Friday, 12 October 2018

Reconstructing the PAS Conference

A readinv from 'Treasure Island' from
 A. D at PAS Conference
Treasure Registrar via Twitter
I would have loved to be a fly on the wall at the PAS conference in the BM today - the release of the RESCUE policy document seems to have been deliberately timed to afford delegates the opportunity to discuss it. The PAS15 conference was celebrating the fact that though it has existed for 20 years, the PAS has now been a publicly funded national scheme for 15 years . The format of these meetings is fairly firmly established, some pep-talks, some of the Great and Good come to give the proceedings splendour, usually it's ministers, this year it seems to have just been Barry Cunliffe. There were the usual displays of narrativised but decontextualised'interesting stuff found this year'.

Conservation advice contains the C-word, p 20 
There were apparently four sessions, plus the launch of the  promote the new Conservation advice that seems in some way to be connected with Drakon Heritage . Like all the other conferences of this type (apart from one that was temporarily available online for a few years - now gone) the proceedings most likely will not be published (which is a shame as they would provide a revealing cross section of how the Scheme and thought about it have developed over the years)‏. The skeleton can however be reconstructed from the live-tweeting provided by some of the delegates (apologies if I've missed some, most of the 36 PASFLOs have a problem with transparency and blocked me from seeing their twitter feeds, bless them).

Basically, however, from what can be seen there, the PAS15 puff-conf  looks as if it were more of a social occasion than anything likely to provoke any deep reflection. The topics discussed followed the usual time-worn PAS-paths, and to some extent duplicated the same old information that attendees could probably garner el;sewhere - were they particularly interested.

The whole meeting was opened by BM director Hartwig Fischer, who introduced the Museum's efforts at 'Recording Britain(sic)'s Past' (that is the bits that are not Scotland and N Ireland and of course that is not the only thing the PAS was set up and publicly financed to do).

The first session was led by Tom Brindle 'talking about the contribution of PAS data to archaeological research, based on his own PhD research'. Tom Brindle's PhD was submitted in 2011 and actually published in book form in 2014. One would have hoped therefore for something that was a bit more topical than a presentation of seven-year old data (!). Anyhow the evidence from Northamptonshire (? Brindle 2014, p. 119, tab 59) seems to have been what was discussed in detail in at least part of the talk. Here we have the issue of the targeting of known sites by artefact hunters and collectors. At an earlier PAS conference (the one that had bits of it was online), Brindle quoted other figures. Now we have the values that appeared in the book (discussed by me elsewhere); 'analysis of Roman PAS data aided in the identification of at least 391 discrete sites [in N'hants], 240 of which were previously unknown'. So that means that the 'data' from 151 of those findspots (just under half) were from collection-driven exploitation targeting known sites presumably without any properly formulated research agenda. There is not much of a record in the material to which I have access of any useful discussion there may have been after that.

Examples of 'Platinum' practice by 
finders and self recorders (screenshot by 
Ben Woodward Durham FLO)  
This was followed by a session on 'Best Practice' led by Kevin Leahy, National Finds Adviser for PAS. He was apparently 'talking about best practice in searching for and recording archaeological finds, providing excellent examples of the work (sic) of detectorists in Lincolnshire'. The topics covered here would be interesting to know about, the PAS is object-centred and seems to have a pretty skimpy idea of best practice vis a vis those desirable from the pointy of view of other aspects of archaeological practice. This shows the disadvantage of these incestuous meetings where the main participants seem drawn from the 'finds' world and metal detectorists. Apparently Leahy - despite 'misgivings in the early days of PAS that it might be just 'stamp collecting' - suggests that now the organization has 'moved well beyond that and are in a new era of material culture/object biography, with data that can be statistically interrogated'. I would dispute that personally. I think a lot of what passes for 'modern archaeological research' in and around the PAS is a specific retro-archaeology and naked artefactology that would be recognizable to Gustav Kossinna.

