Tuesday, 16 October 2018

IronheartedGog's Axe-Field Video Apparently the Only Documentation of a Puzzling Find

Ironhearted Gog and Andy
A metal detectorist contacted me this morning about a recent video posted on Youtube and asked me if in my opinion it has been 'staged' to improve its entertainment value, or whether it is reliable documentation of a find. What do you think?

The first thing to note is that the farmer had already found an axe at 'the other end' of that same field (note it is presented as 'the' one found), with an odd shiny patina (and a bronze disease outbreak on one side) - how did the farmer clean that? Was this the reason there two were searching the field that day? it seems they'd been there before because the narrator (Gordon Heritage) says he knows there was 'archaeology' in that field.

Published on YouTube by IronheartedGog 6 Sept 2018
"Here's a video showing the recovery of a  [group] of Bronze age axes. they date to around 1000BC. There are 47 axes (17 Palstave and 30 socketed) and 5 fragments of an ingot. The [objects have] been report[ed] to PAS, and we hope to return and film any excavations on-site in the future".

The video  (after the - apparently obligatory in detecting films - 'OK guys') starts off with the finding of a really clean looking socketed axe on the surface. This is dramatised however as - instead of just filming the object lying on the field surface - the filmmaker films himself walking towards the spot where (we may presume) he'd already found the axe. This seems a bit unnecessary and immediately looks a bit suspicious. The second axe likewise is found half-protruding from the side of a shallow hole dug through the loose ploughsoil. It is difficult to imagine that hole being spade-dug without dislodging the axe and it seems likely that the finding of this axe was 'staged' here by sticking it back in the hole to film taking it out later. This sort of manipulation may make a better film, but is not documentation of what was done on (and to) a site by these two artefact hunters.

The finding of the third axe is informative, we see it being taken from another shallow hole (one one-handed spade thrust deep). The first thing that is noticeable is that (having found two socketed axes), GH says 'this is the first palstave axe', that sounds rather like he already knows that his film is going to show other palstaves being found (there were 17 in all). Secondly he says for some reason 'there's (sic) signals all around' and 'they're all over the place' - yet up to that point, they'd only had four signals, hardly 'all around', or all over the place I would have thought. There is also speculation at this point already 'it's going to be a hell of a day'. Whence such unbridled optimism?

Another point worth noting, neither 'Ironhearted Gog' or Andy seem to have any instruments on them to plot the findspots with respect to each other. No GPS, no measuring tapes. No notebook or drawing board. The objects from distant findspots are first dumped on the ground in the middle of the field (six axes qualifies for 'coming up thick and fast'). The pile (now 13 objects) was then moved to the edge of the field near the car on the south side of the field (I am assuming the long shadows are from the early morning sun).  No labels accompany the loose finds, so even if they were plotting the finds, potential for a mixup exists. But I do not think there is evidence from this record of the recovery that they plotted the findspots at all. At this stage however they should certainly have been thinking about stopping trashing this site and how responsibly to recover these items and the associated information and get professional advice and help.

The film-maker stresses that the finds are all coming from the topsoil and were shallow. This has a bearing on the question of whether this is being 'staged', because if they'd wanted to film deeper recovery, they'd first have to dig a hole to rebury the axes deeper and then that disturbance would be visible before they started redigging. Again there is a reference to the 'lots and lots of signals around' and their being scattered. Then the film-maker suggests that they'd been dumped on the field when the hedge (and ditch) were dug.

He says that 'usually with Bronze Age, you'd expect there to be a big concentration, but they are all scattered around this slight depression in the field' . This is a consequence of a narrow object-centred view of prehistory. For 'Ironhearted Gog', Bronze Age axes are frequently found by detectorists as parts of hoards. But of course the objects were not made purely to be deposited in hoards. There are a number of reasons why deposits of single whole axeheads could have been made over a number of years or decades in the general vicinity of that 'slight depression' (an infilled feature such as a major ditch? A small ancient pond?) And that is why these finders should have been plotting each findspot and bagging each find separately with a label indicating what was found where.

All the more so as at one stage they are ostentatiously showing one signal (did you hear it?) not being dug .. 'Y'know what? That's too deep to dig, [...] don't want to get into the archaeology, because there is archaeology on this site' (i.e., these two know full well that they are targeting an archaeological site with their artefact hunting) 'it's worth leaving it for the experts'. Again, though, there is no evidence that they've plotted this findspot for later examination or with reference to the other findspots of related material. It is worth noting that this hole is no deeper than any of the other the same detectorist is shown digging in another You Tube video on sites, including one that looks to be exactly the same soil as this axe-field.

