Wednesday 17 June 2020

Metal Detecting at CIfA Leeds (7) What does it all mean?

Garrett PD 6500i metal detector
This post follows on from the other six above about 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). It was called 'Communicating the values of archaeologists to detectorists and embedding metal detecting into professional practice'.

The second part of this title is the less controversial if you tweak the term used. "Embedding metal detector use into professional practice" should, I would have thought, be a doddle. Britain has tens of thousands of people out there that like "detecting" (finding) things with their metal detectors. British archaeologists seem to fetishise the "object", so put the two together and, where's the problem? This session does not really explain that. We hear from Bryant, Nash and Bailie that "supervised metal detecting surveys have a valuable role to play within professional archaeological practice alongside other techniques". But Bryant  (and Nash in passing) tell us that for some reason (and it would be interesting to know what those reasons actually are) that potential is not being realised in some parts of the country. Nash tells us that some developers baulk at the idea of paying for this kind of survey (perhaps the television series "detectiorists' might have made it look a triviality?)

One thing I would like to draw attention to in Bryant's account is that it shows clearly that those coins he kept going on about are not all that common, if you excavate a site bigger than this room but below a certain area, the chances are that the finds assemblage will not contain a single coin. Yet the PAS database has 354,700 Roman (mostly metal) objects in it, yet 274,477 are coins, and another 3,007 are hoards (the great majority of which are coin hoards), which would mean that 77216 Roman artefacts on the database are not coins. That means 78% of the reports of artefact hunters consists of coins, and slightly under 22% all the rest, while on the excavated sites, the proportions were the opposite. Once again, this raises the question of how representative or (given Catchpole's comments) reliable/truthful are the "data" on the PAS database. One that will not go away.

While there is much talk about what "we" the archaeologists want of the detectorist when we graciously allow them to work on our projects, I wonder there was no presentation of a detectorist saying what they expect from archaeologists apart from them just "communicating their values" (whatever that is supposed to mean).

Which brings us to the first part of the session's title 'Communicating the values of archaeologists to [artefact hunter]s '. I've tweaked the title here too, because it is surely important to replace sloppy wording with words with meaning. Detecting metal is what the people on airport security gates do. The problem is that artefact hunting is all about collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record. Artefact hunters, if they are not doing it to flog the stuff off straight away, are to a large extent artefact ('relic') collectors. This simple fact is so often ignored by a lot of archaeologists that support collaboration with "metal detectorists". Let's call a spade a spade.

What artefact hunters do
This then raises the question whether (or to what extent, if you like), artefact collecting reflects any archaeological values at all. To what extent is real archaeology in the 21st century and after all the methodological and theoretical developments since the 1870s just about loose "Old things"? What are collectors' values?  I do not see any of this reflected in the contents of this session. In fact, I do not see much explicit discussion of what those archaeological values are in the first place (see my comments on Bryant), let alone how they are to be communicated.

What we do see however are presentations that show quite clearly that when there is legislation to prevent looting (Bailie) and countries where artefact hunters are kindly asked to play fair (Lewis, Catchpole) they are not. Nash shows us (though I suspect inadvertently) the damage that is caused by willy-nilly hoiking. Yet still British archaeologists plod on in the same rut: "maybe if we ask nicely some more, and "communicate our values" some more, even though the last twenty years have seen little progress commensurate with the effort, perhaps it will start working soon". Some call that a 'policy', I see it as just stubborn stupidity and laziness.

Catchpole says that his conclusions on what he's seen is just his "own personal opinion". I bet there are many county archaeologists and people involved with heritage in a way that involves close contact with metal detectorists who have similar stories. The false findspots, artefact hunting on sensitive sites, artefact hunting stripping the evidence away, huge discrepancy between what is taken and what gets reported (Bailie mentions the enormity of it in Scotland), the damage done by commercial rallies (commercialisation of archaeological material - a topic mentioned by Lewis) and so on. Yet "my own personal opinion" is all they can muster. Catchpole has seen huge damage done by these people in his area, when attempts are made to protect vulnerable evidence from artefact hunters, the people involved get the "usual (that's the word he used) online abuse".

So what is it they were discussing in Leeds? There are the Keith Westcotts who want "to do things right". There are (I think I am right in saying) just two metal detectorists (out of 27000) in the UK that as a result have given up collecting and gone on to do archaeology degrees.* Perhaps some have hung up their metal detectors and resigned from the NCMD and joined real archaeological societies. There were two bloggers that started up "ethical detecting" blogs. Both have now stopped, one of them was hounded by fellow metal detectorists.

The problem is these apparent "good guys" are in the minority. Twenty+ years of outreach and pandering has not had much of an effect on the Baz Thugwit type. If there are 27000 detectorists in England and Wales, if 300 are the "really good guys", lets say 3000 do a bit of PAS reporting on a more or less regular basis (figure from the top of my head as the PAS have not released any real figures for about a decade and a half), but could do more, that still leaves 23000+ who are nreached and unreachable - yet each going out with their spades and stripping evidence out of sites (as Catchpole and Nash say). How the blazes do British archaeologists - in a time when resources are being cut - think they have a snowball in hell's chance of 'communicating archaeological values' to that lot, any more than they have farmers, or indeed journalists who still write stupid one-sided stuff about artefact hunting?

That actually is a perfectly serious question, and one - given how much damage is being done by ignoring it - deserves an attempt at an answer. But, seeing how helpless, hopeless and clueless British archaeologists have been for twenty years, it is not surprising to see Catchpole presenting his "own personal" conclusions as what he clearly thinks will be heretical novelties for his audience (fed for decades with PAS-spin). If British archaeologists are still struggling to even see that there is a problem, it would be a bit much to expect a group of members of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists to actually get around to addressing the problem in any coherent way. 

*I'd be glad to hear of more examples of this.  

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