Sunday 8 July 2018

'The Complexities of Metal Detecting Policy and Practice' (2): The Ixelles Six and their Viewpoint

Artefact hunting is not archaeology
This is the second of four texts on the recent paper of  Deckers, Dobat Ferguson, Heeren, Lewis and Thomas 'The Complexities of Metal Detecting Policy and Practice' Responding to a text by Sam Hardy. In this section, I want to discuss the evidence from their own text which seems to indicate the viewpoint from which their response was written. This is important because one of the points on which these six academics criticize Hardy is the 'basic assumptions' ('incorrect', apparently) underlying his presentation of his research. So, what underlies their own world-view?

Six Academics side with the Tekkies
The authors themselves deny (Deckers et al. 2018, p. 323) that their text is a defence of what they call 'liberal approaches to [Collection-Driven Exploitation of the Archaeological Record],' but fail to step back a bit from their own efforts and see that that is precisely what they have written.

One pointer to this is much of the content of the fifth section of the paper (pp. 328-330, 'policy choices: a range of motivations'). This contains exactly the same arguments as it would had UK 'non-professional metal detectorists' [sic] written it. What is more significant is that this whole section has not the slightest connection to what Hardy had written in the text to which this claims to be an academic development and response. As we shall see, this is not the only place where this text betrays the effects of prolonged contact with artefact hunters.

A constant theme of the rhetoric of the metal detector using community of artefact hunters (frequently mentioned and discussed on this blog) is the 'we are not nighthawks, they are something else entirely' argument and the 'we are not in it for the money' one. It is notable that both are reflected in the text of these six academics.

Look at their p. 325, where they write 'it is wrong to simply conflate hobby detectorists [sic] with commercial entrepreneurs as Hardy does' (p. 2). The first point would be that if both sides had used a real term cognate with Collection Driven Exploitation of the Archaeological Record, it would immediately resolve the non-problem of what these people are digging into archaeological sites and assemblages for. The second is that the reader on looking at what Hardy actually wrote (its there in black and white) finds no such equation. What he says is:
Much “hobbyist” metal detecting (which inescapably encompasses detecting by commercial entrepreneurs and private collectors as well as by amateur archaeologists) 
This is not the only place where the six academics fail to read what Hardy wrote with sufficient care to actually be able to represent what he said. Similarly, right at the beginning of their article (p. 1, footnote 2), Deckers, Dobat Ferguson, Heeren, Lewis and Thomas say:
We use the terms ‘non-professional’, ‘hobby’, ‘leisure’ and ‘amateur’ detecting/detectorists as interchangeable terms throughout this paper, to distinguish the practice from both the use of metal detectors by professional archaeologists in the field, and by illicit detector users driven primarily by financial motivations.
Now, this is from authors saying they are adopting a transnational viewpoint (which they unfairly accuse Hardy of not having). But perhaps they'd like to address the issue that in some of those other EU nations where metal detector use for searching for archaeological artefacts is illegal per se, users of these tools are using them for amassing personal artefact collections. Some good examples of this come from recent arrests in Greece, it is what we see in several parts of eastern Europe (Poland for example). This also is a reflection of the UK artefact hunters' (I have stressed meaningless, see also here) "we are not nighthawks" argument. Again adopting a more appropriate terminology, stressing Collection-Driven Exploitation (CDEAR), would aid clarification of what only becomes 'complex' by use of inappropriate and slanted terminology (CDE covers both private collecting as well as selling artefacts to private collectors).

There are also elements of the wonky Bloomsbury 'citizen archaeologist' depiction of Collection-Driven Exploitation of the Archaeological Record with a metal detector throughout the text, beginning from a reference to 'detectorist fieldwork' [sic] on p. 323 right through to the end of the paper where artefact hunting is depicted as public engagement in archaeology - just like [this is irony] 'big-game hunting is related to ecology' no doubt (oh yes, and of course trophy hunters actually do make that argument).

Six Academics Seem to State that Artefact Hunting is 'Not Damaging'
For me, the most shocking statement of Deckers, Dobat Ferguson, Heeren, Lewis and Thomas is on page 323:
As Hardy states, ‘metal detecting is far more destructive than archaeological excavation’ (2017, p. 2). We argue that such a categorical statement is fundamentally wrong.
Whoah. They may think this and that they can in some way 'argue' the point, but (a) they do not actually present any arguments at all in their paper in support of their denial of the truth of what Hardy wrote, and (b) they are obviously wrong themselves. That is the whole reason why large segments of the archaeological world and informed public opinion are against looting/ raubgrabung/ разграбление of the archaeological record as a source of collectables. The Ixelles Six say they are all 'fundamentally' mistaken.

