Thursday 21 May 2015

A Museum Curator and Some Metal Detectorists

This film would not be possible
without the help of .....
The replies to my query of 25th April about the appearance of three English local authority archaeologists in an anti-legislation campaign video by metal detectorists are coming thick and fast now. Hot on the heels of the response by a professional numismatist and an archaeologist, I now have an answer to my query from Dr Tim Pestell (Senior Curator of Archaeology, Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery). It was a very informative answer and touched on several different topics, but my main concern was to check the veracity of the film's claim that the objects hoiked by unregulated collection-driven exploitation of archaeological sites ends up in Norfolk's museums. The film producers edited what he said (0:55) to produce something like that falling from the curator's lips. In my response to this, I pointed out in reply that whether or not he sees himself as campaigning for anything, it cannot be denied that in the film under discussion, three Norfolk heritage professionals are engaged in a shallow and one-sided presentation of the issues surrounding heritage policy in a manner intended to influence public opinion. I question whether that is appropriate. Also in my reply I remarked:
In the video you say (twice) that "countries that do not record" are missing out on (object centred) information (8:12). What those watching do not learn from you includes the implications of getting that “information” from the random stripping out of diagnostic finds from surface sites by collectors. Those countries that regulate intervention on archaeological sites do so for a reason, and of course do record that which is recovered as a result of searches under a permit, and often the material is deposited in a public collection. That includes Flanders which you mention which has not repealed its 1993 legislation (unless you know otherwise).
It seems to me that Pestell is guilty of propagating myth engendered as part of PAS spin, which takes one aspect of a foreign system for heritage protection in isolation and then criticises the whole - without really understanding it. So for example in my country we have no PAS, metal detecting on archaeological sites without a permit is illegal, but we do have the AZP (which - for the record - I am not saying is without its own problems). How many British archaeologists even know what that is? Yet Poland falls into that category of (allegedly "unenlightened") places that "do not record metal detectorists finds" criticised here alongside Ireland.

Dr Pestell then explains that of the material we saw in the video (allegedly most of which was on its way to a museum where all members of the public can "learn from" it), he estimates the Museum actually only ever receives 0.5% (half a percent) of the 10000 hoiked objects reported annually. A very different picture from that presented by the tendentious propaganda video in which he appears. This is precisely what I suspected was the case. Pestell, like Marsden and Rogerson justifies (feels he has to justify) this:
This depends upon the generosity of landowners and finders and, typically, the financial value of the items found. [...] However, it would also be true to say that the vast majority of material recovered [by metal detctorists] is of limited interest to us even when recordable by the PAS. This is because it either duplicates material we already hold, or because (as with excavation), preservation by record is frequently sufficient for us to understand particular aspects of the archaeology.
I suspect here he is talking about limited use for display rather than research purposes, having two or fourteen items of the same type of brooch is far more useful in studying - for example typological variation - than having "one typical" example. Or a badly-preserved one can have a bit cut off for metallurgical analysis for example. Researchers studying groups of objects have the chance of spotting things earlier examiners missed. Kershaw in her study of Viking ornaments (to which I referred in an earlier post) gives some examples of this and points out that if 'duplicate' objects are not made available for study by being curated, the original records cannot be checked and the object examined from the point of view of aspects not originally considered - that is one of the functions of museums.

 'Preservation by record' is a fine notion only if that record is one which is properly observed and properly detailed. The superficial three-line 'descriptions' of an object passing through a recorder's hands between club meetings with no photos which we saw in some of the NMDC records to which Drs Marsden and Rogerson pointed us yesterday are  not preservation by record. If savings are made on proper storage and archiving, then adequate resources need to be in place to create an acceptable alternative. But as I remarked in response to what Dr Pestell had written:
You do not take the ‘overflowing museum storerooms’ argument to its logical conclusion. It cannot be “responsible detecting” (or anything else) for anyone to continue wanton exploiting sites for collectables in this way and generating loose material if the museums have no room to store more than a small fraction of them (and that is before we even begin to think about the costs of Treasure acquisitions etc.).
The same goes for ability to adequately document material in private temporary curatorship. But this half percent figure is very revealing:
Despite what the film says [...] your estimate indicates that 99.5% of the objects found by these people goes straight into their pockets, and not into public collections. And this is probably what Mr Nolan and his pals want – not really for learning at all, but so they can flog it off. That is the implication of your comment on the relationship between donations and "the financial value of the items found".
Has Mr Nolan ever sold - or attempted to sell - any archaeological artefacts? Maybe Dr Pestell knows the answer to that question.

What can archaeologists, professional archaeologists, do to avoid becoming entangled in the social media manipulations of interest groups such as that represented by Mr Nolan and his 'Green Light to Scrap Heritage Legislation in Ireland' campaign? Is this not covered in the UK by the Museums Association Code of Ethics and those for archaeologists (museum archaeoogists and others)?  

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