Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Portable Antiquities Scheme Staff Member: 'Ploughsoil Has no Context' [UPDATED]

Metal detector survey results compared
 with results of geophysical survey (Keith
Westcott, Institute of Detectorists)
I have transferred here an attempted discussion on Twitter that was getting nowhere as it reveals some interesting things. The starting point was a question raised by Heritage Action earlier, to what degree is PAS representing the interests of archaeology and to what degree is congruent with those of collectors? The tweets went all over the place, it seems very difficult to keep up a linear discussion when the two sides are coming to it from different positions. That's not how it should be, seemingly the discussion is between two archaeologists, with (one assumes) broadly similar education and experience, and talking about Collection-Driven exploitation of teh archaeological record. What could go wrong? Heritage Action have reduced the question to whether PAS and those who work for it really have adopted a "partnership" attitude to artefact hunters and collectors and are actively supporting them. Perhaps they are right. I personally would see the fruiction arising between two different concepts of what archaeology is and is about. But more of that elsewhere.

But whatever school you represent, I would have thought that an archaeologist will see that data are lost when any objects are dug out of archaeological contexts by artefact hunters with inadequate or no recording of that context (not the ovbbject discovered, but the context of discovery/context of deposition). This discussion revealed that it seems not every one sees it that way:
Durham FLO Ben Westwood ‏ @FLODurhamFLO Obserwuj Obserwuj @FLODurhamFLO W odpowiedzi do @PortantIssues
Putting your insults to one side (sic!), plough soil has no context other than spatial location. Those artefacts in plough soil, subject to seasonal ploughing/chemicals are being destroyed. Responsible detecting under these circumstances rescues archaeological data
I will leave aside the second of those questions, the FLO asserts (as so many people do) that 'artificial' chemicals in the soil are damaging artefacts. On this topic, because of such claims, I have talked with soil chemists and experts in precisely the field of fertilisers, and read a lot of the literature (and even did an experiment to check out what one metal detectorist claimed)*, and I am of another opinion on this. It seems to me that the people that make that assertion are going on 'common sense' reasoning and using emotional arguments and not any cold hard soil science. The same goes for the plough-damage trope (look at these axes for example), I believe the effect in both cases is exagerrated to bolster the 'whip-it-all-out-now' approach to the archaeological heritage. I've written this all up (with Nigel Swift) and it will be appearing soon, and I really do not want to waste time trying to convince those who've already made their minds up - like Mr Woodward (I asked him a question on Twitter that, if he thought it through fully, should lead to the solution - but he refused to answer, probably because he did not understand the significance of the question).

But this issue of ploughsoil lacking context is a particularly disturbing element of the discussion, because it is used as the excuse for so many things. So I want to look at it (again, because I have written a number of posts here on this topic, but mostly as a response to what metal detectorists have said/written). This pair of posts comes to mind from PACHI Thursday, 6 March 2014: 'Focus on UK Metal Detecting: What's this all about? and 'Focus on UK Metal Detecting: More on What's this all about?. Nice pictures.

The people that gaily trip out this trope seem never to have taken part in any fieldwalking programme. I wonder how and why that is in the case of a professional archaeologist, surely this (like basic surveying and excavation) should be part of the practical excperience of every single undergraduate degree course in archaeology. I studied in UCL in the centre of London, but they took us out to Sussex on the Downs (drizzling it was) for two weeks fieldwork training. I did some more over one Christmas with Mike Pitts just after that. But as an amaterur both before and after that I did a lot in the UK, Roman villa, quarry sites and pipeline routes, and so on. I've done it as part of projects I was involved in too. I thought everyone has, no? I do not know why Mr Westwood seems to be so dismissive of this kind of evidence and the techniques needed to use it, how one goes about documenting and then analysing ploughsoil scatters. Goodness knows there is enough literature in Britain on it, a lot of the methodological discussion - a huge bibliography - is in English.

It is particularly odd that he says this, because Mr Westwood reposted on Twitter a map done by the 'Proposed Institute of Archaeologists' (reproduced at the top of this post as a good example of what amateurs can do with metal detectors when they are not just adding objects to their private collections). This shows how finds in the ploughsoil relate to the buried archaeology (in this case revealed non-invasively by geophysical survey). So how Mr Westwood can do that and then claim that 'topsoil has no context',  I really do not know. But how can he be employed to do archaeological outreach to the public while holding such narrow views?

Mallakastra Regional Archaeological Project
Googling, just as an example, 'gridded fieldwalking in Italy and Greece' throws up a number of examples that FLOs talking to the public about archaeologicl methods should be aware of (maybe this could be a future PAS conference topic?). Its not all excavation (who remembers the laughable and not-missed PAStExplorers 'education' page saying that archaeology is 'like a cake'?).  So just to take one at random, it happens to be the Mallakastra Regional Archaeological Project, we can see that this is not 'X marks the spot' single loose finds plotting like we are getting from artefact hunters, but proper gridded systematic surveys with controlled pickup, the results of which can be examined spatially (and in their full regional context) as well as quantitatively (figs 9 to 10) on the basis of systematically gathered data. These are not the kinds of data we are getting from the dismemberment of sites by artefact hunters in the UK. And the FLO is telling the people to whom he's doing paid 'outreach' (really?), that it does not matter, take whatever you fancy guys as 'ploughsoil has no context'.

