Friday 18 January 2019

Damage to Archaeological Stratification in Austria Caused by Artefact Hunting (3) Results of a 'Study' and their Interpretation

Relic of past greatness
This text is the third in a series looking at a recent paper by Raimund Karl  ('An empirical examination of archaeological damage caused by unprofessional extraction of archaeology ex situ ('looting'). A case study from Austria'. Archäologische Denkmalpflege 2, 2019, 1-34) and is the third and final part of my discussion of it. (see parts 1 and 2 here and here, also see the points made about 'a hole is not a hole, is not a hole' when it comes to artefact hunting, and also 'Archaeologists, Attitudes to Conservation and the Elephant Hunter Argument'

The Research Method and its Results
The 34 pages of this text are bulked out by various stuff, some of it not really needed. Karl's methods are set out on pp 5-9 and seem relatively self-explanatory, though raise serious questions not discussed (below). There are bar charts and histograms and it all makes an impression of Teutonic thoroughness and attention to detail. Except, there are a number of things missing here for this study to actually make sense - even, in fact, in the narrow framework the author had spent the previous four pages (hastily?) constructing......

Prof. Karl does not seem to differentiate the sites of his sample into types. This raises the of question how many of the sites in the sample were ones that would not be affected anyway by looters - and what kind of looting. We do not learn how many of the sites sampled by his search engine use were urban or built-up sites (such as tarmac-surfaced car parks) where artefact hunting could not take place by definition, or sites such as urban churchyards that would not tend to be openly targeted. Karl does not say.

He includes sites of all periods in the sample, so for example Palaeolithic (p. 7). A Palaeolitic site may be looted by digging a hole and sifting the upcast, but also by eyes-only searching (types A and H looting here), which could both be  equally destructive of the evidential value of the site it (knowledge theft), but only one of those types of looting is covered by Karl's \'study'.

What however produces holes made by digging blindly down in search of a target signal is a metal detector - because that can, as it were, 'see through the earth'. So how many sites in his survey are of the type that would see collectable items being looted by using a metal detector how many of the sites would be exploitable only by other means? But then for Karl, it does not matter as he's not interested in sites being damaged by eyes-only selective pickup, he's already decided that he is going to be focused on proving there's little deep hole digging.

Another problem that the description of the method (use of online search tool looking for specific terms) raises is that if the excavator did not use these terms in the report, traces of collection-driven exploitation of these sites would not figure in Prof. Karl's figures. I have in mind not only any that were contained in topsoil layers removed before more detailed excavation methods were engaged. I have in mind those that penetrated the topsoil and are detected in the underlying material, but not specifically as the result of treasure hunting. The base of one of the types of metal detecting hoik holes could be recognised as such by an excavator with his mind tuned to such a possibility and the characteristics of the hole and its fill give the game away. If not, it would be recorded on the plans and in the text as a 'posthole' or some other type of feature and nott show up in Karl's automated search.

Again, if we are thinking to a large (or at least some) degree about those metal detecting chappies, since detectorists (in Britain) attempt above all to gain access to 'productive' sites, it would have been helpful here to have the statistics available (and in particular in connection with the sites with 'negative evidence', pp 20-25) of how many metal artefacts each site produced in excavation - and in particular, knowing how tekkies love them, how many coins. What is the density of such metal objects across the sites examined? A site with a density of one or two metal finds per ten metre square is less attractive to collectors than one that has forty to fifty. This information is missing.

Also I fail to see how one can produce a 'statistically reliable statement' about the damage caused to the archaeological record in Austria by recent looting if we do not know how big an area each of the trenches where whatever-it-was was found, and what relation they have to the overall size of the whole site itself. A trench that covers the whole of a site and a chunk of the area around it has a different evidential value (in the regard we are interested in here) than a three-are trench in an extensive medieval village extending along a former road. That is, unless we assume that every large site sampled by a more limited excavation trench was evenly looted right across its whole area, and so it is not important where that trench was dug, as it would produce consistent results whatever area of the site was sampled. If we cannot assume that, then this obviously needs to be taken into account in Karl's 'statistical model'. 

Where are they searching and why?
Also missing is information about the topography. On my own field inspections of rural sites in Poland (permits needed), the traces of infilled - or open - metal detector holes do not often occur on the parts of sites that are more visible from nearby roads, footpaths or houses (there are of course exceptions). They are more likely to be found concealed in the lee of an earthwork, or behind some bushes or in a copse, where the searchers are hidden from prying eyes. Thus it is obvious that an excavated area x metres by x metres on one side of the site will probably find very few metal detector holes, while just a bit further over in the trees, on the same site, there will be a multitude. 

Without those types of information, ' I found records of five sites with holes in the stratified layers below the topsoil, seven with possible looting holes and over a thousand without' is not by itself a 'statistic' that tells us anything about artefact hunting activity anywhere. 

