Friday 18 January 2019

Damage to Archaeological Stratification in Austria Caused by Artefact Hunting (2): Prof. Karl's Stated Aims

"better, much better. Tremendous.
In fact... I think we 
can say...  nobody has ever had
such  good results.... 
better than me"

Donald Trump

Explaining in Austria
This text follows on from the first part of my discussion of a recent article: Damage to Archaeological Stratification in Austria Caused by Artefact Hunting (1) and reviewing a recent text by Bangor Professor Raimund Karl. In this one, I want to discuss the way the author sees collecting. But first: 

What is an Archaeological Site?
The way the text is constructed impels us to turn to a fundamental issue (or rather the same one as 'what is archaeology' in part one, but in a different form). Karl's text presents archaeological research as excavation, and excavated evidence as the only type that matters (indeed almost as if its the only type that exists). It seems the underlying premise is that if he can prove little damage is caused by collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record to stratification in situ, Karl can show that the practice is, in his opinion shown to not be as damaging as other archaeologists make out. As far down as p 28 we get this potted research aim:
The main aim of this study was to conduct an empirical examination of archaeological evidence for damage caused to previously ‘undisturbed’ archaeological contexts by the unprofessional extraction of archaeological finds ex situ, also commonly referred to as ‘looting’; particularly in recent times. 
So, according to this......,
a surface site cannot by definition be looted by collectors (and arrowhead hunters on BDM lands in the USA?) I do not know how much surface survey is done in Austrian field archaeology, however much it is, Karl seems to ignore it in this text as a source of archaeological information. While it is true that ploughsoil evidence is mentioned in passing in a footnote on page 2 and in a dismissive short passage at the end:
As such, it must be concluded that ‘looters’ in Austria seem to extract the finds they remove ex situ almost exclusively from the topsoil and only extremely rarely penetrate into previously ‘undisturbed’ archaeological contexts. While it can of course be argued that even topsoil is a context and that the analysis of topsoil finds and their distribution can help to answer significant research questions, this study found that, at least in Austria, this mostly remains a hypothetical argument. Topsoil, after all, is regularly stripped by mechanical digger on professional archaeological excavations in Austria [...]
Here we get into the artefact hunters' favourite argument [yawn, lets not go there today]. But excavations the size of the ones shown in this paper as examples are not regional surveys. And they are carried out, one presumes in Austria too, according to a defined research strategy. This will determine how its potential is used - or not - is the purpose of the research design of each specific investigation project, whether excavation of (part of) an individual site or regional surface survey.  Let us also leave aside the issue that in many areas of Europe, the terms topsoil is not always coterminous with ploughsoil.

Not only 'can it be argued' that the patterning of artefacts in the topsoil comprise archaeological evidence and thus 'the analysis of topsoil finds and their distribution can help to answer significant research questions', it is a fact. It is a fact that forms the basis for a whole load of fieldwork projects right across Europe, in the MENA area and elsewhere. In the USA there is literature on the topic of the collection-driven depletion of the vast majority of surface exposures of sites containing lithics, and the debate how to 'work with collectors' (Pitblado and Shott for example, mentioned on this blog) to recover some of the information that has been collected away. Artefact hunting, ripping out random collectable (and thus for the most part diagnostic) objects  destroys those patterns. Why does Karl not take this important factor into his study? Indeed, by only concentrating on the type of blind artefact hoiking that produces empirical evidence only of certain types and dimensions of holes, he is deliberately avoiding discussing the archaeological effects of the activities of the (he says) 2-300 artefact hunters with detectors in Austria, who in all likelihood do not dig such holes as a rule (in the UK they are the minority it seems). So, obviously his 'study' will produce lower numbers from looking at the issue narrowly than it would had he adopted a more holistic approach.

Assessing Looting
The whole argument starts off (pp 1-2) by opposing the views of two groups of archaeological scholars, (1) the preservationists and (2) the pro-collecting archaeologists. Karl then suggests that: 
The first group of archaeologists [...] argue that ‘looting’ does not just extract archaeology from topsoil contexts. Rather, they argue that, much too often, it also affects ‘undisturbed stratigraphy’, causing significant archaeological damage 
(Just two references cited - and then the 'Nebra Sky Disc, and a tendentiously-selected illustration, Fig 3 ignoring that topsoil evidence - that could have shown a metal detector survey plot since he thinks they are so important).

Not just ploughland
Now maybe that is what Austrian archaeologists do, but the main problem elsewhere is seen not just in the fossickings that penetrate the ploughsoil, but the general depletion of all the archaeological record by removal of material by collectors - that is why England and Wales actually have a PAS to record precisely those finds from shallow diggings as well as the deeper hoards and graves! We (his group one) also mention the issue of removal of material from shallow sites under permanent pasture (I believe they have some of that in Austria) and other uncultivated sites. But of course allowing that to impinge on his argument would mean it would not be enough to ignore the whole issue of surface sites and topsoil finds and just to run three annual roundups of excavations through his search engine to produce the result he publishes. And we have already noted how on p. 2 we got here, by Prof Karl casually slipping in that [group 1] archaeologists 'argue that 'looting' [his scare quotes] does not just extract archaeology [sic] from topsoil contexts' and then suggesting (in his footnote 1) that it is these archaeologists who are 'leaving aside that [...] there are contextual relationships between small finds [sic - not only] in topsoil too'. This is just weasel-wording. Whatever Karl may think, preservationists are arguing that site preservation should entail actually preserving those contextual relationships too! But Karl has deftly (?) constructed his argument the other way around in order to concentrate on just part of the overall problem and thus be better able to 'prove them wrong' and paint a picture that their concerns are exaggerated.