Fieldwalking results at Monte San Nicola.
There's a nice little paper with some decent graphics that raises the same issues (Putting the Spotlight on Small Metal Age Pottery Scatters in Northern Calabria (Italy)). Most metal detectorists are not all that bothered about collecting sherds, they just hoik out the diagnostic metal objects from sites of the metal period. The PAS record has only 20,717 potsherds (mostly listed singly to bulk out recording numbers) out of 1,300,000 objects (thats 1.6%). So, not a very representative 'sample' of the tens of thousands of sites exploited by the collectors that have fed over a million pocketed objects into that database. Yet interpreting the taphonomy of those artefact  scatters without the metal objects (as shown early on by the VASLE project in the UK) that metal detectorists hoik away with or (most often) without proper record, is rendered difficult, and the results unreliable as there will always be the unknown unknowns of what previous clandestine intervention has affected what remains in the soil.

No, Mr Westwood, topsoil has a context, and ploughsoil has a context, and that does not just consist of a ten-figure NGR of where a collectable came from, but - and above all - what was in the artefact scatter around it. Buddying up with artefact hunters who see that soil only as a source of selected collectables for them to pocket for their own personal entertainment and profit does not absolve any archaeologist from seeing that the current policies on Collection-Driven exploitation even of sites like these is leading to permanent damage to their potential use as archaeological evidence. In fact, as a source of certain kinds of evidence, they have been destroyed by artefact hunters. And as part of the archaeological outreach to the general public who pay for their posts, PAS staff should be properly informing the public (millions of whom are neither collectors nor artefact hunters) of the actual situation, and not pretending nothing bad is happening. Because it is.

UPDATE 301.10.2018

I see that Mr Westwood, instead of engaging in discussion with ideas he apparently finds more complex than 280 character soundbites, is complaining over on Twitter about this blog post (punctuation and spelling as in original):
Not. What. I. Said. Mal-information (again) and a deliberate miss quote
We obviously do need to examine just what it is that Mr W. is saying is a "deliberate" [sic] misquote and thinks constitutes malinformation. The text above is cut and pasted verbatim from what he himself tweeted (please check for yourself). This, nota bene, was after I had suggested that if he wants to discuss the issue, a text longer than 280 characters is more convenient, he disagreed, he reckons that putting it in shorter texts makes his meaning clear. I am not really all that convinced of that...

The only way to make it clear what is going on here is to put it alongside the texts that the one I quoted was a response to. I see that now we need to see here what they were, and you make your own minds up whether I am "deliberately misquoting" the archaeologist here, or whether he's now trying to backtrack ona silly remark he made and put the blame on me.

So, excuse the lengthening of the post for Mr Westwood's benefit. This part of the thread starts with his odd object-centred remark (post #5 in that thread) that no archaeological evidence is destroyed when finds are removed by artefact hunters without any record (because I suspect he did not know what I meamnt by that, I hope it is now clearer to him). He blurted out that unrecorded finds: 'Not necessarily being destroyed, rather extant but unknown'. That's what he wrote here.  So I replied in 280 characters (post #6 in that thread):
But that is a collector's object-centred view, NOT a context centred one of (real) archaeology. Contexts/assemblages are destroyed daily all over country by thousnds of artefact hunters removing material from them and the information lost. What is there not to understand there?
His answer to that, again object-centred (tweet #7 in that thread):
Of course its archaeological. I'm an archaeologist, not a collector. Data is not lost when objects, recovered from arable plough soil, are reported. Rather these finds/data are saved from certain destruction
There is an eight post where I suggest that he look back at the earlier tweets as it seemed to me he was talking at cross purposes, and then I answered tweet 7 (with tweet #9), I wrote:
Which brings us back to Heritage Action's point, is PAS representing the interests of archaeology or collectors? An archaeologist will see that data are lost when any objects are dug out of archaeological contexts by artefact hunters with inadequate or no recording.
Now I think it is clear by this point that we are twit-tweeting at cross purposes. I clearly write contexts (the ones exploited in CDE - so including ploughsoil ones) are destroyed by removing objects FROM them' and 'dug out FROM archaeological contextswith inadequate or no recording'. I am talking about ploughsoil scatters. I do not think Mr Westwood is. In his attempts at abbreviated 'clarity' he first of all talks about individual objects that are 'not necessarily being destroyed, rather extant but unknown' and data that are 'not lost when objects, recovered from arable plough soil, are reported'. He is clearly talking about a different kind of data from me. His is clearly object-centred, mine site-centred. This is the context in which I think it is entirely justified to see the comment (and I'll put Tweet #10 of that thread in full):
W odpowiedzi do 
Putting your insults to one side, plough soil has no context other than spatial location. Those artefacts in plough soil, subject to seasonal ploughing/chemicals are being destroyed. Responsible detecting under these circumstances rescues archaeological data

'Those artefacts' is directly related to 'archaeological data' allegedly being rescued by the Good Collectors. Additional evidence that the term 'spatial' used in that tweet means PAS-recorded findspots and nothing else is the odd little bit that comes later but is still part of the same FLO mindset that is the context for that tweet (#23 in that same thread). 
W odpowiedzi do    Researchers can look at the Db to see what else was from that field, is a fairly simple process. If there were others there that the finder missed, then we effectively have a sample, just like every other archaeological project ever.
I think all the evidence suggests that when Mr Westwood wrote what he wrote on Sunday, he really did mean that the only context a find in the ploughsoil can have is a 'X marks the spot' recorded findspot, co-ordinates in the landscape, a dot on the map. Perhaps he has rethought it now and realised that he was wrong (as he was). Nothing he wrote on Sunday about the notion of 'context' however suggests that he saw it in any other way. And one suspects that if he cannot get his ideas over clearly and unequivocally to a fellow archaeologist, then he really has no chance with the old lady from number fifteen and Baz Thugwit the gormless tekkie - let alone any landowner or MP he may meet in his FLOing.

*sadly not entirely satisfactory, as the memory card in my camera was faulty so the documentation went astray. But the metal detectorist was wrong.  

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