Sunday 8 July 2018

'The Complexities of Metal Detecting Policy and Practice' (4): Summing up the 'Contribution' of the Ixelles Six

The three monkeys well represent the
standpoint of the Gang of Ixelles Six 
It is time to sum up the unfortunate response by six academics to a recent text by Sam Hardy. The Ixelles Six, Deckers, Dobat Ferguson, Heeren, Lewis and Thomas wrote their 'The Complexities of Metal Detecting Policy and Practice' seemingly to trash some of Hardy's arguments and conclusions. Here it is worth reminding that the most important of Hardy's conclusions, in the context of the heritage debate, is that in countries with 'liberal' heritage protection (I use the term loosely) legislation, the approach adopted to 'deal with' the damage done to archaeological sites by recording findspots of loose artefacts is not working. In the case of the situation in England and Wales (as the Gang of Six themselves note, p. 326), the area from which Hardy had best access to data, Sam Hardy has this to say:
in England and Wales, licit detectorists recover perhaps 2,163,189 recordable objects in one year (Table 27), while they report an average of 83,795 objects [...] so perhaps 2,079,394 (96.13% of) recordable objects are not reported; illicit detectorists recover perhaps 310,332 recordable objects (Table 26), none of which is reported accurately, though some of those may be laundered by being reported inaccurately. Hence, within this permissive regulatory environment, it appears that licit detectorists cause far more licit cultural harm than illicit detectorists commit criminal damage. [...]  
The first point to be made is that the six heritage professionals writing a response to the text which comes to that shocking conclusion consistently ignore that fundamental point. Instead they focus on side issues such as how a 'liberal approach' to the damage caused by Collection-Driven Exploitation of the Archaeological Record could be a good (pp 328-330) thing, the length of the 'detecting season' in Canada and Finland (p. 327), and lamenting (p. 326) that Hardy did not discuss Poland or France and insisting that a jolly good idea would be to look at the amount of land available for detecting (sic) in different countries (p. 325). The problem however is right under their noses, and they shut their eyes, ears to it and refuse to speak about this enormous elephant standing right in the middle of the room.

Six academics distracted from what is important (Mark Bryan)
The figures Hardy produces show that the problem is greater than the PAS has estimated (perhaps 63.6% unreported reportable artefacts), and bigger than the Heritage Action Artefact Erosion Counter (over 72.5%). Hardy's realistic and still-unfalsified estimate is that at least 96.13% of artefact-hunted artefacts found with a metal detector (alone) are disappearing into collectors' pockets without any kind of record. Deckers, Dobat Ferguson, Heeren, Lewis and Thomas (p. 324) may claim that this is 'not damage' or 'zero gain', but I think the rest of us can see if journalists would report that 96% of students and staff of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel who went into the local hospital for minor surgery (ingrowing toenails, boob jobs etc) died there, that would not 'zero gain' but a national scandal that needs to be investigated and changes made. So why not here? Why are these academics silent on this? This is knowledge theft on a massive scale, yet the six academics are totally ignoring it, and offset it with some wishy-washy alleged 'benefits' of allowing this to happen (pp 328-330). Why?

 One factor is that Prof. Deckers invited as one of the collaborating authors of this article the Head of the very same Portable Antiquities Scheme that is failing, according to Hardy's figures, to cope with the problem that it was set up to manage. He is the head of an organization charged with telling the British public about precisely these portable antiquities issues, and explaining to them why this knowledge theft is indefensible. Not only does his PAS refuse to do that, as I have shown not once in this blog, it actually give the public and lawmakers the opposite message. Is Mike Lewis in a position to address Hardy's conclusions objectively? Should he have been co-opted to a group of authors who jolly well should be doing precisely that (what do we have academics for anyway)?

In their 'way forward' (pp 330-331) what we do not notice is any suggestion of the Ixelles Six that public opinion needs to be informed of these issues. Yet they, not a minority of metal detector users and coin fondlers (or stubbornly-entrenched academics), are the main stakeholders. The Ixelles Six seem to treat the issues addressed by Hardy as an ivory tower matter, a subject for grant applications so they and their academic mates can collect numbers, do some transnational networking and travelling, and churn out more papers on how 'complex' this whole matter is.

It is not complex. Figures have just been published that suggest that under the noses of PAS and all of us, and especially in England and Wales (let alone Scotland), there is massive undocumented depletion of the archaeological record at the hand of greedy artefact collectors. What is 'complicated' in that messers Deckers, Dobat, Ferguson, Heeren, Lewis and Thomas ? Eh? Why did you not discuss this properly? What are you afraid of? The grant money running out?