Having learnt above that we cannot rely on what the six authors state Sam Hardy actually said, let us first of all see what Hardy actually wrote. It goes like this:
This is significant, because archaeological excavation is a destructive process, where the loss of the archaeological deposit is minimised by the preservation of the scientific data, from the components of the deposit to the spatiotemporal relationships between those components. Much “hobbyist” metal detecting (which inescapably encompasses detecting by commercial entrepreneurs and private collectors as well as by amateur archaeologists) is far more destructive than archaeological excavation, because it is conducted with limited preservation of the components of the deposit and minimal (if any) preservation of the spatiotemporal relationships between the components.
Deckers, Dobat Ferguson, Heeren, Lewis and Thomas apparently deny that there is limited preservation of the evidential components of any archaeological site hoovered for collectables by an artefact hunter. One might ask just what is their comprehension therefore of  the 'complexities' of 'metal detecting' practice - how archaeological evidence is transformed into a decontextualised collectable. Here, this does not concern the object-centred aspects of whether the object itself physically survives. It concerns the effects on the site exploited (and here the word 'exploitation' seems perfectly justified - artefact hunting is not 'fieldwork'). For it is clear that Hardy is discussing the damage done to sites and not primarily what happens to the objects pocketed by collectors - which seems to me to be what the academics Deckers, Dobat Ferguson, Heeren, Lewis and Thomas are instead focused on in their 'response' (pp 323-4). The object-centred approach is that of Montelius, Almgren and Kossinna... and the Ixelles Six, it seems.

But more importantly, several passages in the polemic text seem to suggest that for these six authors, archaeology is not only about 'discovery', but also for them, the main research methodology is excavation. So only ripping artefacts from the topsoil is 'not damaging' because topsoil is not usually excavated (and the Staffordshire Hoard...?). This is a bit of an odd approach, since there are whole international projects which consist of methodical surface surveys of sites plotting the distribution across exposed sites (including those exposed by ploughing) of not only the diagnostic metal objects, pottery fabrics, but also elements of the archaeological record as stone-knapping waste, ceramic building material, wall plaster, industrial waste, iron nails and so on. In other words, precisely the things that artefact hunters do not pick up for their collections of metallic historical bric-a-brak, let alone document the patterns of their distribution across the area hoovered for collectables to pocket. These surface sites are being trashed by the selective removal of elements of that record just as much as  stratified site that is dug down into blindly.  As Hardy rightly says, the practice of artefact hunting on such surface sites is that in all but a few exceptions, it is done with 'minimal (if any) preservation of the spatiotemporal relationships between the components' of the record (all of them).

Deckers, Dobat Ferguson, Heeren, Lewis and Thomas may be of the opinion that such a statement 'is 'fundamentally wrong' in a transnational context. I challenge them to demonstrate that as a general rule.  Even if a metal detector user has a 10-figure NGR for a bronze Roman child's bracelet, that is meaningless without a comparable plot of the density and distribution of pennant roof tile fragments, and ploughed up oolite slabs from disturbed cists, for example (to take just a simple example). But like 'metal detectorists', Deckers, Dobat Ferguson, Heeren, Lewis and Thomas do not see that there is 'context' in ploughsoil (p. 324).

A typical metal detectorist and his collection
They also mythologise collectors (p. 324), claiming that 'unreported information is not necessarlily lost' (leaving aside the fact alluded to above that information from unobserved features not docuemented is information loss). They claim this on the grounds that 'often (sic) detectorists (sic) keep private records of their finds and finds locations' and 'willingly give access to this information when asked by archaeologists' (reference here to US arrowhead collectors). PAS of course has very clear data on the extent to which this is true [ironic again], let them make those data available. There are however innumerable pieces of evidence, in the form of videos showing how artefacts are stored and documented once in an artefact hunter's home, especially from the UK (but also US lithics collections too may be compared, as may be the way most ancient coin collections have no documented findspots and collecting histories). These tend to suggest that cases as described by Deckers, Dobat Ferguson, Heeren, Lewis and Thomas are very much the exception. Again, it seems to me from what we know of actual collecting practice, that these six academics are trying to paint a 'fundamentally wrong' picture of the true extent of the problem.

It seems to me that Collection-Driven Exploitation of the Archaeological Record by, for example, metal detecting, where the context of deposition of the artefacts removed cannot be known (because pickup is random and selective, so the context of discovery is also unkown), is damaging the archaeological record simply to provide an individual with their private piece of the past to pocket (whether or not he or she reports it). The aim of archaeological excavation is to recover and document patterns in the context of deposition through systematic, controlled, methodical discovery and record (context of discovery), and I really do not understand how six academics with archaeological training can in all seriousness claim that it is 'fundamentally wrong' to say the first is more damaging to the archaeological evidence than the other.

The only way they could see it that way, I suppose would be if they are taking an  utterly object-centred view (which they would  share with the collector) that the getting the 'most interesting objects in hand' is the aim of archaeology. To see whether that is the case or not, I invite the reader to have a look at their pages 323-4, and just what is behind what they call Hardy's 'simplistic and basic assumption' (they claim, 'In order to be considered ‘cultural damage’, a find and/or its associated information would have to be irretrievably lost). Hmm. They then go on to say that even non-reported objects are not actually 'lost', but just represent 'zero gain' (p. 324). They forget to say that they also in fact represent a hole in the archaeological record of the site each was taken from (again, an object-centric view displaces the more holistic issue which is the state in which artefact hunters leave the site they exploit). In any case, they say, chances are, these 'objects' may not have been found by regulated fieldwork anyway (p. 324).  Except if there were a project in the future, or pre-development mitigation for example. This is also an argument used by self-focused collectors, an object not in their private collection is 'an object lost'. This is object-centric bonkers.

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