Tuesday, 30 October 2018

What Kind of Archaeology is the PAS?

Really important single
 object, really important
Continuing our Twitter tête-à-tête, Ben Westwood, Durham FLO and I had this exchange about archaeology
Durham FLO Ben Westwood @FLODurhamFLO 28 paź
 If you really think that I/PAS are just concerned with 'single-event object centred past' and not 'context based analysis' then I honestly don't know what to say, other than you're utterly wrong. The point of the whole exercise is to preserve artefact data *and* it's (sic) context/ And to present that (sic) data in such a way as to enable further research. To pretend there's a 'real' archaeology that is some how above and beyond what I/PAS does or can achieve, is not only professionally insulting, it's ludicrous 
To test whether it really is 'ludicrous', I asked him to explain with a real example:
 28 paź
OK, show us. https://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/823713 … what real archaeology "further research" is there in your record of this?
And this is it:
Durham FLO Ben Westwood‏ @FLODurhamFLO 28 paź
Quite proud of that record and don't understand what your issue is with it If anyone decided to do a full study of these important studs then all the info is here for this example Full spatial context in terms of exact findspot and wider 'military zone' significance, comperanda etc.
And that's it. Someone lost a 'stud' here (we've got the findspot in a field, known apparently with an accuracy of a metre) and the rest is object-centric. There is no context based analysis in that record, nor is any deducable from that record as it stands.  Bearing in mind Mr Westwood was attempting to show I was allegedly 'wrong', I do not think he's done much of a job there. The record we have of that object is not archaeology it is naked artefactology (antiquitism), and no more than any collector can do with any decontextualised collectable. There is more to archaeology than that.

When I asked him Where is that full "spatial context" in terms of what else was in that field and not observed or collected by your source? I got this rather disingenuous reply:
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.
That's just nonsense. Unless the artefact hunter did systematically collect all the other associated material in the topsoil scatter of which that single bronze object formed a part and documented it as a proper survey of topsoil scatter, the FLO has not actually 'got' a contexct there at all. This is a decontextualised collectable, taken out of an unknown patter of other archaeological evidence and no 'ten figure NGR is ever going to put it back there, nor compensate for the loss of the surrounding evidence. Indeed the context itself has been dasmaged by removal of that piece (and who knows how many other pieces) of evidence, some of which the FLO had on his desk (bringing to the fore again the question of the ethics of handling this sort of material in the first place).  All the PAS database in fact contains is an incomplete record of damage done to site.

Let us bear in mind, that according to the PAS website in two years work, Mr Westwood, the FLO for County Durham, Darlington, and Teesside has managed to record 58 (or is it 38?) objects - mostly single potsherds and assorted metal objects from the full region [UPDATE Mr Westwood notes that the PAS FLO profile page provides data that are totally misleading - see here]. So there is little hope that there was really very comprehensive recovery and recording of the material from that same field within that region.*  There is nothing there for researchers to 'look at the Db to see what else was from that field' or, whether it is 'a fairly simple process' or not. According to the search engine, the PAS database contains records at present of just 43 potsherds and a few other metal artefacts from the entire parish recovered at various times and recorded by various people. That does not look to me like the results of careful gridded fieldwalking of even one field.

Mr Westwood speaking of 'others there that the finder missed' (other what, studs?)  does not really seem to me to have much of an idea about how sampling works. It is not just "what" (object -centred again) but where and in what relationships with what else that is the context of a surface exposure site. The investigation of such sites has a specific methodology (specific methodologies) and wandering across with a metal detector hoiking what you fancy is not one of them. Incomplete random data are not a "sample". What the FLO is recording is collecting practices, not a systematic attempt to generate archaeological data. PAS is collecting information on random items selected by somebody else from what they are collecting (while not collecting other archarological evidence), the vast amount of associated material on the sites exploited is ignored or discarded, or has been collected away with no record.

Mr Westwood weakly responded to that: "‏Or he didn't collect it [the stud], and 20-30 years later it rots into the soil after being ploughed over and soaked with corrosives innumerable times, and we lose this (sic) data. All archaeological data is, by definition, incomplete . Readers will know my attitude to the Rescue-by-Good-Collectors Argument (and might know Renfrew's) so I am not going to go through all that again. I'll just point out that Westwood (a) is using a 'Two-Wrongs' Argument, (b) collectors use the same argument and (c) we should be aspiring to more than merely 'better than nothing'. Especially when we are spending millions of pounds of public money on it and calling it 'archaeology'.

Bad data are bad data. So you use up spend millions of quid recording bad data and calling it "citizen archaeology" as its "better than nothing"? But the record is still incomplete and composed of bad data.  

* UPDATE The area is upwards of 2720 sq km, and a with total population of potential 'finders' of c. 432000, 100 of whom according to the PAS statistics page have reported anything in the past two years, and only 43 records of which are not metal objects found with a metal detector, those 932 finds therefore are still pretty widely scattered. What is the point of PAS presenting numbers on their website that are totally false? 

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