Wednesday 17 June 2020

Metal detecting at CIfA in Leeds (2) Metal Detector Use will Produce More Metal Objects

The elephant in the room
This post follows on from the one above and takes a look at the videos resulting from the session on "metal detectors" that for some reason, the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists decided to have at  their Leeds meeting (see above for the setting).

The first one we find online is a presentation "Where to detect? A review: metal detector surveys on developer-funded investigations"  by Stewart Bryant: (13 mins)
Systematic metal detector surveys are increasingly being undertaken on archaeological investigations although their use is still relatively low and is confined largely to the south and east. This paper will briefly review metal detector surveys on developer-funded survey and excavation projects using the evidence of recent fieldwork together with the research and analysis of metal detector surveys undertaken by the Roman Rural Settlement Project. 
The presenter has basically taken the collaborative work 'The Rural Settlement of Roman Britain' (2016) and from it obtained information about (it seems), where metal detector use is taking place on commercial excavations. I must admit to feeling at a bit of a loss here. I work in Poland where metal detectors have been part of the archaeological toolkit since the 1990s - both in surveys as well as in excavations. I wrote critically [in Polish I suspect] on the way in which they were used in the latter back in the 1990s, if you please.  So what's this about?

Anyway, this seems to be a prime case to apply Flannery's "Mickey Mouse Laws" criticisms. He keeps going on about how the things he demonstrates are not surprising but they are "empirical"; it feels like we are back in the 1970s! It's a bit annoying that all he seems to be doing is reading from his own slides most of the time.

Dr Bryant seems to be saying that there are more metal finds and coins the larger area you dig, and that if you use a metal detector...  He shows that the size of commercial excavations across the country varies. He then argues that because sites in the north and west tend to be smaller than in the 'Home Counties', there are fewer metal objects from them, and so - he argues - the significance of the ones that are found is greater than further south and west.  A slide explains the 'impact of metal detector surveys on the recovery of coins' , and he notes that of all excavated Roman rural sites coins were found at only 44% of them (!) - but on 297 sites (8%), metal detector surveys had been carried out and of these 261 (88%) had produced coins (I suspect he means irrespective of its area).

What I am struggling to get to terms with is the underlying presumption that seems to be being expressed here, he gives the impression that the aim of doing rural archaeology" is to get coin assemblages.  He keeps going on about coins.

So he reckons that in certain areas of the UK, because the size of excavations is habitually smaller than the south and east, there needs to be more metal detecting on archaeological projects to get more metal objects (I'd say perhaps a general improvement of investigation methodology if they are missing so much material without a metal detector!).

But the aim of excavation is not to "get more finds", but to get information about the site (of which the artefactual content of the layers is only part). This is why I find the final comment a bit confusing.
"The question [of] responsible detectorists of "where to detect" could be  answered by 'in the north and west' where the relative archaeological significance of Roman metalwork recovered is arguably the highest"
It is not clear what this means. Does he mean these "responsible detectorists" should be knocking at the doors of all the commercial archaeology units and firms, museums and conservation bodies offering their services and references, so they can take part in archaeological projects? I hope that is what is meant. It is not clear however. He could also be saying that in collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record, targeting Roman sites in the north and west would lead to the recovery (and responsible recording) of lots more loose pieces of "relatively significant" Roman metalwork. The problems with this are (a) the sites would be depleted of those items before they could be excavated, (b) a great many sites in this area are presently under upland pasture where the Code of Best Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting in England and Wales (2017) prevents the responsible detectorist from hoiking objects out of the archaeological record, (c) many sites in these areas are sensitive to disturbance, and (d) if the metal objects in them are relatively significant on a national scale, should they be being decontextualised and disappearing into the hands and pockets of collectors anyway?

Reference: Brindle, T., Smith, A. T., Allen, M. G. and Fulford, M. (2016). The Rural Settlement of Roman Britain: New Visions of the Countryside of Roman Britain vol 1 Britannia Monograph series 29 (Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies) London.

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