Tuesday 2 June 2020

Notes in the Margins of an Article on 'Nighthawking' in the UK

Out after hours
Sirin Kale has an interesting article in today's Guardian 'There's a romanticism about nighthawking, but it's theft': when metal detectorists go rogue' Guardian Tue 2 Jun 2020. Declaration of interest, there's a chunk quoting me in the middle. But that's not the (only) reason I think it's worth reading carefully. One is it is well-researched, written in a pleasantly lyrical style and is cleverly organised. Secondly, the author's got a couple of things that most journalists find difficult to grasp. It would have been easy to write a story that looked at just the surface issues - most do. This writer looked below the surface.

I got a message on twitter, some freelance journalist wanted to contact me because they were writing on 'nighthawking'. 'Uh-oh' was my first thought. This blog and its reach tends to find me lots of journalists who want to interview me, I say my stuff and then they write something or other and that's it. Mostly what they write churns out the cut-and-past stuff the PAS generate. That is what I assumed was going to happen, all the more so when I quickly googled the lady's name and the first thing I got was a photo of her eating an ice-cream and looking about 19, so I was not very hopeful. But nothing ventured, nothing gained and I said I'd love to talk, but mindful of what had happened when I tried to answer other journalists' questions, I decided to put some thoughts on paper (and since I'd put some effort into writing them down, they are here and here). While that was happening, I did what I should have at the beginning and googled some more and found some really intelligent writing on a range of pretty complex topics, so was really looking forward to talking with her. We made an appointment that she'd phone me at ten on Wednesday.

On Tuesday after a bit of early morning work, I was suddenly "indisposed" (as my wife put it to my students), and woke up in the emergency ward in hospital connected to tubes and no memory of anything much that had happened since the day before... Other than that, I was feeling fine. I contacted my wife to ask her if she could tell my students why I'd not turned up for (online) classes that day, check if I'd sent the article to Poznan that I'd finished writing the night before (I had) and to ask her to persuade the lady journalist who would phone the next day to phone me in the isolation room (my CV tests had not yet come through) in the neurological ward. The next day, Ms Kale phoned, and it mightily brightened up the monotony of a day in near total isolation. That must be one of the most surreal interviews I've ever done. I was still connected to tubes, in the bed next to me was an unconscious woman who sadly started to suffer a fit requiring medical intervention as the interview got underway (she was OK and also later tested negative), the line was bad - and I talked too much, and the more I thought about it afterwards, the more I felt ashamed about that (it's why I'd written the stuff down). But probably journalists get it a lot.

So I am glad to see the article turned out really well. Even the 'big papers' really do not do much that could justifiably be called investigative journalism on these heritage issues. This article however goes beyond the usual run-of-the mill stuff (this lady needs to be invited to join the Guardian permanent staff).

I was interested in the sources used. She'd done the research and got to a surprising amount of information. Then it had been excellently selected and organised and the text has a good 'flow'.

OK, I have quibbles. The two main ones may be due to the journalist misunderstanding or mishearing something. I suspect that I might be the source of the first one about Northern Ireland in paragraph 8. But since Northern Ireland does not exactly bust a gut to make sure everybody knows about what it is they are doing with and about metal detectorists, and what the results of that are, I really can't be bothered. Belfast, get your act together!

The other one Andy Brockman already spotted. It's in the next paragraph; the television show Time Team (which actually finished six years ago) is reportedly said to be the "nighthawker’s best friend" that police officers express say "can be used as an idiot’s guide to the choicest places to nighthawk". I suggest that's an unfortunate misquote. The paragraph however also contains some interesting information that I had not heard before, the other best friend of the illegal artefact hunter is: "a hi-vis vest: Harrison tells me that nighthawkers will don them in the middle of the day to give the impression of legitimacy". They should get them printed with "Portable Antiquities Scheme, PAStexplorers" and the illusion would be complete.

