Saturday 16 August 2014

Where I think one million artefacts....

A metal detectorist is miffed that I did not answer his leading question. See  PACHI Friday, 15 August 2014: '"Outsmarted" by a Tekkie' ("The question that a conservationist cannot answer" Friday, 15 August 2014). The question was as follows:
Where do you think the 1 million objects would be better placed? In the ground still or in a storage container? In a museum back office filling cabinet? I look forward to your honest answer 
(adding an insulting "honest answer please and no skipping around the question"). The question is imprecise. At the risk of being accused of 'manipulation', let me state what, in the context of the content of the post to which this question was attached as an off-topic comment, I interpret its author to be trying to ask: "Where do you think the 1 million [PAS recorded] objects would be better placed [than scattered in ephemeral personal collections of artefact hunters]?"

 The first thing I think is that the place they should not be is in a skip along with the millions of artefacts hoiked and not recognised as archaeologically significant by their finders. Tom Brindle (2014, 122-4) wrote about this, artefact collections created by metal detectorists from Roman sites in England tend to have an over-abundance of just two categories of finds, coins and non-ferrous dress accessories, compared with excavated examples.* The rest of the artefacts are obviously being discarded, not collected - this is just one difference between archaeology and collection-driven exploitation.

The metal detectorist's question therefore is incomplete, even if we keep it object-centric, it surely is not "where" but "what"? If artefact hunters takes it upon themselves to trash an archaeological assemblages in a way which makes information contained in it irretrievable by anyone else, then it follows that the only (truly) responsible thing to do is minimise that information loss. That much should be obvious. The problem is that the PAS message of 'best practice' has not yet matured enough (beyond  "show us your goodies") to allow the searcher and finder to know how to do that. Just what is it that they should be noting, recording, collecting in order to produce archaeologically useful results? Brindle came up agaist this problem big-time. For all his goodwill towards the tekkies and his former employer the PAS, he struggles through the volume, spinning and making compromises, but concludes narrowly escaping having to admit that he'd shown that the archaeological uses of the PAS database produced by all these efforts are pretty limited (more on that elsewhere). Katherine Robbins' study leads to the same conclusions (ditto).

So, what I'd "prefer" is for arteftact hunting, collection-driven exploitation of the record to be done in a way which is much less destructive of the evidence than it clearly is now, with much better collection and documentation of the evidence by informed  artefact hunters themselves. That's what I'd prefer to what's going on now. Fat chance of that at the moment though, most of them cant even follow a simple argument or connect facts about conservation, so what chance is there that they'd be able to cope with anything even a little more complex than "rhinos"? 

An example of the problems concerned is revealed by the attempt here to discuss the recording of surface evidence in artefact hunting. You can explain this until you are blue in the face but some artefact hunters and collectors are stubbornly resistant to comprehension of the issues.

So then, what about that CDE itself? What I'd prefer is for the people doing it to get their kicks through other things than mindlessly trashing random 'productive' sites and mindlessly collecting dozens of artefacts in scattered and ephemeral (and often poorly-documented) personal collections. I don't really think I am alone in this. You can have contact with history (and artefacts) equally well by doing real amateur archaeology, not hoiking collectables, but gathering and analysing evidence. Sadly, somehow the PAS has managed to allow these people all (and a goodly part of the general public) to think that artefact hunters are doing some form of 'citizen archaeology' merely by emptying artefacts from a site into their pockets and showing the PAS some of what they've taken. This failure to address the issue of knowledge-theft for 17 years of PAS 'activity' (I use the term loosely) is reprehensible negligence on their part.

So yes, instead of being mindlessly hoiked and shoved into personal ice-cream tubs or glass display cabinets on the stairs, I'd prefer the archaeological evidence these people are randomly siphoning off to be preserved in the original site while not under immediate (and documentable) threat and recovered by better methods than a tekkie's beep-box. I would have thought that was obvious to even the most unobservant reader from the first few posts of this blog onwards.

The metal detectorist asks if I'd "prefer" collectable artefacts to be "in a storage container". I am not at all sure what this is supposed to mean. I think wherever they are, they need to be curated properly, many artefact hunters currently display their findings loose, with no individual label attached, making it impossible to link them easily with any paper record (the paper records necessary to afford a claim that they are doing the job of 'caring for' these artefacts properly). I think, therefore, that recovered artefacts need to be in some kind of container with double labelling, even if that is just a snap-grip polybag with an archival plastic label inside. But a museum-quality storage container for each would allow them to be retrieved more easily and prevents damage.

The metal detectorist asks if I'd "prefer" collectable artefacts to be kept "in a museum back office filling cabinet". Again this is rather an unclear question. As the name implies, a filing cabinet is for files, documents. So yes, I'd prefer any artefact collection (each and every find in an artefact collection) to be properly documented. That goes without saying. If the collector is taking on the task of privately curating objects in lieu of them going to a public collection, or specialist institution, then this needs to be done to the same standards as we expect from those institutions (I'd prefer the 'labour of love' of course to exceed the latter). I certainly however do not think the finds should be stored crammed in among the documentation in a 'filing cabinet'. Perhaps the writer has in mind an archival steel cabinet as is used in some museums for small and fragile finds, coins in envelopes, small specimens such as snail shells, slides with pollen samples etc.

I rather suspect though that the phrase "in a museum back office filling cabinet" really is a sloppy way of saying in the reserve collection of a public institution rather than on display. Certainly I would prefer a museum to have a lot more in it in the way of reserve collections, literature, equipment and personnel than is visible in the exhibition galleries. Collectors in general see museums as a bigger equivalent of their own 'show and tell' mentalities, if its not in a showcase, I get the impression from what they write that they think it should not be in a museum. Not for the last time have we heard collectors suggesting that what they consider 'duplicate' pieces (like the Kensington Natural History Museum's extensive research collection of bird skins and bird eggs, or butterflies no doubt) should be sold off to and scattered among collectors. Basically, I am totally against such an approach to the reserve collections of any public institutiuon - as, fortunately, is the Museums Association.  I suggest the metal detectorists take it up with them.

Ref:  Brindle, T (2014) The Portable Antiquities Scheme and Roman Britain, British Museum Research Publication No. 195, British Museum Press.

* It's not quite that simple, Brindle's own arguments favour the metal detectorist and in my opinion (more elsewhere) are loaded.

Vignette: What actually IS at the bottom of those "scrap buckets" of artefact hunting collectors? 

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