Sunday, 7 October 2018

Sustainable Metal Detecting: the Gold Standard

I raised the question of what type of metal detector use can be described as "sustainable metal detecting" (cf the weasel-worded position of the ECMD who obviously have not the foggiest about the topic) and this was picked up by Heritage Action (Nigel Swift,  'Announcing the Heritage Journal’s unqualified support for sustainable metal detecting!' Heritage Journal 06/10/2018) 
PAS and tens of thousands of detectorists tell farmers and the public that metal detecting is mostly beneficial. Clearly that implies that well ordered and aspirational detecting should be called “beneficial metal detecting”. But it can’t be, for such a phrase would stick in the craw of the authorities since random removal just isn’t beneficial. Hence they’ve come up with a different term: “responsible metal detecting”. That has 8,300 Google hits and an official Code of Conduct and is defined as doing it in a recommended responsible fashion. Not a beneficial fashion, NB.
Nigel suggests that 'it is high time the tricksy linguistic cover provided by the term “responsible metal detecting” was replaced by a more accurate and aspirational one both as a guide to proper behaviour by detectorists and as an aid to better decision making by farmers'.  He adds ' I think the proper term for gold standard, acceptable detecting is “sustainable metal detecting”. That says it all. I support sustainable metal detecting one hundred percent'. Nigel considers it bizarre that the phrase 'sustainable metal detecting' currently gets zero Google hits:
but we’ll now try to change that radically. By all that’s fair and honest and “responsible”, detectorists and PAS should adopt it too. If they don’t it will speak volumes. So let’s see …. Update: After just 24 hours “sustainable metal detecting” now gets you 144 Google hits – 143 from us, 1 from Paul Barford (who originated the term with reference to Beach detecting) and NONE from PAS or metal detectorists. We’ll let you know how the phrase progresses and who uses it.
The term appears only scarecely in searches of archaeological literature, more commonly you'll find the word 'sustainable' in the context of securing archaeologists jobs recording artefact hunters' finds (for example Andres S. Dobat, Astrid T. Jensen “Professional Amateurs”. Metal Detecting and Metal Detectorists in Denmark Open Archaeology 2016; 2: 70–84).

Obviously to be 'sustainable', the resource on which the metal detector is used cannot be depleted, that is not what the word means. In fact the activity of 'metal detecting' if the term is treated literally is not destructive. If a hobbyist walked across a site bleeping away and detects metal under the ground and sticks a small flag in at that spot, then this is not depleting the resource. It is only when the object is blindly hoiked out of its context of deposition by digging those 'detected' iems that are then either chucked or pocketed, that the archaeological record is damaged. This is another reason why I propose the use of the term 'Collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record'. But merely flagging spots where buried metal has been detected wioould be a non-destructive (so, sustainable) hobby, but a bit pointless.

In order for pieces of metal to be taken out of the ground without the overall number being reduced, obviously a number of similar items need to be added to the record at the same rate as they are being lost. This needs to happen in real time (so for example metal detecting for precious metal items washed from houses in last year's tsunami - apart from being ghoulish - cannot be treated as a sustainable process unless one knows another tsunami is coming along in the near future).

Those metal detecting rallies where one pays to search a piece of land for freshly-placed tokens or other metal objects (if not themselves of an origin on another archaeological site) as a test of skills are one example. When the 'finders' go home, new tokens are put in the ground and the process casn begin again.

The searching of places where people dropped items in fresh beach sand is another activity that seems to have the promise of sustainability, as long as the tourists keep coming, metal objects will get lost in the loose sand. This however has other issues (see here). But this could be a form of "sustainable metal detecting".

Perhaps the same can be said of searching streams for gold pieces washed down from placer deposits higher upstream  where the process does not disturb archaeological/historical sites or ecosystems (see here too). As long as the gold is eroded out upstream and washes downstream at a rate similar to its removal, the metallifferous deposits remain replenished. The same however cannot be said of detecting for gold in a stable earth deposit that is not currently being replenished.

What else can be considered "sustainable metal detecting"?  If "metal detecting" is to be seen as an adequate term, what are the practical consequences?

Vignette: Tsunami 

Sustainable Metal Detecting, Sustainable Metal Detecting, Sustainable Metal Detecting, Sustainable Metal Detecting.

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