Thursday 23 October 2014

Now, that's NOT Armchair archaeology, it's Artefact Hunting

"One man has stunned professional archaeologists
by locating a Bronze Age settlement using Google Earth

Keffiyeh-wearing Howard Jones
artefact hunting in comic trousers
Howard Jones from Plimstock is a professional diver, he used to be a marine, and now is a metal detector using artefact hunter. He's in the news for reporting a Bronze Age settlement he's discovered at Spriddlestone in the South Hams, Devon where he "unearthed scraps of metal, pottery shards and flint tools". Reportedly "it is hoped that a series of trench digs, set to take place February next year, will provide further evidence of the prehistoric settlement" and who is funding that, and what is the threat.

The story is recounted by Sarah Griffiths ('Now that's armchair archaeology! Treasure hunter locates Bronze Age settlement using  Google Earth – and digs up 5,000-year-old pottery and flint tools', Daily Mail 22 October 2014). Sadly the headlines show the depth of penetration of seventeen million quid of archaeological outreach done by the Bloomsbury-headed Portable Antiquities Scheme. A not very clued-up journalist goes for the "ordinary bloke confounds the experts trope" as well as calling artefact collecting "archaeology".

The notion of "research" as used by artefact hunters differs from that used by the rest of us. It most often denotes the process of using existing sources (archaeological reports, county histories, gazetteers, old maps, aerial photos etc) to locate a site worth exploiting as a 'productive' source of collectables. Mr Jones used Google Earth to locate a site full of cropmarks (which if they are doing their job properly will already be in the Devon HER):

aerial picture taken in 1989 shows the area in Spriddlestone, South Devon.
But this use of the popular web-based photo resource has allegedly "stunned professional archaeologists" (really?). So how does he say he did he do it? 
He began his search for a settlement by trawling satellite images for the sort of terrain that would have offered food, water and shelter to prehistoric man [and] managed to pinpoint a site in Spriddlestone in the South Hams, Devon. Mr Jones  said: ‘Night after night I looked at Google Earth asking myself the question ‘if I was alive 3,000 years ago where would I live’. ‘I would need food, water, shelter, close to Dartmoor for minerals, close to a river to access the sea and trade routes. ‘After a few weeks I put an “X marks the spot” on the map - that was where I would live.’
Google Earth does not show "food" still less "prehistoric food" and certainly a north-facing slope on the valley side overlooking the saline (?) waters of a deep estuary is not exactly a place most of the rest of us would "pinpoint" as providing "shelter".

There really seem to be serious problems for (real) archaeology if the general public are continuing to be told that hoiking artefacts to put in an ephemeral (and most frequently poorly-documented) personal collection is any kind of archaeology. It is no more archaeology than having a wall full of deer antlers (lopped off dead animals you've shot when they came to the feeding trough you put there) is any form of ecology. Artefact hunting is not archaeology. It exploits the archaeological record, but is not archaeology. Artefact collecting is not archaeology. Dugup coin collecting is not archaeology (or any form of ancient historiography). When are archaeologists going to get that message across with the same persistence as metal detectorists insist on not being called "metal detectors"?

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