Wednesday 28 January 2015

Yes Minister, You Were Set up

The minister metal detecting
MP Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham, Conservative) generally is remarkably supportive of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. the background to that is that on the metal detecting forums we hear of metal detectorists actually approaching this or that MP to get them to enquire after PAS funding or whatever. Mr Loughton presumably has metal detectorists in his constituency and presumably seeks their approval. So it's a bit odd in that context that he came out with a rather unusual question, unusual in the context of his earlier ones. He was induced to ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Hansard source (Citation: HC Deb, 20 January 2015, cW). If we assume that he's not asking this because he is interested in curtailing the Scheme's funding, we might consider why he asked it in the first place.

Is it taking things too far to suspect that he was again put up to this by metal detectorists? What answer did they expect to get? Given the increased angst that metal detectorists have been feeling over the past few years that their critics have been pointing out that voluntary recording is not getting more than a fraction of the objects dug up and into artefact collectors' pockets recorded by the Portable Antiquities scheme (among them the Heritage Action Artefact Erosion Counter), were the initiators of this question not eager to have an official statement that these criticisms are invalid? How, after all, could a government minister responsible for it answer otherwise?

Mr Vaizey was probably not very happy to be placed with his back against the wall like that. How to answer? He was probably aware that, as I pointed out:
The PAS's own figures published on p. 14 of the 'Guide for Researchers', produced as part of the Leverhulme Trust funded project 'The Portable Antiquities Scheme as a tool for archaeological research', indicate that metal detectorists alone are removing something like 260,000 objects from the archaeological record a year. Given that the PAS has for some time been capable of recording only around 80,000 finds per year from all finders (Ibid.), it is difficult to consider this as in any way an "outstanding" result. The annual 180 000 artefact shortfall indicated by the PAS's own figures means that every six years another million archaeological artefacts dug up by artefact hunters are simply disappearing into private collections or onto the antiquities market without adequate record under current 'heritage' policies. In England and Wales, the government is significantly under-resourcing the Scheme to a degree which prevents it making up the difference or even recording all finds reported to it.
 He could hardly say that, could he? So he smiled his charming little-boy smile and acted like he did not understand the question, and dodged the issue:
I have made no formal assessment of the effectiveness of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.
He was after all asked, "what assessment he has made" and therefore was not duty-bound to mention the PAS's own assessment. I think one may well be forgiven for thinking that the bulk of his reply had been drafted by some office girl in the PAS regurgitating web-found bits of text to bulk out the obviously cop-out "answer".

In reply to "Does this answer the above question?" normal people may like to vote "no", he all-too-obviously does not say that the PAS is not effectively mitigating the knowledge losses due to artefact hunting. Metal detectorists will want to vote "no" in disappointment than he did not come straight out and say "The Heritage Action Artefact Erosion Counter is wrong", but deftly avoided the issue. Go on Mr Loughton, try again. Baz and Slasher, Trev and Tony will fank you for it.

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