Tuesday 6 August 2019

Making Artefact Hunting Great (Again)? Museum Archaeologists and Collection-Driven Destruction of the Archaeological Record

Objects used as Entertaining
Illustrations of the Past
From the CIfA conference abstracts:

Dr Michael Lewis FSA MCIfA Head of Portable Antiquities and Treasure, British Museum
Making Metal-Detecting Great (Again)? - advocating a more archaeologically minded approach to hobby metal-detecting 
For 20 years the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) has been working with the metal-detecting community. In that time great strides have been made, with large numbers of detectorists now willing to engage with archaeologists to record their finds and work alongside archaeologists in other ways. Also, has been developed a Code for Responsible Metal Detecting, outlining (for the first time) a base-line for best practice, and (through the HLF funded PASt Explorers project) a mechanism for detectorists and other people to be trained to record their own finds directly on the PAS database. However, it remains a frustration that many detectorists still refuse to engage with the PAS, seemingly happy to relish in the contribution of metal-detecting to our knowledge of the past but not actual add to knowledge themselves. This paper explored the dichotomy between those detectorists who are keen to contribute to archaeological knowledge and those that do not, and ask the question ‘what do archaeologists do about that?’ 
Twenty years this has been going on.

"Great strides have been made"?  Really?

1) Why are heritage professionals "working with" artefact hunters randomly demolishing the accessible archaeological record, mining it as a source of collectables for personal entertainment and profit? Great stride? Hardly. 

2) The work I have done (unpublished) strongly suggests that while full figures are unavailable (why?), the rate of recording of items through PAS FLOs since 2003 has not been hugely greater than the available figures for finds reported by detectorists to local museums and units before the PAS was set up (in many cases in those same local museums). If that is so, the claim of "great strides" is based on the fact that the reporting activity has simply been redirected to the PAS from other bodies - sometimes on paper only (see what was happening in Norfolk in the first decade or so of PAS there). This is more PAS spin than a hard and honest look at the actual figures.

3) "The Code of Practice" does not go far enough and thus achieves very little, and is in any case routinely ignored by the majority of artefact hunters and collectors in the UK in favour of their own 'close the gates' version.  It is untrue to say that the PAS Code is "the first time:", since it is basically a rewrite of a CBA document that pre-existed the CBA.

4) The "dichotomy between those detectorists who are keen to contribute to archaeological knowledge and those that do not" is based on a false conceptualisation of Collection-Driven Exploitation of the Archaeological Record and the aims of those that do it. What archaeologists need to "do about that" is to first actually investigate the nature of the activity and how 'detectorists' (sic) themselves conceptualise it. Their 20 years 'liaison' would have been enough if the arkies had been awake enough to the task (instead of trying to fit the people they deal with into their own preconceptions: 'only interested in the past', 'citizen archaeologists' etc). The second would be to explore options other than the twenty-year failed and damaging social experiment that was the PAS.

Twenty years should be enough to show that it simply is not working, and - given a number of factors, including funding issues - is not going to work. It will not achieve a 'sustainable' form of artefact hunting (and so simply compounds irreversible damage)  and will never be able to mitigate any significant fraction of the information lost through artefact hunting in its present form. It also damagingly undermines the public perception of the subject matter and methods of (proper) archaeology itself . It simply provides a cuddly facade behind which a massive amount of clandestine destruction of the accessible portions of the English and Welsh archaeological record have taken place. 

And what on earth does the Head of this damaging Scheme mean by claiming that Collection-Driven Exploitation of the archaeological record can somehow be "made great (again)"? In the corridors of Bloomsbury, I expect there is a hankering after the days of the likes of Austen Henry Layard, Charles Fellows, Stein and the great artefact hunting expeditions to the Middle East, Africa and Africa of the Colonial era. The rest of us, however, see the archaeological record as more than a mine for attractive, illustrative trophy items to be collected, displayed, described and narrativised.

Artefact hunting and collecting are not 'great', they are always (whether the objects are 'recorded' or not) damaging to the archaeological record. That's why everywhere except Bloomsbury people are discussing how to curb this threat.

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