Wednesday, 31 October 2018

Institutional Obfuscation: Public Courses and Phantom Record-makers on the PAS Database?


PAS 'phantom recorders'
The Portable Antiquities Scheme is a public funded body ostensibly set up to encourage best practice and the recording of archaeological objects found by members of the public in England and Wales to 'help advance knowledge of the history and archaeology of England and Wales'. On its website we are told how to contact the 'partner' unit of the Scheme that covers a particular region:
Scheme contacts
The Scheme currently employs 56 members of staff in the following sections. Below you can get contact details for each member of staff and also find out more about their jobs and what they have recorded in their regions. Finds Liaison Officers
The Scheme currently employs 38 Finds Liaison Officers.
Yesterday I was writing about something the Durham FLO had claimed about the density of other finds from the site that had been the findspot of a Roman 'stud' on his patch and, in passing, that it did not really ring true because according to his profile page (on the PAS website) it said in one place that the number of finds he'd recorded (and so presumably including the others from that same site) was 58, but on another part of the same website to which there is a link through this same profile page, a different number of records was inexplicably given: 38. This may be due to the game PAS have always played emphasising the "number of finds" over the number of actual records that mention them (this is the dialectic between "wottalottastuff-we-got" and "how much information").  As I said, this was in passing, but the FLO seems a bit sensitive about that point (NB if every FLO is pulling their weight, to get the 80000 records a year mark, each of the 38 has to record 2100 objects a year). So last night he fired off an indignant tweet:
Durham FLO Ben Westwood ‏ @FLODurhamFLO
W odpowiedzi do @FLODurhamFLO @PortantIssues @findsorguk
and just one more small point before I bow out of this madness. You need to learn how to properly interrogate the data (we run courses on this) Total records personally written/edited/checked/updated with the DUR prefix (ie since I took post) is 932.
This is rather an interesting comment for two reasons. the first most obvious one is that the PAS is a publicly funded Scheme ran for the public benefit. the Database is a public resource, to be used by the public that pay for it. Now we hear a PAS FLO saying that the thing is so constructed that in fact you first have to do a 'course' in order to use it. Why is it not organized in a user-friendly way that Mrs Higgins at number fifteen, my Mum, and Baz Thugwit (all of whom pay for it) can all use it for their purposes without first doing a course? And how much does going on this course cost and do PAS do bursaries for central European archaeologists who might need to come to the UK to learn how to use this complicated data-dump? Where do I apply?

If you live in Mr Westwood's region, would not the place you'd first go to find out what has been found in the area would be precisely that page that tells you where and to whom you go to report your own finds, if you have some? One would have thought that was the logical place Mrs Higgins would go.  Baz Thugwit certainly would. My Mum though probably would phone me, as she knows I am a long-term PAS-watcher, and I'd tell her no, no... to do that you have to go to some entirely different part of the PAS website. To 'statistics' and there's a dropdown menu and you select Institutional statistics. Mr Westwood seems to have started working there some time at the end of 2016, but before that you can see the county was served by several FLOs and other recorders with varying numbers of records since 2009  (Francis McIntosh for example in 2010 managed single-handedly to create 968 records in one year, and in 2011 it was some 800, Laura Pratt in 2013 created 972 records). Mr Westwood claims he was responsible for the creation of records of 932 objects in some unspecified period of employment. You can adjust the dates to get to the period 1st August 2016 to 30th October 2018, which gives you that number of finds. The number of records is 796 - in two years, so way below what other FLOs had achieved (probably they were not getting involved in Twitter battles with He4ritage Action and others or trolling Rescue's Facebook page). Of these nearly 800 records, however, Mr Westwood actually wrote just 58 records himself. The rest were written by other people. The statistics are all there [UPDATE 31.10.2018: Mr Westwood seems very concerned that the names of these real people - five females, two males - appear on my blog, even though these names are openly available on the website of his own organization, he has demanded I remove them. I presume that this paranoia will lead to him demanding that their names are removed there too. So in deference to the PAS concern to treat these people as statistics and not people, I have replaced their names with asterixes here, but if you want to see what their real names are follow the links to the source of my information, 'Mugsy' is a pseudonym]
D** M***** (mugsythe1cat) - 359 records;
A** L********* - 169 records;
S***** L******** - 97 records;
Benjamin Westwood - 58 records;
R****** M******** - 56 records;
E**** G****** - 28 records;
C******** R** - 19 records;
E**** C** - 10 records
So, who are these people, responsible for making 92.5% of the PAS database records from this region over the past two years? Are they archaeologists? Trained PAStexplorer karaoke volunteer recorders?  Tame metal detectorist "partners"? Are they paid employees or unpaid volunteers? [UPDATE: in his demand to anonymise his own associates, see above, Mr Westwood betrays the fact that they are [all?] 'volunteers'' and 'It's clear who is/was employed & who is not', actually it is not, but never mind, we get the idea].  Do they all have archaeological qualifications? Are some of them seconded from the archaeology department of the County Council perhaps? Why have they not got profile pages of their own on the PAS website since they are the ones creating most of this record of public finds?  Why in fact are they hidden away right at the bottom of the "statistics" page - a page that the FLO suggests needs attendance of 'a course' to even find? The PAS 'counties' blogpage is no help. There is another links page within this blog to 'some database search results for artifacts (sic!) and coins found in Durham': (note: they are not all actually recorded by the people in the  Durham PAS unit) and the blog itself is more than a bit skimpy.... 

The PAS website itself does not have a search application, so we cannot search for these peoples' names on the website, but tucked right away at the bottom of the records themselves there is a little 'search' icon to click on by their name as primary recorder, so if you do this you find... they've been anonymised. I could not find 'Mugsy the Number One Cat' (sounds like my kind of guy) but I stumbled across one by A** L******** [UPDATE: see above]  and found that the search icon led to a page with the heading 'Recorded by (obfuscated for security): PAS58DA5B68001013'. She's been anonymised. This is rather like the authors from Oxford Archaeology who were so scared by metal detectorists that they published the 2009 Nighthawking Report anonymously (actually, having been threatened by a number myself, I can sympathise with that). But this just means that the recorders are phantom figures that come and go - and take no personal responsibility for what they write, or do not. It is also another stumbling block on the way to full transparency about the British handling of loose artefacts coming from Collection-driven dismantling of the archaeological record as a result of current policies (I use the term loosely). I would have thought the PAS should be encouraging transparency and accountability in dealings with portable antiquities, not deliberately 'obfuscating' even their own activities.

UPDATE 31.10.2018

Interesting, Mr Westwood seems very concerned about his volunteers (here, here, and here)
Imagine if a potential employer were to see their names associated with a blog alleging mispractice. It's not fair.
I have not alleged anything of the kind. So whence the concern? What I am saying is that there is a striking lack of transparency about how the records that make up the PAS database are created (and I used DUR as an example). That is not the fault of *** and *** ******, or even *******, but it is something that affects them and the significance attached by PAS to their volunteer work. But it also raises concernbs how much reliance anyone can put on those records that are no longer being made by the FLOs themselves as was the idea of the PAS when it was set up, that it would be archaeologists engaging directly with 'finders'. Now it seems from what is happening here that the heritage professionals have been replaced by random unnamed volunteers who here are doing 90% of the work. I think those people have the right to have the work they do fully attributed (there was a broad discussion in the UK museum world about exploitation of volunteers a year or two ago). Also, as a consumer of what is presented as archaeological data in a multimillion pound public-funded 'database', the users of the resource do have the right to know the full facts, and do not know why PAS is keeping them so close to their chests - and has now for the past several years. In how many other PAS regional units is this going on?


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