Sunday 8 July 2018

'The Complexities of Metal Detecting Policy and Practice' (1) The Ixelles Three and their Problem

Transnational context - metal
detector uses in Poland
Background I
Back in February 2016Pieterjan Deckers of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Ixelles together with two colleagues, Suzie Thomas of Helsinki University and a British museum worker, Michael Lewis gathered for editing and online publication a series of texts on 'Aspects of Non-Professional Metal Detecting (sic) in Europe' [ANPMDE] (Deckers at al. eds 2016: Open Archaeology 2016, vol 2, Issue 1). The selection and overall content of this collection of texts is for the most part clearly intended to serve as an academic prop for the pro-collecting approach to archaeology so prevalent beyond Europe (in the USA and the UK). And so it is.

I have discussed this collection of texts several times on this blog. I think the presentations of the issues involved in the selection published are very unbalanced, even though the editors claim otherwise, pretending to have taken a 'transnational' point of view - which in fact they have not. While it is true that the authors live in different countries, the concepts and terminology used reflect a particular manner of thinking of archaeology that fails to transgress borders. The 'aspects' chosen and discussed at most length are those that in general support the 'discovery-based' pro-collecting standpoint, and in general ignore the conservation-based position of those that question their position.* Never mind, the dogs bark but the caravan moves on.

Except in this case it did not. The 'Ixelles Three', the editors of ANPMDE (the corresponding editor is Deckers of the Vrije Univeriteit Brussels), were dismayed to find that a bit further along the road, a year after their texts came out appeared a discussion by Sam Hardy ('Quantitative Analysis of Open Source Data on Metal Detecting for Cultural Property', [MDCP] Cogent Social Sciences 3, 2017) which added some more detail and took a transnational comparative approach to the problem on attempting a 'quantitative analysis of the scale and intensity of metal detecting and the quantity of metal-detected cultural goods' (Hardy 2017, p. 1) - remember that (see below).

It looks as if the publication of that text really got the initial three editors worried, because it raised a number of urgent questions about the effects of current policies of 'partnering' artefact hunters as for example seen in England and Wales, and thus undercutting the message of ANPMDE. In what seems to have been a hasty damage control effort, they then roped in two other academics Andreas Dobat (Aarhus University) and Stijn Heeren (Vrije Univeriteit Amsterdam) but also Natasha Ferguson of Scotland's Treasure Trove Unit to write a 'response'. The resultant document has a rather long-winded title (Deckers, PS, Dobat, A, Ferguson, N, Heeren, S, Lewis, M and Thomas, S 2018, 'The Complexities of Metal Detecting Policy and Practice.: A Response to Samuel Hardy, ‘Quantitative Analysis of Open-Source Data on Metal Detecting for Cultural Property’ (Cogent Social Sciences 3, 2017)' Open Archaeology, bind 2018, nr. 4.).

They Ixelles Six attempted to publish this response in Cogent Social Sciences, but were miffed to learn that, for one reason or another, that publication refused to give their polemic page-space (see Deckers et al 2018, 323). The editors of ANPMDE therefore decided belatedly to add it to their Open Archaeology selection of readings.

Background II 'First Britain, then the World'
There are a lot of artefact hunters all over the world that look with jealousy at British 'metal detectorists' who are only, in effect, restricted by the Treasure Act and the law of trespass. They csn without a second thought pocket all sorts of evidence collectables that do not fall foul of either. They can greedily fill their pockets with bits of everyone else's past. And that's what collectors of portable antiquities all around the world would like to do. So they point at the pernicious PAS propaganda of success ('wotta-lot-of-interesting-stuff-we-got-innit-fantastic?') and say
'would it not be fantastic if our country had the English system? We could fill our pockets too. Why have we not got a system like this that works so well elsewhere?
To their shame, in order to boost its own prestige, the PAS has been active in supporting  the pro-collecting lobby in various countries in their attempts to undermine the specific forms of heritage legislation in countries outside the UK: here for example, Mike Lewis to his disgrace tried to block discussion of PAS success in Warsaw (he did not). Here is a bit of a chapter about it in a forthcoming book). I see the book edited by Deckers et al as another attempt to do the same thing, its intent seems (among other things, no doubt) to spread the PAS-message to the Unelightened and Ignorant at the foot of the ivory tower.

