Wednesday 17 June 2020

Metal detecting at CIfA in Leeds (1)

Anyone can dig stuff up
For some reason, the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists decided to devote a session of their Leeds meeting to the humble metal detector. The session was organised for them by Keith Westcott of the "Association of Detectorists" (sic) and the "Detectorists Foundation" (sic). Here's me on the draft programme: PACHI Friday, 9 November 2018: '"Detectorists" Take over First Session of Charted Institute for Archaeologists Conference'.  They announced back in August last year that the videos were 'online', but that was not true: PACHI Tuesday, 6 August 2019, 'CIfA Leeds April Conference Presentations on Metal Detector Use Online [UPDATED]'. 

Now, nearly a year later, the videos have been put online by  Doug Rocks-Macqueen (Communicating the values of archaeologists to detectorists and embedding metal detecting into professional practice). As might be expected, if you don't get the terminology sorted out before you start, they were talking in one breath about (at least) two different things. It is not clear how many of those listening caught on. The session keynote is this from  Keith Westcott, of his "Association of Detectorists":
From the public’s perspective, metal detecting is a current and significant element within the heritage and archaeological environment. The accessibility of the hobby and the media propensity towards stories of ‘treasure’ offers the public a tangible link to our portable past whether through active participation or visually through news articles and museums exhibits.
That seems a bit gobbldy-gookish: from the public’s perspective, I'd say they were getting muddled messages about the part played by collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record in the "the heritage and archaeological environment" . "The media propensity towards stories of ‘treasure’  offers"< what? (the public a tangible link to what?) It does not make sense. But hey, "metal detectorist"....
To many, the discovery of an artefact equates to success resulting from physically searching into the past, whilst little is understood as to how the interpretation of contextual information to be gained from a find spot can further the collective knowledge of our heritage.
But, surely, that is what the PAS was set up to do, 23 years ago. It is their number one aim in the 2003 "five underlying aims". Millions of pounds have been spent on this... wasted, it seems. Next the metal detectorist admits the problem:
With artefacts being a depleting resource,
Think about that for a moment. We find out that killing elephants, rhinos and whales is leading to dangerously low numbers, so the "responsible hunters", being aware of that, pledge to....
it is important to address the social divide between academically educated archaeologists and the hobbyists protecting their current freedoms.
...carry on. The hobbyist artefact hunters are protecting their current freedoms to carry on hunting. Silently stripping out the diagnostic artefacts from sites all over the country. That, Mr Westcott suggests, is not a problem, what the real problem is that nasty academically educated people, educated in the way to observe and document the traces of the past in archaeological sites "don't want" to cross the "social divide" to meet the hobbyists like Tattooed Harry, Keith Chetwynd, Kris Rodgers, Norman Smith, Stephen Auker Mark BecherKevin Anderson Ged Dodd, Steve Taylor , John Howland and Buz Thugwit.   So Mr Westcott has an idea how to bridge that "social divide": 
How should archaeologists communicate their values in order to positively influence the mindset of detectorists? Is there value in recognizing the potential of the metal detector by embedding their use into professional practice?
Here in two sentences is the essence of the problem. The metal detector is a tool. So are spades. Let's replace the word "m...dtr"  with "spade"  to show how this works:
How should archaeologists communicate their values in order to positively influence the mindset of navvies? Is there value in recognising the potential of the spade by embedding their use into professional practice?
Now obviously of PART of archaeological professional practice is excavating, it might go better if you had a tool for- for example - cutting turf, putting in fixed benchmarks, erecting noticeboards for the public. So yes, there is a place for spades (too) in archaeological professional practice. The question is  to what degree we can "communicate our values" (I think he means educate but is scared to say the "e" word) labourers? Can council maintenance workers be educated by the archaeologists to excavate and record archaeological features they encounter when repairing or extending a storm drain or laying electric cables for street lights and signs? Is there a need to send archaeologists out when such work takes place in archaeologically sensitive areas if we can only educate the labourers to do the job properly for us? And if we can, and "anyone can do this", why in the blazes do we need any "Chartered Institute" for hole diggers?

I presume the ironic tone there was perceptible. The problem is that professional archaeologists are not just "educated people", but they have been educated in a particular specialism. If I am going to have my gall bladder out, I would not be all that happy about being told that I was going to be operated on by "an educated guy", if that education was in fact an MA in seventeenth century English literature, and the anaesthesiologist was a flautist in the local opera who'd written a thesis at teh Sorbonne on "Debussy and the musical representation of colour", or whatever. What does "the phrase archaeologists communicating their values in order to positively influence the mindset of artefact hunters" mean? Let's take a look at the five presentations to see what the participants made of it all.

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