Thursday 10 January 2019

Unreported Finds: How do we Know About Them?

On Facebook, where somebody posted my text Unreported 'Metal Detecting' Reaches Crisis Proportions in England and Wales a question was asked by Henry Gough-Cooper:
I still don’t understand. If it’s unreported material, disappearing unrecorded, and not in the datatbase, how do they know it’s ever existed?
So I decided to reply. Reposted here for reference:
The issue is a critical one in assessing current British policy on Collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record for personal entertainment and profit (what is normally called ‘metal detecting’ in the UK, though it is only part of the problem). The official line is that the ‘metal detecting problem’ is solved in England and Wales through the PAS and in Scotland through the TTU (one voluntary, one mandatory system of reporting found artefacts). It is glibly claimed by those that support collecting activity that both are ‘great successes’. We saw that in the Telegraph article to which the link goes.

But before claiming success, these claims need to be verified by actually checking to what degree the recording in place in both zones actually does mitigate the information loss by responsibly making available information on the objects taken and at least their findspots- if nothing else. And of course (as you point out) counting what is invisible is impossible. So we have to infer – just the same as we infer in the historical sciences, extrapolating from what we have evidence of (data) to what we need to know to put them in context.

For a long time, the supporters of collecting and the institutions refused to address this issue though there were private initiatives (such as the model known as the ‘Heritage Action Artefact Erosion Counter’ set up many years ago to assess the coverage of the PAS in England and Wales). Then the BM eventually broke its silence and fumbled around and produced some figures of its own for Englan and Wales that – while I am sure they are understated – provided a confirmation of the HA counter’s underlying assumptions (Robbins, K. (2014). Portable Antiquities Scheme: A Guide for Researchers; p. 14) .

This estimate has to be based on two parameters. 1) How many artefact hunters (lets say ‘metal detectorists’) are there in England and Wales? 2) How many artefacts do they find on average in a year? Unfortunately, despite twenty-one years of expensive liaison with the artefact hunting and collecting communities, we are still unable to give a firm answer to either question. And isn’t that odd? How many other UK government policies or projects would (should) be supported to the tune of several tens of millions of pounds over a twenty year period without one single piece of official data being collected on the scale of the problem and the degree to which those tens of millions of quid of public money being spent are dealing with the issue it was set up to deal with? Whether or not there are parallels, it’s still a bit odd, no?

The last time data were collected among detector users on how many recordable items artefact hunters find was in 1995. In order to compile the HA counter a decade later, several of us spent a long time analysing the ‘detectorists’ forums and social media where people were showing fellow users what they had found the day before and also taking into account the number of people on those social media that posted very little and nothing. There were also at this time a couple of other online resources (data from several rallies and an online survey). We looked into these data very carefully and came to the conclusion taking into account the variables, that the average number of recordable items (whether or not the finder recognised them as such) per artefact hunter was just over 30 a year. This is taking into account that numbers of detectorists go out only a few times a year and have an increase of their collections of a handful of finds for that, while there are those who are out 50 or more times a year, all day (see Suzie Thomas on this) who can amass huge collections. That was then, possibly improvements in detector technology have raised this figure since then, but checking that figure by the same means is impossible as the nature of the way detectorists use their forums has altered since then. Hardy’s 2017 research (below) gives higher numbers.

And how many active ‘detectorists’ are there? That’s quite an involved story (I’ve summarised that here: ) the histogram there of published values drawn from several sources rejects extreme values and seems to support the idea that there is steady growth), but apart from published estimates there is ample other evidence of increasing numbers (a rise in number of clubs and their membership, the number of MD dealers, rising numbers of Treasure finds being reported and so on). The only serious recent attempt to gather empirical data is Sam Hardy’s paper which – despite the efforts of critics to merely trash it rather than provide empirically-founded alternative figures – seems to reflect the scale , if not absolute numbers, of the problem. (Quantitative analysis of open-source data on metal detecting for cultural property: Estimation of the scale and intensity of metal detecting and the quantity of metal-detected cultural goods Cogent Social Sciences Volume 3, 2017 - Issue 1)

Yet, if we look at PAS recording figures of items removed by collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record by ’metal detectorists’ and others, there is very little difference in numbers of items recorded (60-80000 per annum), since – say – 2012, despite the very clear evidence of an increase in scale of the activity producing them.

‘How do we know these removed but unrecorded finds ever existed’? Well, either we assume that detectorists behave irrationally, and go out in all weathers, as often as they can, and every single time find almost or absolutely nothing and yet keep at it for years and years until it dawns on them slowly that it’s a waste of time. OR, we presume that they are finding enough to make it worthwhile, and in many cases investing in more and better equipment. Also there is the factor of the UK antiquities market. This is particularly lively in locally found (among others) artefacts. Take a look how many of them bear any sign that before being sold off they were seen by the PAS (or TTU). The fact that the number is paltry (when citing licit provenance and showing the object had been reported raises collectable value) is evidence that material is being brought to the surface in some quantities to form collections as well as feed a voracious market with a high turnover, and only a small proportion of that material can be documented as having first been responsibly recorded. Those collections of unrecorded items become a problem when artefact hunters die - like this one:

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