The example of 'platinum practice' for example, showing (I guess) that artefact hunters can, if they want, plot where they have hoiked metal objects from and they form patterns (duh) really means nothing at all, except that's where somebody dugg a signal and found something they thought worth plotting. No amount of 'statistical analysis' will produce anything from that (apart from the fact there IS a discrete or amorphous pattern of dots on a map) in the absence of other data input - like the associated non-metallic evidence that was ignored by the metal detector and the metal detectorist. Such maps map collecting activity and not archaeological evidence. In the discussion there was reference to the progress of change in practice among finders (I am guessing this was focussed on artefact hunters). Adam Daubney explainedthat 'it will take time to change culture '- it's gradual. Angie Bolton agrees but anecdotally suggested that changes in attitudes take place (referring to 'the change from now and her first club visit, where detectorists didn't want to be known as having spoken to an archaeologist' as 'impressive'). Adam Daubney agrees and says that we can't change the law but we can change the culture (to make non-recording of finds and non-professional excavation of in situ hoards distasteful to all detectorists) by sharing knowledge'. Apart from these comments, there is not much of a record in the material to which I have access of any useful discussion there may have been after that session either.  

The afternoon sessions begin with Adam Daubney talking about Sharing Knowledge. It seems from the live tweets that he made two main points that through sharing knowledge PAS is 'communicating our key values as an organisation' and that archaeology is 'storytelling', which is fundamental to what PAS does and it seems that he began his talk by reading to the gathering 'the opening lines from Treasure Island' (!). He argued that the purpose of recording finds was so that people may learn more about the past, and the archaeology and history of their local area' (referring to one of the PAS strategic objectives).

Among the FLOs, I have a lot of respect for Adam Daubney who is one of the few that I have come across in the 20-year history of the organization that actually reflects about what the PAS does. What is reported here however seemns to sugest that what he said referred less to archaeological outreach per se, but a Scheme-focussed (and thus object-focussed) narrativisation of decontextualised artefacts. I hope I am wrong about what he said. There is a difference between storytelling of the sort PAS sometimes fobs the press and public off with and archaeological inference. The mere telling of stories as a means to 'share knowledge' referred to in one of the tweets is merely dumbdown. Again, there is not much of a record in the material to which I have access of any useful discussion there may have been of those aspects of his presentation.

The last panel session 'PAS, Treasure, and museums' was introduced by Andrew Woods talking about treasure acquisition and the collections at York Museums. In the material to which I have access, there is not much evidence that anybody was very much interested in what was said or discussed. Not surprisingly, as PAS of course was set up to deal with evidence that does not fall under the 1996 Treasure Act.

The final session consisted of  Michael Lewis, head of PAS rounding up the day, and presenting 'Looking to the Future'. In the absence of much evidence that the participants thought much of what he was saying was of much interest to anybody outside the room. But there are some screenshots of slides:

The Plan for 2020 (Photo Durham FLO Ben Westwood)
The strategy is different from the aims already published, the Scheme seems to change its aims every few years. Note that the last is a return to the fifth aim of 2003 that was allegedly 'achieved' in 2006...
to define the nature and scope of a Scheme for recording Portable Antiquities in the longer term, to assess the likely costs and to identify resources to enable it to be put into practice.
That was not true of course, it was just convenient to delete it when ad hoc funding was available. This problem was discussed in the 2018 DCReview of the Scheme, but not publicised at the time - can one imagine that it was the subject of discussion today?

Among the 'recent developments' discussed by Mr Lewis were 'new guidelines on prioritising finds recording', in other words missing even more finds out than before. Bangor's Raimund Karl has told us that he has ascertained that already an unbelievable only 'one in ten' finds reported to FLOs are actually recorded by them, now the number will drop further? What's the point of having a PAS if that is all it is capable of giving?

Recent developments in PAS (Photo Durham FLO Ben Westwood)
And there are going to be new protocols for recording the pottery and lithics brought in by finders.

And there is no evidence from the material available to me that the Rescue policy document was even mentioned.

Finally, on a cultural note, Rob Webley waxes poetical about the PAS:
It was fifteen years ago this year,
That we started logging all this gear.
Take a look, come back later –
There’s gonna be loads more data.
So let us introduce to you, the buckles, coins and balance beams:
It’s the Port-able An-tiquities Scheme!

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