And that's about as far as it goes. Karl gives us information about some sites that had holes dug in them by looters. They are an interesting case study, but it really looks like the we are still left waiting for the 'reliable statistical information' to actually assess the scale of Collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record as a whole in Austria, just as we are in most other countries - including the British Isles. This is a question that needs a far more robust research method than that applied here. 

The interpretation
Karl's 'conclusions' (pp 28-31) drag on rather and mostly repeat at pointless and excessive length what he'd said above to bulk out 'the number five' to article size. The point he's been building up to appears on page 29:
 'The main result of this empirical examination of the archaeological evidence is that it does not support the popular archaeological belief that ‘looting’ causes significant archaeological damage and thus poses a serious threat to present and future archaeological research [..] and is certainly not endemic amounts of grievous damage that are being caused by it [...] overall, the damage to Austrian archaeology caused by recent ‘looting’ has to be assessed as miniscule, if not even completely irrelevant'
This is a 'conclusion' that is repeated several times all the way down p 29 just to make sure the message sinks in to even the most stubborn preservationist. 'Metal detectorists' and coin collectors  all over Europe will be queuing up to give the Bangor academic a hearty slap on the back and heartfelt thanks. Nevertheless, the rest of us can see that the 'evidence' has been skewed by narrowing the question, and dismissing the rest as allegedly just 'popular' misconception. 

The Overinterpretation
But Karl goes disturbingly further. On pp 30-32 he drives the point that 'shocking levels of professional misconduct', 'looting (sic) by professional archaeologists' "likely (sic) dwarfing that done by non-professional 'looting'..." ... 'over areas large enough to 'cuttle or park a whole fleet of luxury cars' (interesting association there) "are likely to have caused a large multiple of the total damage done by any, including the worst, ‘looting’ pits in terms of both scale and significance".  So, Two Wrongs, even is looting was bad (and he's just said it is not) the arkies are doing much more of it. On p. 32 he warns preservationists "we should be very careful who we accuse of 'looting' (scare quotes) and causing serious damage to the archaeology (sic)' and then repeats again what he wrote two pages above. 

Obviously, Karl mixes up the modus operandi of the artefact hunter (blindly and unsystematically removing loose material with little attention paid to seeking and documenting earth-written patterns (evidence) in pursuit of collectables - hoiking them out of the ground willy-nilly) with the methodology of archaeological excavation. He has argued in comments on this blog that archaeologists dig to accumulate collections, because what else is a museum? I admit to being totally flummoxed by such a view of archaeology, more fitting to Belzoni, Salt and Layard than anything I learnt in my studies, but there we are. 

I think it is worth pointing out that this 'heritage crime' committed by Austrian archaeologists that Karl keeps banging on about until he's blue in the face is that they have not managed to process the results of these excavations in the requisite time stipulated by the permits. So according to his reasoning, there is no human context, they are criminals and the mafia-like BDA who he hates so much have colluded in the process because they have not chased them up on it as 'the law requires'. 

As I said, I am not really concerned whether Austrian archaeologists feel the need to react to Karl's incessant nastiness directed at them from the platform offered by Bangor University and Archäologische Denkmalpflege. I am curious about one aspect of this however. In 2009 Raimund Karl, an Austrian archaeologist by then based in Britain undertook a research excavation (with Hazel Butler) at the important hillfort at Moel y Gaer Llanbedr Dyffryn Clwyd in the UK, a country that goes not have a permit system for archaeological fieldwork. So far, a short 'preliminary report' appeared that had no detailed plans of any of the stratigraphical units or features, no proper finds report and only listed samples taken without a detailed presentation of the results of their analysis. That was a decade ago. Ms Butler has, I believe, since left archaeology. I cannot find a reference to the appearance of the full report of this investigation, and when it came out. Prof Karl can no doubt supply one to avoid comments of the nature of pot calling a kettle black. For this same failing (and no, I am not myself immune to the same criticism), Raimund Karl  sees fit to viciously lay into colleagues and call them 'criminals' and 'looters' when it suits his purpose of supporting metal detectorists and defending artefact collectors in his home land.

Summing up I think really the whole question of the actual archaeological effects of the activities of an unknown number of artefact hunters removing artefacts by a variety of means from archaeological sites and assemblages does need to be looked at in a less slanted and more sophisticated manner, not just in Austria, but in a number of countries. Who will do that? Maybe some Austrian archaeologists might like to put Karl's beloved PAS to the test and do a similar survey of what evidence there is of the scale of 'metal detecting' in England and Wales. But this aim cannot merely be addressed merely by taking the easy way out and only seeing if detector holes are found in modern excavations, but actually looking at the issue more holistically and objectively. 

 Karl, R and Butler, H 2009, Moel y Gaer Llanbedr Dyffryn Clwyd. Excavations, Summer 2009. Preliminary report, Bangor Studies in Archaeology Report No.  1

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