The whole (?) group of axes are seen in the form of the second pile here with a bit of show-and-tell (to here) Most of these objects we did not see coming out of the ground, the film-maker explains he'd gone out that day to make a film, but forgot to charge the batteries... So there is not even the scantest documentation of their context of discovery. The whole group is shown and also visible is their typological variety, probably as displayed for the landowner in the back of their truck. Although 'Ironhearted Gog' notes that the one the farmer found may not be part of this group, it is shown lying with the rest  - perhaps the farmer decided he'd like a Treasure reward for that one too.

This group of objects was recovered - apparenly - in one day. There was no time for reflection on research questions the distribution and nature of this material could have been used to address (and therefore the best methods to apply to obtain that information). The finders seem not really to know much about the archaeology of the Bronze Age. In any case, they seem from this video to have simply decided - on no evidence at all - that this was material dug out  of a ditch in modern times and scattered on the field. They do not seem to question that assumption and do not consider that it is worth using more nuanced techniques to find, document and recover the material (and even to test their own hypothesis). What the video shows is just crude accumulation-driven hoiking.

The axes are all in a very odd state of preservation, there is a thin smooth patina on all the ones where this can be seen, and there is packed clay adhering to many of them (but this has fallen out of the sockets of the palstaves before they were filmed at the end). Sometimes when the film-maker rotates a find, one can almost see the glint of metal where the patina has rubbed off. Is this normal patina for this area? What has happened to the axes that - despite, if the finder is correct, they've been rolling about in the topsoil for a good while - they are all preserved in such a state?

  The finders add that this group of objects has been reported to the PAS, 'and we hope to return and film any excavations on-site in the future'. The problem is that they were twice recorded saying that they intended to remove all the metal objects in the group from the field. Whether or not they achieved that can only be determined by further searching. If they removed 97% of the material without record, then there really is not much point of searching at all. If they got half of the metal objects in that field, maybe there would be a point getting more from the point of view of getting a better sample of the typological range, but even if the material they removed was only recovered from the topsoil, the interpretation of any spatial patterning will be rendered unreliable (or even impossible) through the activities of these artefact hunters, half of the evidence is already missing, and there is no way of knowing how the missing information relates to that which later gets recorded. The site has been trashed by these artefact (Treasure) hunters and we have it on video. Again, there seems little point in financing a resource-consuming project to salvage what the artefact hunters left behind. We will now not be able to properly understand the site. Even if the two artefact hunters are right and the present disposition of material in the field is the result of subsoil scattering from a modern ditch-cleaning operation, plotting the distribution of material in the topsoil (both sides of the ditch) would be an essential first step in determining where the material had originated. 

The person who sent me the link asked if it was my personal opinion that this video had been staged. It seems pretty obvious (see above) that to some extent that is the case, the actual extent and nature of that however is in doubt. It could be nothing worse than just an attempt to create a better artistic (I use the term loosely) effect. Or it could be worse. I noted how many times at the beginning of the search as portrayed, the film-maker seemed to be talking of a larger assemblage of objects than had in fact been shown as having been found at that stage (see above), it is all a bit unnatural. This inevitably raises the question of whether the film actually takes a lot more artistic licence with this find, it begs the question whether, when the film starts, they had in fact already found many more items (perhaps in part of the field, for example, which has some buildings near it which would make the findspot easily identifiable, so they took the decision to show their 'finding' in another part of the field facing the opposite direction to avoid this problem?). Without any proper supporting documentation made during the search, how can the sequence of events shown in the video be verified at all? Perhaps the finders feel there is no need, but then, the fact that there are a number of strange features about the video, perhaps this is something they should have taken more care over. In any case, from whatever point of view it is seen, what the film shows is not any form of "citizen archaeology" worthy of such a name.

Given that we do not see the finders making any kind of record of what came from where, at no stage seem to have stopped to reflect whether they are doing the right thing by carrying on blindly hoiking instead of getting informed  advice or help that fact that this video also seems to be 'staged' for effect, rather than providing a record of what was found, how and where, is very much to be regretted. I would suggest that this video should be presented at the Coroner's Inquest as evidence, and the most useful response to what it shows would be to withold any Treasure reward here for both the finders and the landowner who allowed this to happen to a Treasure findspot on his property

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