That in itself is not a problem if all the facts were being presented and given equal emphasis. The problem is that the PAS 'propaganda of success' is what is stressed. The problems that the PAS itself (intent on persuading lawmakers that they are 'real value-for-money) sweeps under the carpet have  not often surfaced in academic debate.Yet there really is something here that needs proper debate (as Hardy had pointed out).
Maintaining Divisive Positions
It is of course good that we have some kind of academic discussion going on around Hardy's paper. What is not good is the form this is taking. For some reason, academic (I use the term loosely) discussion of Collection-Driven Exploitation of the Archaeological Record goes differently than the discussions of absolute chronology of this or that phenomenon, the place of textile production in Bronze Age Aegean economies or other such stuff. What is the reason for this? To be honest, I really do not know, but we find Deckers, Dobat Ferguson, Heeren, Lewis and Thomas giving their explanation. The six authors all agree that:
'Opinions [on Collection-Driven Exploitation of the Archaeological Record] are often polarised and based on ethical standpoints and even emotive arguments rather than a thorough understanding of the background, practices and impacts of [Collection-Driven Exploitation of the Archaeological Record]"
[NB, to make clear what we are talking about, in both cases here I have substituted a more adequate description for the authors' original vague, waffly-anorakish term 'Non-professional metal detecting'].

I think we could write several pages on this statement and the underlying attitudes it represents. Suffice here to say that:

1) The authors fail to mention that the main reason for the polarisation involves different viewpoints on what archaeology is about. One side of the discussion (the supporters of collectors) seems to see archaeological evidence narrowly from the 'discovery' point of view, that is in one way and no other, while the other side sees it in a broader context as not only concerning creating new information, but also as a conservation issue with wider ramifications.

2) I wonder why the authors imply that a position taken on anything, in archaeology as well as outside it, should *not* be based in an ethical standpoint. I would say that, among heritage professionals as well as academics, it is precisely archaeological ethics that should be providing guidelines for their opinion about anything that affects the archaeological resource, archaeological practice and the behaviour of archaeological professionals. I would like to see Deckers, Dobat Ferguson, Heeren, Lewis and Thomas tell us why this should not be a fundamental tenet underlying the profession and its response to anything, and why, if one is postulating a notion of 'responsible detecting' (sic), that responsibility should not be seen as artefact hunters adopting standards that are in accord with an ethical position on how the archaeological record should be being treated.

3) Deckers, Dobat Ferguson, Heeren, Lewis and Thomas appear to dismiss opinions that differ from their own as merely based on 'emotions' (while I guess they'd probably claim their own is based on cool, objective academic thinking). They do not substantiate their claim, but as we shall see, it seems that the form and content of their text seems to reveal that they themselves have been trapped by their own (group?) emotions - see below.

4) They seem to argue that nobody but Deckers, Dobat Ferguson, Heeren, Lewis and Thomas can have a 'thorough understanding of the background, practices and impacts of' Collection-Driven Exploitation of the Archaeological Record'. That seems a little arrogant in the circumstances (and, in any case, are any of them 'metal detectorists' (sic), in the sense of being collectors of archaeological material taken from archaeological sites?).

5) In attempting a transnational treatment, why do they refer to Collection-Driven Exploitation of the Archaeological Record using the 1970s term 'metal detecting' (invented in anglophone circles to play down the associations aroused by the original term 'Treasure Hunting')? In order to widen their scope, they cite Shott and Pitblado over in the US (advocates for collaboration with artefact collectors), but of course lithic artefacts (what the latter are interested in) are not found with a metal detector. In truth, so-called 'metal detecting' is part of a wider phenomenon and should obviously be discussed within that context, and not as some kind of comfortably separate narrow independent field.

There are three main groups of problems I see with the text that it took as many as six authors to write. The first is the viewpoint from which it is written (see part two of this) and then there is the issue of the relationship of what they say Hardy was writing about with what he actually was writing about - there is a huge gap between the two. Finally the manner in which these six heritage professionals set about responding to (refuting) what Hardy says (part three).

*personal interest statement
1) When the call for papers for the  ANPMDE book edited by the original Ixelles tThree (Deckers, Thomas and Lewis) came out, I wrote on my blog critically of the project, sure that it was going to promote the 'British approach' as the answer to all problems and 'the [not a] way forward', as collectors do. When the book came out, it turns out that I was right. In the meantime one of the editors [Deckers] had kindly invited me to contribute a text myself to the volume, setting out my views. Unfortunately due to other commitments [unlike the six authors I do not currently get paid for my research into and activism about portable antiquities issues], I was unable to meet the deadline set, and I was told that the paper could therefore not be accepted. It was galling therefore  to see two years after that 'firm deadline' passed, texts are still being added to that 'open archaeology' volume when the contents happen to support the editors' own views (as of course they could rightly assume the paper rejected unseen was not likely to do).  
2) Along with two of the Ixelles Six, I commented on a draft of Hardy's paper, and the author followed some of my suggestions. While I do not necessarily agree with it on every point Sam makes, I think it is an extremely important text as I said here  (though it seems my cautious optimism in the cited text about it being a tide turner was a little premature; the Ixelles Six are intent on blocking debate on it a little longer)

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