Monday 28 April 2014

PAS and the Pear-Shaped Database

For many years now, the PAS database has been touted as a source of data about the pre-1700 AD non-Treasure items handed in for recording by members of the public which can be used in archaeological research. Collecting these "data" and making them available for research in fact is the whole basis for the partnership model of toleration of artefact hunting by British archaeologists. In recent weeks, this model has been coming under scrutiny.

The  issue started to emerge as a response to my post of Sunday, 20 April 2014 ("Bumper haul for Central Searchers, How many of Bumper haul for Central Searchers, How many of these Archaeological Finds will we Ever See Again?". This prompted an irate reply from Central Searchers' Gill Evans who justified the hoiking on a metal detecting forum near you:
our FLO has a standing invite to our digs but we never see her. Besides she is only interested in the good stuff not broken artefacts and roman grots
This I followed up two days later (Tuesday, 22 April 2014 ) with "PAS Database not a True Sample? Coin Finds Ignored?" which got some discussion going, an anonymous commentator (who later turned out to be Philippa Walton) started laying into me in a most patronising manner for having observations on the PAS and its policies. She stopped just short of denying flat that there was any selection of pre-1700 finds (here and here). She says the answers are in her book - I comment that if the book is based on the PhD, they will not be (I must get the book I suppose - seems an expensive way to say "I told you so" though).  

Then Ms Evans' FLO (Julie Cassidy Northamptonshire County Council, Northampton) joins the discussion (Tuesday, 22 April 2014, "Central Searchers' Claim Untrue? ") she says the statement about selection of finds is "demonstrably false [...] Only need to look at database to see that". So another denial. This however misses out the point that looking at the database will in no way provide information about what was not entered into the database - which is what the discussion is about. Duh.

On the same day I posted a text on the comments of other metal detectorists on the forums which had the same import as Ms Evans' comments (Tuesday, 22 April 2014, "More from UK's Detectorists on PAS' Selectivity in Recording". On the forums there was nobody (least of all a PAS representative or partner) saying this was untrue.

This was followed by a post on Andy Baines' blog (Wednesday, 23 April 2014,
'Is the current PAS scheme starting to show signs of fatigue?') commented upon by me: "PAS Needs Fixing?" Baines asks whether the selective recording being discussed on detecting forums, but consistently ignored or downplayed by supporters of the Scheme means that the PAS is on the verge of collapse. He challenges the PAS to set out their policy.

Baines followed this up by another post, asking the question (Wednesday, 23 April 2014)
"What message does the PAS selective recording give to metal detectors?",  - commented upon by me here: "What message does the PAS selective recording give to metal detectorists?". Baines is more concerned with the system failing (and therefore no longer shielding artefact hunting from criticism), though I would say the archaeological implications of the lack of transparency about a whole set of factors affecting the content of the database is the key issue. In a comment, Anonymous "Steve" (23 April 2014 23:24) says that "Its always been the case as the PAS is resource limited in what it can and cannot do so prioritising what is recorded must take place". He also points out that this selection process for what is recorded is probably variable from FLO to FLO as many have competing demands upon their time.
Most if not all FLOs have more than one manager and so they have to balance their time and output to meet these demands. For example their local managers will require a prioritising of finds which are relevant to various local agendas and needs, whilst the national management team in London will want their overall demands satisfied. I have heard that this burden of demands has caused a few unhappy times for some FLOs.
In a further comment the same person (24 April 2014 20:08) again stresses that he is sure that selective recording is the norm, and suggests that "detectorists will have to get used to the idea of selection in what the FLO's will record and the delays in getting finds back. After all it is much better than no reporting facilities , a situation that existed pre 1997". He is mistaken, finders took finds to museums well before the PAS existed.
I waited a couple of days to give the PAS a chance to add to the discussion here on an archaeological blog of the information they'd so readily supplied four hours after the question was asked there on the blog of a metal detectorist. Of course they did not avail themselves of the opportunity, artefact hunters are their partners, not preservationists. I referred to the posting of something vaguely like a policy statement that appeared at some unknown time and in unclear circumstances in an inner recess of the PAS website (Saturday, 26 April 2014, "PAS Selective Recording, Undated Policy Statement Raises Questions"). It really does raise questions concerning the nature of the data" held in a database, and whether they can be used in any meaningful way to study anything at all.  Though, quite seriously, i do not expect anyone outside the PAS to take a proper look at its implications as a sampling policy, nor anyone associated with the PAS to step out of line and say it matters. 

But it does. As does the continued denial.


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