Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Pocklington and the logic of Metal Detecting

Stig the metal detectorist
The Pocklington site was discovered, not by metal detecting, but by builders. It looks to be potentially informative, especially on the so-called Arras tradition burials. There have recently been a number of media reports on the site: Guardian, Independent, Yorkshire Post etc. From these it is clear what a variety of information can be obtained by the methodological study of associated objects in specific contexts. A foreign collector on reading this is unmoved by any of this, ignoring the rest he's entranced by a single object from the site, a particular brooch which he reckons is a new type. His metal detectorist pals in England have found three more. He is sure that the way to "study" these is "through a properly done art-historical analysis to construct an evolutionary model of the object type", he is very dismissive of the notion of paying attention to findspot and context:
metal detector finds from agricultural land can be alongside objects from various periods brought up and scattered by by the plough. Only if there are enough MD finds and nearby objects are shared among these by only a single period is identification certain as these are not archaeological sites per se as no stratification exists. A Celtic object, on its own might have been in the vicinity since it was lost; brought there in a load of top-soil or fertilizer from elsewhere; or dropped by someone who found or bought it elsewhere in any time in the last two millennia. Any claim to its origin would be nothing more than wild speculation, and worse still, could lead to false datasets for types. [...] Dean Crawford described the actions of most detectorists as being like "seagulls at the tip". Looking for archaeological context in a ploughed field would be about the same as looking for it at your local city dump.
Yet it is precisely paying attention to findspot and context which is central to the PAS recording. If it is the load of rubbish which the antiquarian fellow claims, that's millions of quid thrown on the dump. Yet many surface archaeological surface surveys take a wholly different attitude to the multivariate spatial relationships of artefacts within the landscape, Of course such pattermns are not visible to those hoiking out random 'best bits' to pocket - thus destroying that pattern of which they form a part.

Archaeology is not primarily about typology, the latter, like pollen analysis or 14C dating are just tools which are incorporated into wider analyses in the interpretation of the archaeological record. I would ask the antiquarian fellows, so what that there is a "new type" of brooch, how does that "advance knowledge" on a scale that is any way comparable to what the analysis of the material from the excavation at Pocklington will tell us? I really do not see that a different shape of a clothes fastener is exactly an earth-shattering discovery. Certainly not one that justifies Mr Hooker's friend friend trashing an archaeological assemblage so he can add it to a personal collection. A search of the PAS database for Tisbury reveals that they are aware that one or more sites here have been stripped of at least 373 artefacts by someone, but this brooch does not appear to be among the ones reported.

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