proclaim with a smile on it's face "Haven't we done well?" Because I think even Dr Jervis would then have to admit, that no, no we have not done well.

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