Monday 12 January 2015

Focus on UK Metal detecting: What is "Responsibility" in Artefact Hunting?

To the delight of all his fellows who formerly gave him a hard time for it, a metal detectorist succumbs to the peer pressure and apologises on his blog to his fellows that he diverged from the path of declarative responsibility and listened to some broader definitions of the concept than their usual one. He asks "what is responsible Detecting" but concludes that it is nothing more that just paying lip service to a few general concepts: 
I think as long as you abide to the code of conduct and report all of your appropriate finds to the voluntary system we all know as PAS then you are on the right track. Sod all the rest of the nonsense the the anti-detecting lot try to force feed you, its bullshit.
First of all, the so-called "anti-detecting lot" are concerned about the leeway for bad practice in the way artefact hunting goes on today in England and Wales. That can only be perceived as "anti-detecting" if you think such practices are universal and totally acceptable. Nobody is trying to "force feed" anyone, detectorists are not sheep and have free will, how they internalise what others say about best practice is up to them.

I would say we should all accept that responsible detecting, as with anything, is above all a form which does no harm (Primum non nocere) and even brings some benefit at the expense of the erosion it causes. This is the justification for supporting the PAS in the first place, it was supposed to be doing what was euphemistically called "outreach" to induce what was labelled "best practice" among all finders. Seventeen million pounds have gone to that aim, and what are the tangible effects? The Lenborough and Holt Hoard Hoiks and the attitude that if you report what you think is "appropriate" you're on the right track seem to sum it up.

If a detectorist uses archaeological publications or databases like ARCHI to target known sites, when and how is that "responsible detecting"? What about if he targets sites with preserved earthworks and cropmarks seen on Google Earth? When is that responsible detecting and when not? How about a detectorist whose collection and documentation of material is to the same standards and criteria as would be applied to investigate and document that site by a team of archaeologists? Is that responsible detecting? I'd say it was. I would say that there is a vast difference between that and the detectorist who goes to that site and pulls out all the brooches and coins with six or even eight-figure NGR plotting and leaves the rest - whether or not the brooches and coins are reported. There is the whole issue of depleting the surface record, affecting any future surface surveys and evaluations of a site to be considered. That is not "bullshit", it is a real consideration.

At what stage should a responsible collector stop taking things from a 'productive site'? When it starts producing information which only marginally fails to duplicate what is already known? or when they have emptied it of collectable diagnostic artefacts entirely?  What should happen to artefacts that are not wanted for a private collection? Nails, pin shank fragments, the odd struck flake or tile fragment, greyware bodysherds? Iron objects, lead driblets, slag?

What about detectorists who hoik out collectables from sites unthreatened, and unaffected by the damaging effects of ploughing - such as those which are not being deep ploughed because they are currently under grass? Many sites in lowland Britain are damaged by ploughing, the increasingly uncommon sites which have better evidence preservation because not affected by these processes should self-evidently be treated with appropriate care, respect and understanding. If such pasture is "steeped in history", what forms of collecting, and documentation (and curation of the records) count as "responsible detecting" and which not? The Code of Practice says to resist the temptation to use such places as artefact mines for collectables for private entertainment and profit. Not all detectorists have that will-power - nor the conscience to attempt to reach higher standards when exploiting such sites.

"Responsibility" is not just an empty word, it means taking responsibility for the consequences of one's actions. Thus if a metal detectorist in the course of artefact hunting creates a crisis situation (such as discovering a hoard or human remains), how can failing to take full responsibility for the consequences of that (for example the need to secure the site and making arrangements so it can be properly dealt with) be in any way "responsible" behaviour?  So if a site requires securing overnight to prevent damage, how can it be responsible to do the damage yourself, to 'get the stuff out' so you can walk away and leave the gutted site behind?  That is not taking responsibility, it is deliberately avoiding them.

Another area of responsibility is not taking on tasks you are not equipped to execute to an acceptable standard (and the responsibility to learn what that standard is). The Lenborough hoard is a case in point. At some stage it became clear to those digging it that they'd bitten off more than they could chew. At the beginning they thought it could be a handful of coins, when it became clear it was not, and they did not have the means to deal with it properly, they should have stopped and secured the site to allow somebody better equipped to deal with it. It was the height of irresponsibility to carry on digging blindly, destroying contextual and other evidence with each handful of loose artefacts scooped out of a deep and narrow hole. 

An artefact collector takes on the responsibility for the curation of the historical material they accumulate. That refers not only to its future state of preservation ('familiarising yourself with and following current conservation advice on the handling, care and storage of archaeological objects'), but also its proper documentation. If people are taking on the responsibility of using their living rooms or dens as ersatz museum stores, then documentation of the public's heritage stored there needs to be to the same standards, not worse than if they were being curated in a public institution. Anything less is greedy and irresponsible deprivation of the rest of us. This takes time, effort and space, but anyone taking on the task of being a 'citizen curator' needs to take on the full range of responsibilities that entails.

There is a whole area of responsibility connected with the establishment of title to artefacts under the current legal situation in the UK and responsibilities not only to landowners, but also future owners of the i=tems currently entering private collections. The collecting of freshly dugup material is not illegal as long as (a) it comes from a site which is not protected by law at the time of its obtaining and (b) the permission of the landowner to keep it has been obtained. Loose archaeological artefacts are anonymous, the trade in illegally obtained and illicit artefacts relies on that. So fighting the plague of the market in illicit antiquities means the establishment of norms for the responsible collecting and trade in artefacts. The 2009  nighthawking report recommended introducing changes into the way the UK market functions to increase the obligation on sellers of antiquities to provide provenances and establish legal title and to urge dealers and internet auction sites to introduce more stringent monitoring of antiquities with a UK origin offered for sale. In order to document legality, a responsible collector should have documentation for each artefact (whether or not it is destined for immediate sale) that they were acquired in accordance with the principles of legality and best practice, and this documentation should pass to future owners along with the object. With the increase in numbers of artefact collectors which current British policies are generating, and the vast numbers of freshly dugup artefacts that are entering their scattered ephemeral collections (see here too), the more need there is to establish and monitor the licit origins of items surfacing on the market.

Finally, there is the responsibility to think about what you are doing, and consider it in the broadest context as possible. There are many ways of engaging with the past which cause no little or attrition to the historical record. Artefact hunting (metal detecting) is not one of them. Anyone taking it up has the responsibility to make sure they understand not only the laws, but also the effects of what they do are having on the archaeological record and why that is of concern. They should be ready to discuss them openly and in a responsible, reflexive manner not only with other artefact hunters and the PAS but also with others outside the hobby. This is the way to take responsible actions to reduce their personal and collective 'footprint' on the archaeological record. 

Now think for yourself, who would be getting "death threats" for espousing such ideas and from whom?

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