Monday 14 July 2014

What kind of "Symbiosis" is This?

Digging History = Trapping nature
James Oliver from near Blackpool has a metal detecting blog called 'Digging History'. He is also a microbiologist who is also passionate about ecology, wildlife and conservation. It's pretty odd therefore that to judge by its content, he does not see the links between conservation of the finite and fragile resources of the historical and natural environments. Yesterday, for some unclear reason, he posted there a Guest Post by Crawfords Metal Detectors (Scunthorpe UK) on the topic of "The development of metal detectors and their aid in archaeological discovery" (Jul 13 2014) which raises a number of issues worth discussing. 

It's a pretty bog-standard text. It starts off saying that museums have glass and you cannot touch the stuff which automatically means that until they had a tool to help them pilfer collectables, people (Those "challenged by formal education") were "felt frustrated and unsatisfied when learning history", "the history never came alive". I suppose it means history never came alive for them either when visiting historical monuments, walking around historical town centres, looking at ancient earthworks in the landscape, or reading well-written books on the topic, of which Great Britain has a vast number more than almost any other country in the world. Nope, that's not enough you've "got" to fondle artefact (say the metal detector dealers)s, preferably those you've ripped out of the archaeological context yerself, so "history comes alive".
The only ones who could make physical contact with the past were people like archaeologists and museum staff. However, all that began to change with the birth of metal detecting as a hobby, in the mid-20th century, and it soon became clear how greatly metal detecting enriches our knowledge of the past. 
Ah, the 'elitist controller frustrated' argument. So it's like the advent of high-powered rifles making wildlife in Africa more accessible to the people Mr Oliver? So people don't have to look at them through the glass of a museum case, but they can have their own stuffed rhino head in the dining rtoom and touch their own elephant foot umbrella stand in the hall, eh? Or butterfly nets so nature lovers can catch flying insects and stick them in a glass cabinet stuck through with pins? Wonderful, democratisation of ecology, a direct contact with wildlife, with just a light squeeze on the trigger, or pop it in the poison jar. With metal detectors it was not so easy, there were awkward beginnings, according to Mr Crawford: 
Archaeologists strongly distrusted hobbyists, suspecting them of removing valuable artefacts for personal gain, thus destroying the sites and the context of the artefacts. The hobbyists resented archaeologists for excluding them from their sites. 
Its the same with those nasty conservationists of wildlife, trying to prevent people with guns and a lot of spare time and a desire to get close up to nature from blasting everything that moved in the forest, thus destroying the ecosystems by picking off the animals that made "nice trophies" or had saleable bits. The gun-wranglers who are after the saleable bits (rhino horn and ivory today) certainly resent those ecologists and nasty controlling market regulators.... Butterfly poisoners too. Hmmm. I think there is something missing from this picture.

But, a bright dawn was on the horizon. Archaeologists, forgetting their chief duty, became mesmerised by all the 'luvvery stuff, the glittry Treasures' that could be found with a metal detector. But, oh dear, the poor limp souls found they could not cope: "archaeologists have realized that they often lack expertise in the correct use of metal detectors". It is this alleged inability to operate the knobs and dials on the black box by dunderhead fumble-finger archaeologists (far inferior in intellect and manual skills to the average metal detectorist we are led to believe by this text) which "has brought a realization that cooperation could lead to far more fruitful results" (in digging up decontextualised 'luvverly stuff and glitring Tresures' which as evrybody no is wot archaeology really is all about, innit?). As for the question of the "correct use" of metal detectors in archaeological survey, I rather think that depends on their application according to the methodology of archaeology. Anything else is not archaeology, and doing not-archaeology is not what archaeologists do. Mr Crawford has confused himself, the mere search for 'luvvery stuff, the glittry Treasures' is not what archaeology is all about. That is why archaeologists do not spend hours training to twiddle the knobs and decipher the tweets and bleeps, they instead train other things.

