Wednesday, 20 June 2018

The N-word: British Archaeology's Sheep Chorus

"metal detectorists good, nighthawks bad"
I think British archaeology has rather serious terminological difficulties when discussing artefact hunting and collecting. For example, RESCUE is, I think, in general opposed to at least some aspects of the commerce in archaeological objects and the looting of sites as a source of collectables. Yet even they when tweeting about a news item of damage done to a scheduled site by Collection-Driven exploitation of the archaeological record use the N-word:
'Nighthawk' metal detectorists damage Hadrian's Wall - BBC News
To be fair, they are (I assume) unthinkingly parroting the BBC headline to which they link, but it should be archaeologists informing the media about how to talk about archaeological matters, not taking the line from uninformed journalism. So for both RESCUE and the BBC, it is not some people who use metal detectors to exploit the archaeological record merely as a source of collectables doing something wrong and illegal, but a specific group of people who use metal detectors to exploit the archaeological record merely as a source of collectables. I do not follow the logic of this form of labelling for two reasons.

The first is that if an archaeologist was convicted, for example, of sexual abuse of an employee on an excavation, would it be reported only after adding an adjective ('law breaking archaeologist') to stress that not all archaeologists are sexual predators? Because this is what is happening here.

Secondly, the assumption behind such people-labelling is that 'metal detectorists' never 'nighthawk' and all 'nighthawks' only 'nighthawk' and never 'metal detect'. But a 'nighthawk' could equally well have 'permissions' for several productive sites. Not only does this give them more opportunity to actually practice their hobby of 'metal detecting', but also to find collectable (or saleable) stuff. It also acts as a 'cover'. He can produce papers to show that he has permission to be on several sites, any one of which he could claim is the 'source' of an item the ownership of which has been challenged. Until nobody asks to see a finds release protocol from that specific landowner for that specific item, nobody would be any the wiser. Surely, is that not in fact the safest way to get away with nighthawking? In reality, the guys who dug holes in Hadrian's Wall, may well have also reported items to the PAS in several counties, they may have taken part in legal rallies and queued up at the PAS finds desk, or gone to one of the dealers' tables while there.

The term, used as a differentiator (ie as used by Rescue News) is meaningless as a category, but its function is clear, to separate the 'bad guys' from the mass of 'metal detectorists'. But as I have pointed out, such an attempt may be producing a false and over-simplified picture from a much more nuanced reality. Can RESCUE contemplate that and changing the way they talk about collection-driven artefact hunting which erode the evidential value of archaeological sites and assemblages whether it is done legally or not?

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