What is also missing from the 'Way forward' envisaged by the Ixelles Six is the clear statement that we need broad-based and objective scholarship that considers the issue of Collection-Driven Exploitation of the Archaeological Record in its wider contexts, as part of that global demand for portably-pocketable pieces of the past, and the (real) conservation issues involved (and I'm not talking about that glib 'ploughsoil-rescue' myth of theirs). What we do not need is the pro-collector fluffy verbiage and repetition of tired 'discovery'-orientated mantra-arguments that have dominated the discussion recently (most of it inspired by the existence and fake-news 'propaganda of success' of the PAS).

Yes we need more quantitative data on the model of Hardy's paper. And we need it right now, as artefact hunting with metal detectors leaves its fourth destructive decade for its fifth. Yes, we need to use these figures to influence public opinion, make antiquity hunting and collecting the new fur-wearing. We need to get lawmakers to treat this seriously and develop means of regulation of this destruction (site/project-related permits?) and the development of suitable legislation to channel this 'interest in history' into something that can be sustainably managed.  And yes, this will include using  'organizations and national and local authorities responsible for engaging with metal detectorists' [and other artefact collectors and sellers]' (p. 331) to do some 'ground truthing'. What is really irritating is that when it comes to the PAS, active for twenty years now at an average all told of upwards of 1.5 million quid thrown annually at it (for those 3% records!), that we do not already have a comprehensive report on detecting practices and all we have is a scattering of student theses and Robbins and Bland's text, which falls short of the mark of what is actually required. Where  are the results in objective scientific description terms of twenty years of PAS liaison and 'partnership'. Where is the sociology and ethnology of artefact hunting and collecting in England and Wales we should be now have as a result?  And Scotland?

Where after twenty years of liaison and 'partnership' is public opinion and the academic community presented (by the organizations and national and local authorities responsible for engaging with metal detector using artefact hunters) with  'sophisticated, testable algorithms that express the impact of legislation and policy on public interaction with heritage'? Why is it up to people like Sam Hardy to produce one and then face the unfair and unbalanced criticism of people like Mike Lewis and the Ixelles pro-collecting gang who've not yet had the nous to achieve it (apparently because it's 'too complex'?) themselves. The six can snap at the ankles of somebody who tries, pontificate about how 'complex' it is, but do not attempt to offer anything substantial in the place of the efforts they so facilely dismiss.

And this is important not only for the reason of the destruction of the archaeological record at the hands of greedy collectors which these people are turning a blind eye to. They claim that the destruction 'does not matter' as archaeological data are generated as a result. What they fail to note is that one of the key elements of Dr Hardy's reasoning is the information from surveys carried out among Britisjh detectorists by Katherine Robbins. That they do not notice that and harp on about 'Marc 2004' is not surprising, given their all-too-obvious bias. What actually is important  in the question of whether information from collectors can be used as a basis for any kind of serious research is the question Robbins was addressing: ' From past to present: Understanding the impact of samplingbias on data recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme (unpublished PhD thesis). University of SouthamptonSouthampton. Robbins thought there were 12,415 detectorists in England and Wales (v. 1, p. 85 n52), less than half of what Hardy estimates - so what kind of  totally unreprsentative 'data' are the PAS creating in fact? One would expect the Ixelles Six to have been interested in addressing that question. 

 Finally, if we are talking about what England and Wales must do to end and STOP the spread of this  plague, I really do not see how 'comparing countries' will help. It is not really important how Nazi Germany and Mubarak's Egypt (or Saddam's Iraq) solved this problem, the social conditions are different (as the events after Egypt's 2011 'revolution' showed, very specific to a particular system). What is important is, for example, how Britain deals with the problem that Britain has. And Hardy's figures show that Britain has a huge problem with its artefact hunters and collectors. Huge and unresolved. I do not think that Poland need pay any attention to what Britain has or has not achieved in this area because Poland is not Britain, Poles are not British and Polish metal detectors may use the same machines as their British counterparts, but in a totally different way. Transnational approaches can only work if we all speak the same language, but all the Ixelles Six have shown is that they all only all only speak PAS-talk.

When Britain has been kicked out of Europe and no longer counts here, and the PAS is underfunded out of existence and we can start talking about site preservation without their pernicious interference, then we may be able to have a proper grown-up trans-national dialogue. But at the moment, the Ixelles Six have shown, we are not yet ready for it.

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