The article goes on to explain how (allegedly) "detectorists discover important sites, and hand them over to archaeologists to excavate". rather idiotically, therefore the first example offered is the documented (!) site of the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, and then the search for the Battle of Teutoburg Forest at Karlkreise (but this too was not a metal detector find), and the third example is "in the USA, organizations like the NPS SEAC (South-east Archaeological Centre) have been cooperating with metal detector hobbyists to conduct surveys of further historic battles on American soil" (so on the whole sites known from other sources). Pretty incredibly, Crawford's metal detectors trying to present the alleged good side of artefact hoiking and collecting concentrate on three examples of battlefield archaeology, two from the US, one from the Continent, and totally omit any mention of  the UK's Portable Antiquities Scheme. Why? Bonkers.

And then we come back to the fumble-fingers tone deafness of archaeologists, unable to work out how to use a metal detector. This is a job for "real men":
One reason why the services of hobbyists are so important for investigating the past is that the equipment used for this purpose is particularly powerful, and needs a lot of skill to operate. It is important to be able to detect material of different types and at different depths and if possible to indicate how deep the object actually is, as this has implications for dating.
This is rather an odd statement if we are talking here (we are, aren't we?) about the use of metal detectors as a survey tool in archaeological fieldwork. There the aim is not at all to discriminate out anything, that's what collectors do. Archaeologists are looking at all of the evidence together, and the date of archaeological evidence is determined by analysis of a whole lot of other things than "how deep down" it is. 

Also, let us put this in context. The skill "of hobbyists in using this state-of-the-art equipment" and ability "to discriminate among types of metallic targets" comes not from occasional participation in an archaeological project. It comes from many hours discriminating and hoiking collectables out of an assemblage of more varied composition, which trashes a site just as much as shooting all the wildebeast and elephants and leaving the rats disrupts an ecosystem, or killing all the butterflies to collect rows and rows of them in a case ("studying the variation, look that one's got browner spots"). The advocates of detectorists taking part in archaeological projects do not admit that these skills are picked up at the expense of trashing huge areas of the finite and fragile archaeological resource, for personal entertainment (collection) or profit (eBay). Ignoring all that, Mr Crawford blunders on:
This symbiotic relationship provides hope for the future, as vast amounts of ancient treasures remain beyond the reach even of today’s advanced technology.
And there are still a lot of big game out there not found by the men with guns, and a lot of pretty butterflies still frittering around in the fields, unseen by anyone. The idea of conservation however is not for the men with guns/men, jerks with nets and poison jars and "outdoor adventurers" with metal detectors to finish off what is left, but for there to be some form of sustainable management of the vanishing resource to leave something for everyone, and future generations. Sadly, as Mr Oliver perhaps knows we are losing the battle of the elephants and rhinos and within a few decades they will only be accessible in zoos and museums. The fact that there are butterflies at all in the heavily polluted and altered British countryside is largely due to the fact that there are not now tens of thousands of people out there each summer killing huge numbers of them for collection. Pity about the bluebells though. And how long will it be before all the collectable artefacts will be stripped out of the accessible parts of the archaeological record in England, leaving its countryside an archaeological desert riddled by millions of carefully-backfilled little holes where our history was?  What kind of "symbiotic relationship" will that be seen as by future generations?

Let us put this attempted justification in context. Can we do "archaeological discovery" without metal detectorists? Yes. In Poland for example. Can we do archaeology without metal detectorists? Yes. Can archaeologists use metal detectors properly? Yes, I know quite a few here in Poland who can. When is hobby artefact collecting justifiable, and when is it less so? Well, let's see some detailed discussion on that.


Anonymous said...

"Can archaeologists use metal detectors properly?"

If by "properly" you mean "non-selectively" which is the proper archaeological approach, the answer is yes. As could chimps.

Thank you for so comprehensively demolishing the false claim that detectorists have a special skill that is relevant to archaeological investigations. Their sole skill is in ignoring certain beeps, something no archaeologist will require them to do.

Paul Barford said...

I see on the blog of one of the more vacant of the metal detecting fraternity this comment is dismissed only by : "this is how we are viewed in the archaeological blogosphere [...]
And so it goes in the arrogant and holier than thou world of archaeology ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ"

I somehow think we are not going to get from this lot any kind of rebuttal of the point you made: "the false claim that detectorists have a special skill that is relevant to archaeological investigations".

I suppose actually examining and then discussing the facts is a little beyond them. Quite possibly he has not the foggiest actually what the skills relevant to archaeological investigations actually are... too busy playing to the gallery to engage in any real discussion with anyone.

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