Wednesday, 4 June 2014

More Evidence of Serious Contamination of PAS database

Disclosure announcement: I am working on an article on this, so was pleased to see somebody else taking this up. David Knell asks "How reliable is the PAS database?" (Weds June 4th 2014) building on my examination - prompted by anti-civilized-behaviour coiney nonsense in America - of the evidence for Alexandrian tetras circulating in Britannia. He suggests that a closer look from his own point of view suggests that some results are quite alarming (this is the point at which all uncritical supporters of the PAS will stop reading - turn away, avert your eyes). Knell also sees that, like the two groups of artefacts I am writing my note about:
Some objects are clearly not derived from the archaeological record of England and Wales at all but are likely to be modern imports from another country altogether. While a proportion of these were perhaps lost by a modern collector or discarded by heirs unaware of their value (I know of an ancient Egyptian ushabti that now lies buried somewhere in a local landfill), some of them are likely to have been deliberately 'planted' as a joke or their findspot fabricated to enhance their resale price on eBay (a PAS record suggesting a British find raises financial value considerably). It is not difficult to see how the PAS database could also be used to launder foreign artefacts lacking a licit provenance.
Let us add the question of 'seeding' of sites to make metal detecting holidays and commercial rallies seem more of a success than they actually are which I personally think after some research I've done is a mechanism contaminating the archaeological record (and the PAS database) which is more pernicious than has been given credit for.  Knell looked at the PAS records for oil lamps (sorry David, force of habit, some Medieval ones worked on tallow). Now the PAS is based at Bloomsbury, arguably classical oil-lamp capital of the UK, so you'd expect the FLOs to have access to top-notch information about what it is they are dealing with. Mr Knell highlights two problems:
One of the Roman lamps was recorded as a "chance find during metal detecting" [from Layer de La Haye]*  in Essex. That chance find would be more credible if the lamp was not a Syro-Palestinian type (Kennedy Type 5) found almost exclusively in the Levant and not brought into Britain as popular tourist souvenirs until modern times. Another lamp, also described as "Roman", is recorded as having been found in [Tilmanstone in] Kent and only "identified from photograph". In fact, the lamp is not Roman at all; it was made during the Hellenistic period (more precisely the 3rd century BC) in the Eastern Mediterranean. While nothing is impossible, it is extremely unlikely that it ever formed part of Britain's ancient archaeology.
Let it be a matter of record that at the time of writing, neither of these entries in the PAS database identifies these objects as anything but ancient losses at the findspot. There is not a hint here that the objects are or may be foreign artefacts planted in modern times - or indeed that the 'archaeological experts' creating this record recognized the type as foreign at all (which is highly disturbing, what else are they and those responsible for verifying this record missing?). Let it be also noted that when it says that the Essex one is a "chance find when metal detecting" the chance-find-which-we-now-know-is-not is in the PAS database (since 2005 too!) and yet none of the metal finds hoiked at the same time appear to be anywhere in the database (even if you use the correct spelling of the place name). 

As Knell notes, the finds recorded in the PAS database are not found as a result of any systematic search as part of a scholarly research project. Metal detectorists are collectors and this is what they are doing, not archaeology, and everything they do should be seen in that light and not as some form of ersatz field survey.Meanwhile it seems that there has been a great deal of uncritical acceptance of the information about findspots submitted by artefact hunters, even when the object types do not 'fit' and the corrosion products are seriously atypical for the region's soils. Why is this? Is it all about just bulking the numbers out rather than quality control? Just what are we getting for all that money? 

* It would help if the FLO did not get the spelling of the place name wrong (Haye, not Heye), yesterday I found another spelling mistake referring to an Essex placename. They are not all that difficult to get right, and it makes all the difference when using a search engine.  Can we get some quality control on the PAS database for all that public money? 


ju said...

Maybe these are on the PAS database as well, or maybe not as the dealer specialises in saying everything is 'British found'!

Hoard coin from Britain?

Paul Barford said...

This is exactly it, anybody can say what they like about "where" something was found. We need a way of checking this back to a landowner's signing off these artefacts.

I've dealt with Saxby's before. Really disgusting inexactitude in description.

Especially (I assume you put it in specially for me) the "European coin" of Sigmunt III Vasa King of Poland and all the rest, NOT "c. 1450" as Saxby would have it but 1623 as the date on it actually says....

If that arrowhead was found in the UK, then it is yet more evidence of the degree to which planting of items from looted sites in southern Europe is going on - if real, it is a type well known from the steppes/Danube region, but not "Bronze Age" but later.

But then, does anyone take this clown seriously?

David Knell said...

"... PAS records for oil lamps (sorry David, force of habit, some Medieval ones worked on tallow)"

Forgiven! Yup, many lamps of the Roman period also used fat as fuel in northern parts of the empire where olive oil was difficult to obtain. But they were a different form (typically open) to those which used oil. The prefix "oil" only becomes superfluous when describing the huge majority of lamps (typically enclosed by Hellenistic times) in the Mediterranean world.

The lack of recognising (or at least recording) the lamps as foreign was indeed disturbing. Both of the lamps I mentioned scream their eastern origin. Taking the first example: the "two curlicues just behind the wick holder [isn't 'nozzle' a less clumsy term?]" are a debased provincial interpretation of the volutes on Italian archetypes and are an immediately distinctive feature of these Syro-Palestinian types - as indeed is also the "raised bow-tie shape moulding to either side of top of the main body ['shoulder' is the normal term]". The motif is known as 'double-axe' in the literature and not used on lamps outside the Levant. Apart from which, the whole form of both lamps scream their type and source anyway.

I understand the person recording the find is not a specialist but they really do need to get entries checked by someone who is if the PAS database is meant to have any credibility as a scholarly resource. Then again, you already know my opinion of it as a scholarly resource.


Saxby's Coins is a case unto himself. Unrelated to the PAS database, he simply describes almost everything as "British Found" regardless of where it came from. If he ever got to put the Parthenon on eBay, he would advertise that as "British Found" too.

Paul Barford said...

PAS IS part of the British Museum, and its descriptions reflect on the mother institution.

Describing something as what it ain't to get an easy sale is fraud, nothing less.

There is a lot of this sort of thing openly going on in the antiquities trade.

David Knell said...

What I find particularly worrying about Saxby's Coins is that it patently demonstrates the willingness of someone selling artefacts to deliberately falsify information. He may not bother using the PAS to lend credence to his own artefacts himself, but it is not difficult to imagine that some other dealer would. A PAS record adds considerably to an artefact's financial value and the PAS is so clearly open to abuse.

Quite apart from the PAS reflecting on the mother institution, its administrators really do need to be extra vigilant in being able to flag items which appear to be of foreign origin and clearly note them as such in the records. Yes, such items MAY have been found in the British archaeological record but researchers using the database need to be made aware of the increased possibility of contamination and treat the items accordingly.

David Knell said...

In addition, I can envisage some student archaeologist finding a Roman artefact with a 'double-axe' motif in a British dig thinking 'ah yes, that motif appeared on British lamps too'. Hopefully, he would be corrected by his professor but the PAS needs to avoid the confusion in the first place.

Anonymous said...

There's an unaskable question that's also relevant to the accuracy of the PAS database David:

What percentage of detectorists are honest in their dealings with farmers vis a vis finds agreements?

Rather you than me to answer that but whatever percentage you choose then the remainder are likely to launder by location.

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