Friday, 26 February 2016

"Not Hard to Understand, Really"

A British university archaeologist who supports personal artefact collecting, apparently as a means of getting drool-worthy artefactual goodies plonked on his desk, decides to instruct me on sources of archaeological information. This is the one that earlier accused me of "not making a contribution" to the debate on portable antiquity collecting. The background is that one of the FLOs, gatekeeping, published one of those objectionably glib pieces of dumbdown Finds-Friday show-and-tell fluff:
13 godz.13 godzin temu
I would say "naming the beast" is the last issue we should be discussing in the context of the Collection Driven Exploitation of the archaeological record for personal entertainment and profit. I'd say there are far more urgent issues - in the public interest - that the PAS should be discussing and informing on. If the FLO wishes, we can call it a "jabberwocky" or "wyvern", it makes no difference. I made the point that I think we all should be instead concerned about the scale of the depletion of the archaeological record to private collecting in the UK and its effects on our present and future ability to use that record (a question the PAS has pretty well completely avoided until recently and still tends to dodge when it can):
9 godz.9 godzin temu
I guess we'll never know - yet another piece of Britain's archaeological heritage "Returned to finder"
As far as I can see, the FLO refused to answer (they apparently pretend I am an invisible man). That would require them to function in the public domain more of being a sentient and reflexive observer than servile head-patter, which (from what many of them churn out) it would seem to be what their job description requires. Anyhow the persistent champion of private collectors Hugh Willmott of the University of Sheffield patronisingly decides to instruct me, bless him. For some reason he copied that to the FLO based in my former home town (can I expect further outreach of this ilk from him too?):
To be frank, I do not understand that anyone who teaches at one of Britain's top universities (at least archaeology at Sheffield had that reputation when I worked in England) thinks this 210-word garble is a full record of an object:
Medieval (13th century) mount: The copper alloy mount is square in plan and has a rivet hole in each corner. There are traces of an iron rivet in three rivet holes. There is a fifth, slightly larger circular perforation in the centre of the mount. In the centre there is a motif of a bird-like beast with its head in profile which is similar to a dog/lion with an open mouth. The beast has a long slender neck which is curved and leads to the body of a bird, but the bird has a long tapering tail which curls upwards towards the back of the head. This beast motif is within a circular high-relief border. The low-relief field around the beast. In the low-relief field beyond the circular border there are traces of dark blue enamel. The reverse of the mount is undecorated. The surface of the mount is abraded and has patches of red copper corrosion, traces of a mid green patina.
It is not even in good English, with repetition and incomplete sentences; if it were properly edited, it would be even shorter and skimpier.  This is not even A-level archaeology because A-level students should be able to write proper English even in these dumbdown days in Britain.

In true collector-fashion, most of the account of this item concerns the picture on the object, rather than describing the object as a whole ("mid green patina" is also dealer-talk). The photo is small, muddy, poorly-lit and out of focus. The "central hole" is nowhere properly described, let alone explained (diameter, edges, wear?). This is quite clearly a description of a collectable "art object", rather than an archaeological artefact which would concentrate more on aspects of its manufacture and use, even if context of deposition and discovery are inaccessible to the recorder due to the manner of 'recovery'.

I understand FLOs have to rush through these records, in order to keep the numbers on the database growing, growing. But what kind of  'data' are rushed and incomplete records? This would be OK (perhaps) as a description in an accessions register of a permanent public collection where the object can be pulled out of the reserve store to re-interrogate. But here the object (which was the point I was making) has gone back to the anonymous finder and, indeed, lost to a personal collection and eventually the antiquities market - or a house-clearance skip. I think these are issues we should be discussing not dismissing Mr Willmott.

If Mr Willmott would stop looking at the prettiness of the objects and start looking at what is emerging from two decades of attempts to use information from the selective hoiking and hoarding of archaeological finds by collectors, he would find that others too are commenting on these issues. I recommend he looks at, among other things, Jane Kershaw's work on the Viking brooches found by metal detectorists ['Viking Identities: Scandinavian Jewellery in England', OUP 2013],* where she specifically mentions the problem that PAS (and HER) recorders have frequently not observed, or mis-observed, features on the metalwork which would prove crucial in the interpretation according to her own (later) work on them, but the original descriptions cannot be checked or modified as the objects are now scattered in ephemeral personal collections. Even if we knew where they are now (which we do not as PAS does not trace that) actually accessing a scattered body of finds like that would prove impossible to achieve for most researchers. This is of course the argument for physically gathering archaeological evidence into properly-maintained public archives. Now, I do not see why the Sheffield archaeologist finds that so hard to understand". Maybe he'd like to explain what he means by a "record" and to what extent he considers the PAS database real data.

* The book is in my office at work, I'll fill in the page references later.

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