Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Ploughsoil Context: Singing from the Same Songbook Over on BAJR Forum

Gnome Kings on Nemrut Dag
There is at last some sensible discussion on the BAJR forum of the issue of context in ploughsoil scatters. In the context of a question from a metal detectorist (nota bene), the notion of its existence was dismissed first by the Forum owner (the real David Connolly, this was followed by a comment in similar vein by one "P. Prentice". Now, and after Connolly restoring the original question at the head of the thread, somebody masquerading as a "Gnome King" (!) manages to offer some more balanced assessment of the problem, not without first having a cheap swipe at this blogger for some reason best known to himself.

Among other things, "Gnome King" reckons that in urging taking a look at artefact hunting and how it is currently done, I am somehow "barking up the wrong tree", because allegedly I am "not seeing the whole picture". Well, that is exactly why we debate issues in archaeology I thought, though some seem less enamoured of actually discussing the basic issues. "Gnome King" seems to think for some reason that I am unconcerned about how to deal with ploughsoil archaeology in general. I am not sure how he comes to that conclusion, when this is indeed one of my concerns since this was precisely where I started in archaeology several decades ago, but then "Gnome King" admits he'd not read anything else I'd written....

Fortunately, having got through the barely-relevant personal stuff, he eventually comes to the main point. Despite what Connolly and "Prentice" had earlier said on that thread, "Gnome King" states what should be obvious to anyone who'd worked on sites like this (spelling as in original):
 it is WELL KNOWN that well defined, cronologically/spatialy seperate artefact scatters are OFTEN not represented by any subsurface features.... [...] Ploughzone Artefact distributions have been demonstrated many times to retain consibable spatial integrity, despite vertical disruption by the plough - as many early prehistoric sites are defined by shallow remains, if at all, this is a crucial fact...
and those chronologically/spatially separate artefact scatters are what, Mr Connolly/Mr Prentice? They are the context of the artefacts contained in and forming them.  "Gnome King" then goes on to discuss the issue that in UK archaeology (and here he is echoing what "Steve" was saying) that there is in fact currently minimal provision, and even rarer application of appropriate techniques, for what he calls "PloughZone Archaeology" which give only a passing nod to current knowledge and established best practice in relation to sites represented by finds (in context) suspended in the ploughsoil.

For reasons I'll not go into here, the situation in Poland with regard to this same situation is different, surface archaeological evidence is gathered and properly documented and archived from these sites before the evaluation stage (which may be engineered to add detail to the original basic record). Of course in execution, sometimes things have been less than ideal, on the motorway developments for example, but it seems the strategy has been thought out a bit better than in the UK. Where, according to "Gnome King":
the PloughZone situation is dire, with cut and paste WSIs, totaly unreflexive methods once-the-JCB-starts-rolling, and a wierd self-induced hypnotism that 'this is is just the way commercail archaeology has to be' -the result of this lack of thought given to ploughzone archaeology in th UK, is that i (and many others) have (very sadly) had to watch (sorry, 'monitor') many times as thousands of tons of ploughsoil is dumped, knowing full well that it was likley to contain undetermined (and now forever lost) artefact distributions relating to some of the earliest and least well understood periods of UK and Northern European (pre)history (a bit early for a lot of MDs admittedly...
"Gnome King" states that in this aspect, British commercial archaeology drops the ball on this, nearly every time. As a result of this, he says:
 i do not see a problem with MDs on ploughed sites - and recovering so many artefacts from the ploughsoil as they want, becasue [we 'professionals' hardly ever look at the stuff].[...] That is why, until commercial practice gets its act together, i fully endorse Metal Detecting ploughed sites AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE.
[one presumes he means only that artefact collecting where the results are properly observed, collected and documented and then passed on to become part of archaeological record]. He, wisely, qualifies this by ensuring his metal detecting readers understand he is referring to artefact hunting on ploughed sites:
i would certainly bereally very pissed at a metal detectorist poking around in 'pristine' locations
He also mentions here the question of shallow topsoils and deep digging by artefact hunters chasing a signal. In the eyes of "Gnome King", therefore, British archaeology needs to pay more attention to the state of the art when it comes to the study of and mitigation of threats to ploughsoil archaeology. He then says (again echoing "Steve"): 
If 'National Profesional Archaeology' (whatever that might be) is to place importance on Ploughzone Metal Finds such that they sould be put out of reach of metal detecorists, then how come we are allowing thousands of tons of unexamained ploughsoil to be dumped evey bloody day !!! 
So, who does he imagine is actually saying we should "put ploughzone metal artefacts out of the reach of artefact hunters"? I suspect he has not been following the ongoing debate in enough detail to comment on it with any authority.

Based on an acute awareness of  the importance of precisely that same archaeological record contained in ploughsoil, what I and Heritage Action have always argued for is for the regulation of metal detecting and the improvement of documentation in order to make the results as usable archaeologically as they need to be (andare claimed, falsely in our opinion, already to be). Here, it seems "Gnome King" and I are actually saying the same thing, though I hope my spelling and use of punctuation marks are better and my use of language more temperate.
With the problem of information loss through an dismissive attitude in commercial archaeology to ploughzone archaeology in mind, "Gnome King" suggests that a
"strong alliance on the issue  [...]  could be formed between eg Metal-Detectorists, Litchics Specialists, Pre-historic researchers, and Profesional Field Archaeologists and a joint case can be made for EH, CCs and the damn IFA to really adress this issue in realtion to commercail development, (especially any very large projects...) I do hope real Paul Barford (the Un - Real one) joins in with this, and stops yapping up the wrong tree - "come up here mate, and thrown nuts at the bulldozers/consultants"
I really however do not see that what I am saying down here differs in any way from what the archaeologist is urging. We need to pay more attention to the archaeological evidence contained in the ploughsoil, topsoil and exposed surfaces of archaeological sites, and need to prevent it being trashed in teh search for collectables, unless that action is done according to "best practice" which is careful and detailed recording. In the same way as "Stave" and "Gnome King" and every other archaeologist who has thought of that problem would like to see the same ploughsoil treated in archaeological excavation. We are both calling for best practice, and an open discussion and revision of what we understand by that term. Getrennt marschieren, vereint schlagen.



Detectorbloke said...

Did you edit the end bit of this post a few days ago? I'm sure I saw something along the lines of 'if Gnome King is right the detectorists may add to the archaeological record by detecting topsoil and properly recording finds' or something like that.

Just wondering if I'm going mad.

Paul Barford said...

No, not going mad, I was in the middle of doing three things at once, and the post ended up getting posted before I'd finished writing, it happens sometimes. (that bit - as I recall - was actually copied and pasted from the original text of Baines' question which I was going to relate to what GK had written, but ran out of steam and time). The recording of finds made by everyone, dog walkers too may add to the record, that is why the PAS was set up. The problem is the difference between accidental finds (dog walkers) and those who set out to denude a site of collectable items without proper and detailed recording. To that, I would suggest, we should apply different standards - something for something.

Detectorbloke said...

Cheers for that, thought Gnome's post was interesting.

Paul Barford said...

well, as I say, it seems that what was being presented by Baines (and indeed was trying to whip it up as) as a difference in opinion is in fact anything but, just different emphasis.

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