Sunday 24 August 2014

Focus on UK Metal Detecting: Preserving Surface Evidence "Pointless"?

"Preservation is pointless"
K.P. Volkswagen
Metal detectorists insistent on avoiding any kind of discussion of their hoiking habits and the effects they have on preservation of the archaeological record have a number of pet arguments. In reply to David Knell patiently pointing out what the word "conservation" means to the slow-on-the-uptake, metal detectorist "Mr Volkswagen" trots out the next one:
"Funny when you think the majority of detector finds are made within the plough depth which is disturbed everytime it is ploughed yet on an archaeological dig the topsoil holds no significant interest and is shoved to one side so they can get down to the archaeological layer that interests them.
Hilarious, or at least it might be if that comment had not revealed a fundamental misunderstanding (odd in this case since the comment to which he is responding actually mentions the importance of surface survey). The PAS is really not doing a very good job of educating these people in a way which would make them good "partners" for archaeology. "Mr Volkswagen" obviously sees archaeology only as something that is done with a shovel (and JCB). The only archaeological method he appears to have heard of is digging holes. Of course there are a whole range of techniques and methods used by archaeologists to study and interpret the wide range of material remains of the past. Metal detectorists as a whole seem resistant to learning about any of them which do not appear on the "Time Team" television reality show (which they, poor simple souls, think depicts exactly what all archaeologists do). They don't read books much, it seems.

Archaeological surface survey in progress, not a JCB or shovel in sight
Before a site is selected for excavation in response to a threat, in order to utilise resources properly, we need to know in advance whether its worth it, what is there, what kind of information can it yield. One way this is obtained is through surface survey. Surface survey however needs to have data, if the data have been selectively and randomly hoiked, no amount of fieldwalking can replace the missing information or correct the distortions of the 'surface signature' of the sites caused by persons unknown hoovering out random items that take their fancy. Macro and microregional studies of settlement patterns, site zonation, and character from surface survey will be rendered impossible if the evidence has been randomly distorted by the activities of tens of thousands of people hoiking collectable geegaws - including many diagnostic metalwork types. This is the archaeological record. This is the evidence of past landscape use. This is what needs preserving as a resource. I really do not see why that is in any way difficult to understand, except from a position of ignorance and indifference.

"Mr Volkswagen's"  argument is like saying that there is no point any of us looking after our figures and skin condition, because the moment we need to go to hospital for an operation, the doctors just slice right through it all, leaving a huge unslightly scar. "We might as well not bother looking after our skin". But 'bikini bodies' and surgery, though both concern aspects of the human body, are two different things. 

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