And my third quibble is the Michael Lewis quote:
“The way I see it is that all these objects out there are like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle,” Lewis says, “and the more we have of them, the bigger our picture of the past. If people aren’t reporting their finds, the picture isn’t as big as it could be. It’s a bigger picture than just nighthawking.” But he believes that most metal detectorists are responsible and do hand things in.
The 'jigsaw puzzle' is NOT THE OBJECTS. The objects that he fetishises are just PART of the archaeological record. It is that archaeological record that is ripped up in collection-driven exploitation, so more ripped up does not mean more understanding. The more ripped out objects we have, the poorer our ability to read the archaeological record they were ripped from (x-marks the spot findspot record or not). Sirin Kale might not be expected to get that, but a professor of archaeology blinking well ought to. But he is quoted, "the way I see it". Quite.

I specifically requested Ms Kale to consider not writing the usual fluff about the "majority of metal detectorists" being the good guys [and "not-nighthawks, and its the latter who are the real problem"]. I am pleased she did not (because neither of those statements are true). This actually is a record. I do not think this has happened since 1997 (or perhaps earlier), that a journalist has written an article about metal detecting in which this stock cut-and-paste soundbite is not used. Show me another one. But look at what she's done, Professor Lewis says he believes "that most metal detectorists are responsible and do hand things in". I think Mike Lewis believes a lot of things.
And Lewis is adamant that stigmatising detectorists is not the way to go. “We’d lose a lot of information in this country if we banned metal-detecting,”
First of all, loose objects are not "archaeological information", any more than eBay is. There is a difference between stigmatising an activity so fewer people will be attracted to it and banning it. I believe that encouraging collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record (let's call a spade a spade) is not the way to go, and that is exactly what the PAS that Lewis heads is doing. Lewis is saying the same thing as the metal detectorist quoted:
“Hostility doesn’t help anybody,” says Lange. “All it does is drive it underground.”
The truth behind that glib soundbite is that as things stand today, after two expensive decades of the great and good of British archaeology not only being "not-hostile" to, but positively fawning over, artefact hunters, the returns from all that goodwill are pretty pathetic. As I wrote in that article that went off the night before I was taken ill:
precise figures on the scale of clandestine activity are lacking. The latest estimates (refs) suggest that only one in eight (12.5%) finds made by artefact hunters with metal detectors in this area have, in fact, resulted in a record in the PAS database.*
The Ixelles Six/Helsinki Gang (including Mike Lewis) and others with vested interests may lash out wildly at those that write things that conflict with what they want to believe, but no other figures based on any other evidence (hard or otherwise) have yet appeared.

What is the degree of magnitude by which my estimates would have to be wrong for it to be justifiable for people like Lange and Lewis to claim that the major part of collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record ("metal detecting") is not already underground, ban or no ban?  Even if it was as 'little' as one in four, three quarters of it would still be being carried out underground already! I really do not see how otherwise sensible (one assumes, I've never met Mike Lewis or the metal detecting lady) can come out with such glib, empty claptrap arguments. It is precisely from that clandestine 'underground' that the loose artefacts 'surfacing' on the antiquities market come from. Alongside those that are looted, stolen and smuggled.

I think we can all be grateful to Sirin Kale for causing the shifting of the argument about 'illegal metal detecting' from the usual trite framework that allows it to be seen in isolation, to one where it is something that is more integrally part of the wider picture of collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record in Britain (and beyond). Let's hope it sets a trend.

* note the distinction between number of records and number of finds - when PAS bulk the latter by counting all the individual coins in a hoard (one find, one record, but boosting the PAS database by thousands of items). Those Treasure finds are anyway duplicating the same information given in the separate Treasure Reports (required by law) and their inclusion in the PAS database set up to be a record of voluntary reports of non-Treasure finds is obscuring the real picture of voluntary reporting - which of course a cynic like me would observe is the real reason behind the PAS doing it. 

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