Monday 26 May 2014

"How Can we See the Treasure Act etc"?

France watching you
On Sunday evening, I received a mail apparently (gmail address - odd) from an investigative journalist writing for a well-known French national newspaper about "archaeological pillage in France". Apparently, "some French archeologists told me about the English Treasure Act and its consequences for English Archaeology". I am hoping these were HAPPAH archaeologists who have no illusions about the consequences for British archaeology of artefact hunting. Anyway, she somehow found me and asked a couple of questions. I thought I'd post my answers here too, maybe somebody will find them useful:
1) “What is your point of view about the English Treasure Act?”
The Treasure Act is a cosmetic alteration to the Medieval law of Treasure Trove. It has not gone very far beyond the primitive eleventh-century prototype. In the 1990s, attempts were made to create a modern law, but British metal detectorists placed great pressure on the government not to alter the laws in a way that would prevent them pillaging sites for collectable items. The law we have today as a result is therefore a total mess, a rehash of the medieval approach which is a weak compromise with the pillagers. British law does not in any way protect archaeological sites or the majority of the archaeological objects and material they contain. British law now furthermore makes it financially attractive to buy a metal detector, locate a potentially ‘productive site’ which is one of the hundreds of thousands of British sites unprotected by any antiquities legislation, and remove archaeological and historic material from it in any way the amateur sees fit, and do with most of what they find as they like (including melt it down for scrap metal which is happening a lot to items these amateurs cannot identify as anything collectable). It also requires museums who want to acquire items for the public to buy them at market cost, which places a great strain on the limited resources for cultural activities in the UK. This law desperately needs rethinking and rewriting in the light of what we now know are the effects of current policies.

2) “Is the English Treasure Act a good thing for archaeology? If no, why?”
Absolutely not. The Act defines certain objects as “nationally important” (called “Treasure” which in itself is a stupid name invoking images of pirates rather than any scholarly resource). The main criterion used however is whether such an object is made of gold or silver. Many archaeological objects of great significance are made of other materials (like the Roman wooden writing tablets from Vindolanda, or the bronze Crosby Garrett helmet). The Act, and what happens as a result of it, have the consequence that the British public is constantly getting a very unbalanced view of what archaeology is, what archaeological evidence is, and what archaeologists do. This is already having considerable impact on the way the discipline is treated in the UK by lawmakers and the media. It is also having severe impact on discussions surrounding collecting outside the UK, with a lot of superficial and nonsensical things said about the “British system” which is held up as some kind of “model system”, a picture which generally goes unchallenged in the interests of scholarly accuracy (not least by the British institutions evoked in such pseudo-arguments).

The whole complex of circumstances surrounding the current policies on metal detecting in the United Kingdom is, I am sure, eroding the position of real archaeology.

Another problem is the lack of resources to deal with “Treasure” finds properly. The costs of conserving, storing, displaying and insuring each of them are considerable. The high costs of properly analysing and documenting them, and then publishing the results of that analysis are the reason why this is so rarely done. Artefact hunters are pulling these things out of the ground far faster than British archaeology and museums can deal with them and a huge and expensive backlog of undone work is building up. The result is that the stuff gets put in a case and heritage professionals (rather unprofessionally) shrug their shoulders and hope that nobody ever asks to see a proper publication for any of them beyond a brief mention and a couple of artistic pictures in an annual summary report. Hundreds and hundreds of finds annually are being treated like that. These are all finds which by law are defined as all being nationally important and which should be in the public domain. It has always been considered the case, however, for as long as archaeology has existed as a discipline, that no archaeological discovery is in the public domain until it is properly published. In the case of nationally important Treasure finds, the norm has become immediate display of such finds as trophies, with non-publication.

Furthermore, if we accept that these “Treasure” finds are nationally important objects, then their findspot and context of deposition are by the same measure equally important. Yet all too often there is limited or in most cases no follow-up excavation of these findspots (which are also not in any way legally protected from further pillaging by metal detectorists). The amateurish and poorly-observed and documented removal of the items from the findspot by an excited finder means any archaeological information that deposit had contained is lost. Most Treasure finds come from unthreatened sites, and many of them come from below the level normally disturbed by the plough where they have remained preserved in situ thousands of years.  