At the bottom of the page (p. 2) is his curious "is it better" passage that I discuss in another post here

It gets foggier on the next two pages (3-4), where Karl introduces his ideas about 'Assessing the scale of damage caused by looting'. The first point is good: 
Even though virtually all archaeologists agree that ‘looting’ does cause damage to archaeology (sic), the scale and significance of the damage it causes is surprisingly under-researched. 
That is the case, and it should not be. But what is not terribly helpful would be a 'study' that looks to be set up to ignore some of the very issues that 'group 1' archaeologists are concerned about, claiming that they as a general rule merely spread foundationless shock-horror stories that it is already clear Prof Karl is about to disprove. Paper tigers are no help at all.

Then Karl has a go at Hardy:
What little research there is seems mostly to be based on ‘estimates’, whether about the ‘illicit trade in portable antiquities’ [no reference given, no explanation of why there are scare quotes] or of the activities of metal detectorists (e.g. Hardy 2017; though cf. Karl 2018a; Deckers et al. 2018). [misses out later replies to both, slanting the narrative]
He then adds a curious accusation:
Alternatively, ‘assessments’ of the damage are based on generalisations from particularly spectacular cases like the already mentioned example from Nebra, or particularly shocking cases like that of sites looted during the 2003 invasion of Iraq (see Figure 2). [but in fact his figure 2 shows a site mainly looted from the mid 1990s] 
What? No references cited here at all. So I am unclear who or what is meant suggesting that in some way general models have been based on these specific examples. Certainly examples like this (in the British context Wanborough is often used) are used to show the potential damage that can be caused in some cases. I have done quite a lot of reading on these issues and must say am at a loss where Karl thinks he can find a text that generalises that every site raided by artefact hunters is going to look like Wanborough when you take the soil off. Still less where somebody has claimed that any site raided in Cannock Chase looks like Umm al-Aqarib does now. He should supply those references, because otherwise he could be accused of deliberately and artificially producing a tendentious argument with which to polemicise. 

But in his haste to make 'group 1' archaeologists (preservationists) look like hysterical idiots (that's how I read this passage), Karl misses out an important point about that Iraq looting. Before the problems caused after the Gulf Wars, a major method of conducting fieldwork in Iraq and adjacent areas, by various British, American (I think) and French  was precisely looking at the size, spatial configuration and zoning of surface material across settlements and tells like this in their geographical context. The digging of holes and the dumping of spoil around them as a result of the looting has forever obliterated that as a source of information about that site (and therefore its place in the region as many of these surveys were mesoregional).

Anyway, that aside, Karl then gallops forward. He reckons (p 3 - 4):
Thus, for the purpose of an empirical assessment of the damage done to [the?] archaeology [sic] of a particular area by the extraction of finds ex situ by non-professionals, the systematic assessment of excavation (and other fieldwork) reports from that area seem[s] to be a much better method than those used as yet. [...] If the dataset is also representative for all archaeology within the relevant area, statistically reliable statements can be made about the damage caused to archaeology by recent looting.
A 'better method' well, it is not, is it? It ignores a whole class of evidence, a class of evidence vital to understanding the overall effects of artefact hunting on the ability to do archaeological research on the archaeological record of a region (macro- meso- or micro) if you see the latter not narrowly focused on keyholing individual (parts of) sites. It narrowly examines just one aspect of a far more complex picture. The next bit of Karl's text (still on p. 4) is totally unclear to me:
This is especially so since it cannot be assumed that motives for and benefits gained by looting are the same all over the world. Rather, looting patterns and intensities clearly vary quite strongly, and as such, data gathered e.g. in a place like Iraq during a military invasion clearly cannot be generalised, not even to Iraq. Nor does the illicit international trade in portable antiquities provide much in terms of useful data for assessing that question [...]
What question? Reportedly the text we are reading was supposed to be about assessing [using empirical traces on the ground] the scale and significance of the damage caused by collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record in Austria (only). So why introduce 'motives' and 'cui bono' and looting patterns all over the world? Who is trying to apply 'data from Iraq' to Austria, or anywhere else? Crazy group 1 archaeologists? Who, where, when? This is a good illustration of how the article very quickly starts to lose focus. Again., let the author provide some meaningful references. 

Let's move on to the results of this study (Part 3).

(actually, I made up the 'Donald Trump' quote at the top, but that's exactly the sort of spirit-of-the times puffed up bluster masking superficiality that this article seems to represent, taking the number "five holes' and building a big fuzzy construction around it to get a publication out of it for self-promotion - and to 'stick the knife into' fellow archaeologists in Austria). 

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