Sunday 21 June 2015

PAS Meltdown: (4) Two Ways, Two Wrong Turns

The ad hoc solution to the problem of vast amounts of artefacts going into the pockets of artefact hunters was set up as pilot schemes in 1997. As I pointed out in the previous post, to a great degree, what was embarked upon was a social experiment. A Scheme was set up to co-ordinate the nationwide voluntary recording of finds which was to be based in recording centres in museums and other institutions such as HERs. One of the early conceptions was that it was not necessarily to be a permanent scheme in itself, just set the mechanism in progress.

At the centre of the whole idea was education, about why recording is important. This means both the social aspect - sharing the information about the bits of the common heritage which artefacts were helping themselves to and taking away, and also what archaeology does with these data. That was the idea, in the event neither of these aims were pursued by the PAS with any consistency.

Two other things happened. Artefact hunters were told that if the reported their finds (and the reporting was the only criterion) they earned the right to call themselves "responsible metal detectorists". The question of whether artefact hunting and collecting is in itself a  "responsible" way to treat the archaeological heritage was never addressed by the PAS. Still less was it ever in any way the subject of critical reflection by those engaged in the activity who were being termed the "partners' of the Scheme. Artefact hunters considered that the PAS meant that they had been given a green light. The PAS empowered artefact hunters, the call-word was "get off our case" (actually the subject of an address at a PAS national conference). What the increased press attention fostered by the PAS and its failure to spread knowledge of the issues led to was an increase in the number of metal detectorists. While in 2003 my estimate was that there were 10000 active artefact hunters with metal detectorists in the UK, by 2013 there was evidence which I felt meant that estimate should be revised to somewhere around 16000. A 60% increase during the PAS' watch. 

The other thing that was happening was that the whole process of stripping diagnostic and collectable pieces out of archaeological sites was being legitimised. All over the world, heritage professionals are working jolly hard to stop artefact hunting. People have been sent to jail for it. Yet over in Bonkers Britain, Roger Bland and his Merry Men were making it not only legitimate, but fashionable, and - worse - presenting it as a beneficial activity. Of course collectors everywhere, probably on six continents (except Antartica) are full of praise for the "British system', though more often than not an imagination of what this fantasy system consists of. All they care about is that collecting goes on with government sanction. They all want a Treasure Act and PAS in the source countries.

All those collectors are going to be disappointed then that the "British System" is now disintegrating. Their fantasies have been frustrated. Still they can always set one up in the USA to show us all "how it should have been done".

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