Wednesday, 17 June 2020

Metal detecting at CIfA in Leeds (6) "This is just my Personal Opinion"

This post follows on from the ones 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).

In the last video to be put online from this session, Toby Catchpole (Gloucestershire County Council) talks on 'Metal detecting and local authority archaeology services' (14 minutes). He however retitled it to 'metal detecting - a local authority archaeology service view', just to stress that these are my own comments. How sad that an archaeologist cannot express an archaeological view of these issues, but only saying what he - personally - thinks. 
After the core activities of development related advice, HER provision and agri-environment consultations, metal detecting is the most significant (and increasing) call on the time of archaeology service staff in Gloucestershire, not only the Finds Liaison Officer (FLO). It is also a major source of new archaeological information available to our HER, exceeded only by planning led commercial archaeology and aerial prospection (NMP projects). This paper will aim to highlight some of the issues that arise, such as the difficulty of funding and staffing emergency rescue excavations in a period of austerity, the increasing costs of managing and hosting FLOs, the negative impact of commercial rallies and their relationship with stewardship schemes, and also wider compatibility issues between PAS and HER datasets.

It will also attempt to stimulate debate regarding the use of detectors/ists more consistently in archaeological practice, what training might help, and ask whether the subject should actually be mentioned in revised CIfA Standards and Guidance documents.
No Viking finds from
Cotswolds on PAS database
Here's another one mumbling into his hand-held notes and the sound quality is not too good, which is a shame as he says some important things. He starts off with the usual "positives". But the tone starts shifting when talking about the PAS. One thing that emerges is that although he says they've got a lot of "responsible detectorists" in his region, slightly less than half of that information that is recorded is suitable for work with the HERs for planning assessments (some 5000 records from 23 years of the operation of PAS). Interestingly, Dr Catchpole suggests that some of the "data" offered to the PAS are simply false. He cites just one example of this, a findspot of "numerous" items of Viking material from a site in the Cotswolds that on investigation must be concluded to be false data. An expensive research project was conducted on a detectorist's say-so, and it turned out that the archaeologists had been misled about the findspot of the items concerned. This is one of my own earliest experiences with British metal detectorists, in the 1970s.

In the discussion of the real difficulties that attend organising excavations on findspots (citing an example of 'some cemetery somewhere' but on Higher Level Stewardship [!] land ), he mentions that one problem is that between excitedly digging something up and reporting it, metal detectorists quite frequently cannot remember which hole the finds came from (so, then, what value are any reports made to the FLO?). He gives an example showing how a 5/6th century burial had been trashed, because the detectorist did not recognise the nature of the sheet fragments he was recovering (but kept digging them up) and "threw them in the hedge". This would not be happening if the artefact hunter was trying to find information about the past and not merely things to collect.   Dr Catchpole points out how much the hidden costs or even a small intervention are, and "it's all public money".

Then he shifts to talking about commercial artefact hunting rallies.  The picture he paints has been well known to some of us who study and write about collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record in the UK, so it comes as a bit of a shock to observe that this speaker thinks he's telling his audience something that will be new to them (was it?).  He certainly tells them like it is. Here there is a discussion of the characteristics of the Stewardship Schemes, and their limitations.

Abusive detectorist haunts (geophys)
There is then a case study of one site that had been robbed by several rallies - though no finds were ever recorded from them.  When a survey was commissioned by the archaeologists, it showed how the rallies had stripped the surface artefacts from the site, destroying it. "The rallies only ceased when the landowner tried to introduce certain restrictions, and then local people concerned consequently started to receive the usual online abuse". Why should this be "usual" for an archaeologist dealing with archaeological matters?

What I think particularly disturbing is when you search the online documentation of the activities of the archaeology unit of this county council and the PAS database, you will not find the objects and sites discussed here by a simple search. They appear to have been hidden ... because.... "metal detectorists". How can these sites enter the literature and be part of the public heritage debate, if the bulk of the information is hidden, like the "Crazy Cressie's doggie hoard" at the head of this post, much discussed on this blog, and still nobody is saying where it was found, and I am disappointed that the speaker did not mention it and its fate.

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