Sunday 21 June 2015

PAS Meltdown (3): The Prehistory of the PAS

It is worth taking a quick look at the prehistory of the PAS in order to understand what it is/was and what it is/was not. Two documents in particular are significant, and it is good to see that although they were written when archaeological use of the "World Wide Web" was still in its infancy, they are available online.

They are however preceded by one more. The text written by the CBA 'Portable Antiquities: a Statement of Principles' was published in the International Journal of Cultural Property in 1994 (vol 3[1] pp 187 - 189) made a case for bringing portable antiquities within the law in England and Wales. This postulated that finder of archaeological objects (portable antiquities) should be obliged to report any discovery to allow competent recording of information, and important material should be retained in the public domain with appropriate recompense for the finder/landowner, and that the definition of 'material of archaeological interest' should be undertaken by competent authorities.

Two years later this was followed by the publication (Feb 1996) by the 'Department of national Heritage' of the seminal text 'Portable Antiquities: a Discussion Document'. This draws heavily on the results of the study by Dobinson and Denison  which recommends taking a collaborative line with artefact hunting. Here we have in an official document the claim of 400 000 to 1.5 million hoiked objects a year (24 000 from Norfolk alone)  . It goes on to say these finds are associated with much important archaeological information and that the arrangements for their recording were rather ad hoc. although there were areas of Britain where this was much better developed than others. The document seeks views on how to improve the recording of "all archaeological objects, not just those covered by [the Treasure laws]". To deal with this problem, the government proposed a choice of two options:
a) A statutory duty to report all archaeological objects,
b) a 'voluntary code of practice' for the recording of archaeological objects.
The latter was preferred, though only for the reason that it would be quicker to set up (not requiring a change in primary legislation), though it was recognized that a statutory duty would allow better control of the market in illicit artefacts. A voluntary scheme (note that the word 'Scheme' was not used - it was assumed the work would be carried out within local museums to some extent in the course of their normal duties) to deal with finds from artefact hunting would involve 65-70 staff and cost about 700 000 pounds at 1996 values [the PAS had much fewer staff even at its heyday]. 
"Since it accepts that there is a need to take action as a matter of urgency, the Government believes that it would be right at least initially to go for a voluntary system, while recognizing that there may be a need in the long term to move towards a legal requirement if the voluntary system proves to be ineffective".
How "effective" was one-in-five attained in eighteen years of PAS operation? If there was a need to take urgent action twenty years ago, how much more or less urgent is it to take action now to get higher levels of recording from artefact hunters?

 Suzie Thomas has been through all this material, and she will have seen the NCMD response, which I have not. I assume they went straight for the 'voluntary' approach and almost certainly then will have kicked up a fuss about some side issues. What is more easily accessible is the  response (20 June 1996) of the StandingConference on Portable Antiquities.* By this time Dobinson and Denison's  Metal detecting and archaeology in England had been published, urging improved liaison between archaeologists and the metal detecting community and the increase of understanding of archaeology in the latter that this would bring about.  One of the principle points raised about a voluntary scheme was that:
Formal mechanisms will be required for the coordination of reporting, recording, and data transfer, since provision for these activities will often rest with different bodies and straddles existing divisions of responsibility.[...] Provision should exist for national oversight of the scheme, at least in its initial stages, to:
- set minimum standards in recording, to ensure a sufficient degree of inter-county comparability [...]
- monitor effectiveness
- provide a mechanism for the recognition of best practice and its transfer to other areas
- ensure that results of reporting (eg new historical insights) are placed in the public domain
- coordinate funding of the pilot programme

It was suggested that a consortium be set up under the aegis of "an established organisation with a primary concern in one of the fields which reporting/recording straddles, capable of providing administive support for the pilot programme [...] and, if necessary, acting as a funding applicant and recipient on the consortium's behalf".The discussion document goes on:
We recommend a five-year plan, involving:
- establishment of national coordinating structure
- selection of pilot areas
- formulation (in discussion with pilot areas) of
a) funding arrangements and
b) operating criteria for reporting centres and points
c) an educational campaign, and arrangements for feedback to finders, owners, and the public
- trialling in pilot areas
- analysis of experience gained in trials- guidance as to nationwide extension
Following trials, development could continue on an area by area basis, with reporting centres contracting in as and when they felt ready to do so. This might prove more satisfactory than the immediate creation of a comprehensive national scheme. It would also allow for the transfer of best practice from experienced to less experienced areas. Graduated development should, however, be undertaken within a specified period, and leave no doubt of the intention to see a comprehensive national scheme in place at its end. The national consortium might disband at that point.
This was a proposal in fact to set up what eventually became the Portable Antiquities Scheme. In the light of the number of artefact hunters' finds still not being recorded it is interesting to see this empty hope:
A well-designed and well-run and actively promoted voluntary scheme could be effective, since it would rely on positive advocacy rather than compulsion, public interest and goodwill. It could also be argued that resources which might otherwise be needed for the enforcement of a statutory system could be invested instead in education and encouragement. 8.1.26 Success would require:
(a) A campaign of public education, sufficient to bring about a permanent change in public attitudes
(b) Adequate resourcing (see 10)
(c) Good planning and coordination
(d) Goodwill on the part of all interests concerned
That "permanent change in public attitudes" towards artefact hunting and collecting never developed. On the contrary, the PAS not only produced material which encouraged people to take up the hobby, but also did so in a way which legitimised all artefact collecting and empowered artefact collectors. Another interesting suggestion in the response that was never taken up by the PAS is the issue of credibility:
11.1 Sites and Monuments Records are both planning and research tools, and understandably concerned to ensure that the information they contain is accurate. This concern will increase if these databases are given a greater role within the planning system than they occupy now. An important issue to be addressed in national and county coordination, therefore, is how Sites and Monuments Records are to be sure that reported provenances are dependable.

The StandingConference on Portable Antiquities response also covered the government's other proposed option of a statutory duty to report in line with that of most other countries:
While the case for a statutory system appears to us to be strong, we accept that voluntary arrangements could be introduced more rapidly. It is also the case that if a Voluntary Code of Practice were to be successful, the need for legal reform would be correspondingly reduced. If a voluntary scheme is less than satisfactory, the experience gained, its infrastructure and systems, would assist more rapid transition to a statutory arrangement than could be achieved today.[...] On balance, therefore, we support the Government's view `that it would be right at least initially to go for a voluntary system'. We also agree that the case for a legal requirement would increase `if the voluntary system proved to be ineffective'.
 As indeed it now has. 

* The Standing Conference on Portable Antiquities was formed in May 1995 to achieve the widest possible consensus within the United Kingdom's archaeological and museum communities on future policy relating to portable antiquities

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