Wednesday 31 December 2014

PACHI in 2014

The caption says: "Dr Vincent Drost recording the #pasmillionth object"
on the PAS database" (photo PAS - see here for discussion).

Another year draws to a close and traditionally this is a time for taking stock. I see from the sidebar that this year I wrote just over 1800 posts, which it is quite a challenge to summarise. Some of these were just reporting something going on in the portable antiquities world - summarising a news article of interest with a short comment. Other posts were more substantive and analytical, and took a lot of work to think through, research andpost up. Between these two extremes are texts which fall between the two stools.

The blog in 2014 concentrated on the same issues as in 2013 and preceding years, while new areas of interest/concern also emerged. At the beginning of the year we had the emerging topic of papyrii (Sappho, the mummy-mask dissolvers) and then of course in the middle of the year started to emerge the big story that kept me awake at nights (sometimes literally), the emerging humanitarian and cultural drama in Syria and northern Iraq.

I have continued to challenge the received opinions about collectors and collecting, the ones propagated by the trade and its lobbyists, by apologists for artefact hunting, and more disturbingly - the view of artefact hunting and its effects foisted on the British public by a Scheme they pay for (the PAS).  I show that there is a multiutude of cases - actual people doing actual things and talking about them - which should be prompting us to take a good hard look at the rosy picture everyone wants us to believe.

A few random highlights and lowlights come to mind. In March we were discussing the pre-release material from National Geographic's "Nazi War Diggers" which in the end led to this programme being withdrawn. There was discussion of the excavation at Crosby Garrett where metal detectorists reported they'd found a Roman parade helmet - the hole produced more questions than answers. Both of these issues relate to what is understood as 'best practice' in artefact hunting, a theme which continued to be explored on this blog throughout 2014.

April saw some discussion of the plans of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) to take recording of artefacts found by members of the public out of the hands of professional archaeologists and turn it over to 'trained' members of the public. I called this 'karaoke recording', but details remain vague. The PAS obsession with boosting overall recording statistics is also a theme that recurs later. April was also marked by a number of UNESCO fails, which began a series of comments on this later on in the year. A post on April 1st raised the issue (the so-called 'Lepidop question) of why - if it is so 'good for the heritage' - archaeologists do not go on metal detecting rallies. Like most issues raised on this blog, that never got taken up anywhere.

May was the period when I was discussing the US-Egypt MOU and in particular the reactions of collectors, following sheep-like the urgings of the dealers to oppose measures intended to impose minimal controls to reduce smuggling.  Collectors like to present themselves as homegrown 'avocational scholars', but some of their mental gyrations at the dealers' bidding  (and in particular on the issue of the circulation of ancient coins outside Egypt) really does cast doubt on their ability to think analytically about anything at all.

June and July saw the sale of the Sekhemka statue (and the mysterious fire at Castle Ashby the night before). SLAM and its acquisition of the Ka Nefer Nefer mask was in the news, while over in the US Congressmen Israel and Rangel briefly supported the coineys.  The decision on the so-called Getty Bronze was deferred and we are still waiting...

In August rumblings about the no-questions-asked market led to a group of dealers setting up yet another dealers' association to bolster the facade - the ADCAEA. After a brief flurry of activity and producing a Code of Conduct (and due diligence guidelines a few weeks later), it settled down to doing about as much as all the rest.

September saw the 'Dunelme hoard' hoiked up, a desultory discussion in the metal detecting and archaeological communities followed by the usual silence. The metal detecting month however was dominated by the bru-ha-ha around PAS recording its "millionth find". This was a disaster ("PAS Milliongate"). the millionth fnd was trumpeted by detectorists as a victory of the voluntary recording that they are doing, but the millionth find boosting the database was in fact from a hoard (Seaton Hoard), so a Treasure items the reporting of which is mandatory. Ridiculous sham. In the meanwhile the Heritage Action Artefact Erosion counter quietly ticked off the five millionth object hoiked since the PAS began.

In October Cuno revived his zombie 'universal museum' arguments and the TV comedy series 'detectorists' aroused great excitement (metal detectorists on their forums are still repeating to each other the jokes like children to show their mates they understood them). November was the apogee of posts here on Syria, trying to untangle plausible from implausible, fact, inference from alarmist invention and misrepresentation on the one hand and the glib dismissals of a dismayed antiquities trade on the other.

These topics all continued to be discussed in December, just recently we had the bad practice of the Lenborough hoard and then the Holt hoard recovered by metal detectorists. These no doubt will be returning in the next few weeks.

I was struck by the number of situations where it was pointed out at the end of a post discussing bad practice in artefact hunting in England and Wales that it would be appropriate as part of its outreach that the PAS commented on something that had cropped up and was being discussed for example on metal detecting forums. In the whole of 2014 this happened only once, when one FLO contacted me and explained about the out-of-place artefact that we'd been discussing (a Danubian brooch found on a rally). In every other case, the PAS did not issue any kind of a statement as part of its "outreach". Indeed, this year has seen a record number of FLOs refusing to even acknowledge that they received a request for further information, let alone answering it.  Perhaps they need reminding what the initial "L" stands for in their job title.

Archaeologists in Britain in general also refuse to discuss any of these issues in any detail. This is a malaise which of course is very much to the advantage of artefact hunters who are secure in knowledge that whatever bad practice they exhibit, only a few 'radical archaeo-bloggers' will ever point it out, and that will get ignored by the whole archaeological community.  The rest will sit quiet and not react.

The picture at the head of this post sums up 2014 in artefact hunting in general. Here we have the facade in operation. Its from the Facebook page (the one they remove substantive questions and comments from) of the The Portable Antiquities Scheme from 2nd October 2014. The caption reads "Dr Vincent Drost recording the #pasmillionth object". Readers of this blog will know that when he did, and the record showed up before the PAS were ready for the press-launch fanfare, Dr Vincent Drost and his records disappeared from the database. What I think is syptomatic about this picture is that the declared "millionth object" in the PAS database should not be there (as it is not a voluntarily reported non-Treasure item) is not anyway the millionth record, and in fact in the photo Dr Drost is not holding anything in his hand. The object in the photo is an imaginary one. That symptomises the discussion of portable antiquities collecting in the English-speaking world. Superficial pap is foisted off on the rest of us by all sides, outright lies are presented as fact, discussion of them is discouraged and suppressed and nobody actually gives a tinkers.

Happy New Year.

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