I think there is all too often some confusion between the Treasure Act (a law, adherence to which is compulsory) and the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS - a voluntary recording scheme based at the British Museum) which are two different things. The effect of both however is the same, they engender a (false) impression that the “problem of pillage by metal detectorists has been resolved”, that “artefact hunting with metal detectors leads to information gain for archaeology” (so, “metal detecting is in some way good for archaeology”) and that “looking for Treasure is what archaeologists do”. These are all very contentious statements. In fact I'd say they are all wrong, taken in a wider context. You are probably aware that there are very strong indications (Google “The Heritage Action Artefact Erosion Counter”) that the PAS database contains only a very small, and probably biased, sample of what artefact hunters and collectors have taken away down the years, most of these finds have totally disappeared. So far, the supporters of metal detecting - who deny that these figures are relevant to the discussion - have produced no alternative figures for the number of objects dug out of the British archaeological record unseen under current British “policy” and not even being recorded anywhere. 

3) “Do you think this legislation has increased or decreased the archeological pillage in United Kingdom ?
Obviously, every time a newspaper publishes a story that some British guy has found something ancient and shiny and the state will give them thousands of pounds for it, all over the country more and more people are thinking of buying a metal detecting site and visiting the local Roman villa or deserted medieval village site. The archaeological message that they should not do that because it will damage the site is lost, the only message that is coming over in the public domain is that everybody is happy when somebody finds a ‘Treasure’ and, irrespective of what damage is done, they will get lots of cash for it. So obviously there is no reason to think that this atavistic law will reduce pillage of artefact-rich sites by Treasure Hunters.

The number of Treasure finds reported each year has gone up from 800 a year to nearly 1000, an increase which (given the actual number of such finds to be made in accessible places is finite and now being depleted) means the threat is increasing as more people take up Treasure hunting under the current legislation. British archaeologists are unable to do anything to curb this.

This is the “British Disease”.

In its seventeen years of so-called “outreach”, the PAS has failed to get over certain archaeological and conservation-based messages to the public (and I would say has failed us all in that respect). The evidence suggests that more and more people are taking up metal detecting as a hobby, and more and more people are mining the archaeological record for collectable items to take home and add to their scattered ephemeral personal collections, or to sell to other collectors wanting their own personal “pieces of the past”. Meanwhile the archaeological record is being depleted week after week, month after month and year after year of hundreds of thousands of diagnostic artefacts which through the use of a more archaeological methodology would reveal so much more detailed information about the past of that place. This is all perfectly legal, but the widespread and uncontrolled pilfering of the archaeological record in a single generation is an  archaeological tragedy. Given a different approach it was one that was  entirely avoidable, and the opportunity was missed and the resultant loss of information and destruction of evidence have been cripplingly severe.

4) “Why are you involved in this debate?
It is inconceivable to me that anyone with an archaeological eduction can watch what is going on around the whole topic of antiquities collecting and the antiquities trade and remain silent, and shut it out of their mind. Yet it’s what the majority of British archaeologists do day after day. They cannot be bothered to look past the spin and deflective arguments produced by the supporters of collecting and the antiquities trade, they cannot be bothered to try and find the facts of the matter and confront them with the wider context. They cannot be bothered to get involved in anything requiring arguing the point with these people and their equally mind-numb supporters. It’s not a very fruitful area of debate, most people do not want any contact with it. Some feel its "more than their job is worth".

One of the reasons for this reluctance is that the metal detectorists who take part in any public discussion of the heritage are mostly engaged in upholding deceits and deflecting discussion away from uncomfortable points. Debating with those whose only aim is to disrupt such a debate - and who may not be intellectually equipped anyway for such discussions - is very time-consuming and frustrating. It’s also a discussion for the thick skinned. Anyone who says that these things need re-examining and discussion inevitably faces a barrage of personal attacks and insults. Several of us report having been threatened specifically by metal detectorists (I need not add that though archaeological discussions can be very heated at times, discussion of archaeology-metal detecting issues is the only  area of archaeological discussion where this sort of thing occurs). A member of my family was attacked outside our home a few years ago, after a British detectorist publicly told his readers that he was contacting his detecting friends in Poland and he "had a little job for them". Some of the people involved in antiquities collecting are very nasty people indeed. Metal detecting is not a hobby for the suave, erudite and articulate connoisseur in a silk dressing gown, instead it tends to appeal to a somewhat different social milieu. Instead of discussing issues, metal detectorists try to get people to stop discussing them, they try to shut down blogs like mine.

