Sunday 21 June 2015

PAS Meltdown (2): The Background - what the PAS is For

"The Portable Antiquities Scheme evolved as
a voluntary scheme for recording finds that are
not covered by the provisions of the Treasure Act 1996
Portable Antiquities Scheme Wales | National Museum Wales 
 A long time ago Britain was preparing to ratify the 'European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage (Revised)' [Valetta, 16.I.1992] which it did on 19th September 2000. This was important because it was a revision of the document under the same title created in London in 1969.  Article two proved a problem for the UK, it stipulates that states should implement "mandatory reporting to the competent authorities" for a finder of a "chance discovery of elements of the archaeological heritage". In most countries covered by the Convention, artefact hunting is illegal and can end in jail. Britain however not only affords archaeological sites no such protection, leaving them at the mercy of a plundering free-for-all, but artefact hunting with metal detectors by the 1980s and 1990s and therefore private artefact collecting was a very popular hobby.

The stipulation of mandatory reporting made sense when artefacts are found accidentally in the course of dog-walking, fruit-tree planting, hedge-grubbing etc. It means the accidental finder, instead of shrugging their shoulders is coerced into making the effort of letting archaeologists know about it, so more information enters the public record. It is more of a problem though when artefacts are found (as they were/are in the UK) by people actively going out and searching for them in order to keep the artefacts and most of the time the information about them, to themselves.

Another problem was article 3 of the Convention which made any intervention in an archaeological site subject to the issuing of a permit - which could of course be refused (I will skip over for now the issues relating to article 3). 

The mandatory reporting issue was a huge sticking point, not for archaeologists, but artefact hunters (you know, those guys who now bend over backwards pretending they have a "responsible" attitude to what they do and are only interested in it to "save history" and share that information). They did not want compulsory reporting (note the Convention says nothing about surrender of finds), but wanted the freedom to hoik and take elements of the archaeological heritage for themselves without the need to tell anyone about what they are doing to the sites they strip of diagnostic finds.

After a huge amount of friction (from the detectorists' side) over this, UK archaeologists decided to engage on a compromise with them - following on from the pioneering work by Tony Gregory, Sue Margeson, Dave Gurney and other archaeologists in the Norfolk/Fenlands area (and the publication of Denison and Dobinson and Denison's seminal 1995 report commissioned by the CBA). It should be said that the documentation indicates that to a large extent this was a one-sided compromise, many metal self-centred detectorists rejected collaboration with archaeologists to enhance collective knowledge of the past (as some still do).

The creation of the PAS pilot schemes in 1996 was a huge leap of faith (let it be on record that Roger Bland was one of the people very active in the discussions of the regulation of reporting of finds and later in setting up the Scheme). Some metal detectorists, for various reasons began playing along. The early publications of the PAS therefore concentrated on the degree of success the PAS were having in getting collaboration ("wotta lotta stuff we got") - this was to become the leitmotif of future public representations of the Scheme which was to become so annoyingly superficial. It was born of the long process of overcoming resistance in the early years. In the first years the aim was to show that co-operation was possible, and the size of the task ahead was admitted by using Dobinson and Denison's estimate of the number of finds found by metal detectorists that were not being reported (400 000 annually - which was I think a vast overestimate based on faulty information about the number of active detectorists). Three years into the Scheme and this figure was quietly dropped and for nigh-on fifteen years after that, the PAS made absolutely no reference to the notion that there may be large numbers of finds hoiked from the archaeological record which they were not seeing (an explicit admission of this only came last year). The spin was always on what had been 'achieved', not how significant that success was seen in the context of the entire scope of the activity it was intended to mitigate the effects of.

The original Scheme was cast as a means by which "finders" would be encouraged to report finds. This means not only metal detectorists, but members of the public digging in their gardens. The original material relating to those early years has now been 'disappeared' from the Internet, but it is clear from this (a speech by Baroness Blackstone for example) that the Scheme was set up to instil "best practice" among "finders". The interpretation of this is ambiguous, it was later taken to mean that finders of elements of the archaeological heritage would report what they found. Another interpretation of this notion saw it in the context of the preceding public discussion outlining why archaeologists wanted artefact hunters to 'STOP Taking Our Past'. This saw the "deal" as 'OK, carry on taking artefacts for collecting but do so in a way which does not damage knowledge' - which involves issues like keeping off stratified sites, not targeting known sites etc. Those that saw the task of the PAS as to generate that kind of discussion of "best practice" were to be disappointed, in eighteen years it noticeably kept well out of such discussions with its 'partners' (archaeological and artefact hunting).

The PAS therefore was set up to replace the notion of  mandatory reporting of finds made on the basis of a formal search permit. It allowed the UK to ratify the Valletta Convention (a beneficial document and one which the UK had helped to draft) without making artefact hunting subject to a permit system with mandatory reporting. It was a cop-out. Britain could pretend to be "protecting the Archaeological Heritage" while actually doing nothing about the selective pilfering of hundreds of thousands of artefacts by artefact hunters. The argument was that this damage was being mitigated, because although the objects were disappearing, "much of the information" was being recorded and entering the public record. That was the all-too-comfortable argument; that the truth of the matter was always something different concerned very few. it saved further confrontation with the metal detectorist nasties and their pathological hatred of archaeologists and heritage do-gooders.

The Treasure Act came in (1996) and required mandatory reporting of certain categories of artefact finds (Treasure), while the Portable Antiquities Scheme was set up (1996) to lead to the voluntary reporting of as many non-Treasure finds as possible, in order together to produce the same effect as Article 2 of the Valetta Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage. In the first years that was its only aim, further accretions only came later.

The big problem is that when it was instituted as several (eventually six) pilot schemes, it was mostly 'to see what will happen', as I said it was a great leap of faith. This meant not enough thought was given to its situation within the formal structure (I use the term loosely) of heritage management in the UK. In any case, it only applied to England and Wales (Scotland and Northern Ireland went different ways). The PAS was mentioned in no legislation, did not have a statute, was a very ad hoc arrangement with no real set aims, scope or remit, which gave it the ability to shape-shift throughout its eighteen year history (Sept 1997 to 1st May 2015).  These two factors were to lead to its downfall.

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