I think the lengths some go to in order to stifle the debate is a sign of how bad things are, and this is what convinces me that getting people talking about it in the open is the right thing to do.

5) “Are there now some discussions in order to change again the situation ?
In the case of Britain, no, not really. Most people try to avoid the topic. Archaeologists know that if they oppose the free-for-all pillaging, they can expect personal attacks on them. The main archaeological organizations are aware that they too are powerless in the face of such resistance. Lawmakers are not going to listen to them, or seek take their advice. There is from time to time glib talk about “doing something” at government level about “the illicit trade in antiquities”, about “reforming the Treasure Act”, but beyond a committee meeting somewhere and drinking a few cups of coffee together, or somebody making a slideshow presentation, time after time, nothing ever comes of it.

Archaeologists have no clout and have rather dropped the ball when it comes to using the media to arouse public interest in the fundamental questions and get public pressure behind any moves to do something. In addition, British journalists lack the will and intellectual curiosity to investigate the real stories and issues behind yet another jubilant press release about another “Treasure” find. Sadly, it is up to the individual efforts of a few like myself, completely without any institutional help (or even recognition) from Britain to try to get this discussion out in the open, to make a wider public aware that there are problems, and we need to be discussing this, and poking those who should be doing something about it into belatedly taking some action. It’s an uphill battle, as of course the issues discussed are inevitably esoteric and difficult for the layman (the tax-payer and voter) to understand, and there is a whole industry propagating an entirely different (and I would say deceptive) picture. This is one reason for the somewhat populist tone adopted in my blog. I think this is the only way to get any change, but admit that it too is a long shot. Nevertheless it’s heartening to see that this blog is being widely read. One day, perhaps we’ll see the British media taking the discussion up.I am glad to see the French press is leading the way.
6) “Do you think some illegal French artefacts are sold in United Kingdom?
A Europe without frontiers creates enormous problems for curbing illicit movement of things like antiquities between states with different criteria of what is legal.  Its obviously a very simple matter to represent antiquities dug-up in France as having come from a country where there are no controls whatsoever on digging up and sales of such items. We need better tools than we have at present however to investigate such cases, and get law enforcement authorities alert to these issues and find ways to punish wrongdoers. This is a very amorphous and difficult area of law, we need to tighten that up too. There is a group of criminologists in Glasgow working on it now, but it’s difficult to see what the progress is or the output likely to be.

7) “more personal maybe, why do you leave in Poland ? Is it linked to a kind of pressure (In fact, I saw on the web a lot of strange videos or blogs and I don't clearly understand the situation...”. No, no pressure, family reasons, and life here is very good. As for the videos and the libellous stuff on the internet, it is all produced by metal detectorists trying to discredit my arguments. The end result of their attempts to reduce things to the personal level is that it shows everyone at a glance just what sort of primitive, inarticulate, empty-headed and vindictive people many of Britain’s metal detectorists are (one of the websites you mention has over 20000 hits, so it seems to be very popular with the whole milieu). This anti-preservationist propaganda also show all too clearly that these people have no idea about what the issues are, and that they have no real arguments.

May I suggest that for balance you should contact Roger Bland of the PAS and address the same questions to that organization?  I would however suggest treating their answers with a huge pinch of salt, they obviously have a vested interest in representing the whole situation as almost totally under control, their control. They’ve cost everyone a lot of money and they’ll be the last to admit that there are good reasons to believe that the Great Social Experiment which they represent went wrong more than a decade ago and they soldiered on regardless.

Thanks for your interest. Good luck with making sense of a difficult topic. If you have any further questions I will be here in the office most of the day.

Paul Barford

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