Saturday 18 July 2020

Ripping Up the PASt "Responsibly"? What IS "Responsible collecting"?

Object centred archaeologists seem to think responsible metal detecting is merely recording an x-marks-the-findspot and reporting it to somebody. Is that so?

A) an Early medieval thingummy, recorded in loving detail in the PAS database, photos of both sides, weight, some trite narrativisation about being schematically anthropomorphic (it looks like a face) and lots of funny looking charts with timelines and other "professional looking stuff".... The object went back to the finder and the latter put it on eBay and in May 2017 it sold to a seventeen year old fan of "Thor the Dragonslayer" comics in Nebraska for 40$.*

B) It's got a 14-figure NGR pinpointing it to the nearest half-millimetre to a green field in Cottam, high on the Yorkshire Wolds between Driffield and Malton and immediately to the west of Burrow House Farm... The finder (Barry Just from Driffield) considers himself to be a responsible detectorist with good relationships with all his landowners, he's been back to Burrow House farm six times in the past few years. Barry read in an online resource for metal detectorists that archaeologists found a Viking site here (six figure NGR), so there could be "some good stuff here".

C) Tarquin Sinclair of Christchurch Oxford has been studying these thingummies, and for his doctoral research has compiled  a detailed corpus of them by contacting artefact hunters all over Europe. He has identified two types of them, type A (earlier) has light incised lines on the rear and shallow notches around the outer rim, type B (made half a century later) have neither. Sadly the record of VIK-0066678 is not detailed enough to be sure which type it was, the photo is a little too unclear to resolve the issue.  One would need to see the object in the hand.

D) Barry Just has reported ten finds with detailed x-marks-the-findspot records from this farmer's land over the past four years. Most of them come from the brow of the slope lust above the watercourse in the southern part of the property, but two (a bronze ring and a Roman coin) came from near the findspot of VIK-0066678.

The problem is that this findspot is just part of a broader pattern of material in the topsoil on that site in Cottam

But the real problem is that the Cottam report (Julian D. Richards, Anglian and Anglo-Scandinavian Cottam: linking digital publication and archive) was published in May 2001, so two decades ago. Yet in all that time the discussion of metal detecting (Collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record) has been dominated by the artefact fanciers who think that the typology (A) and dot-distribution maps (B and C) are the be-all and end-all of this issue.

Mr Just is targeting a known site, yet has not bothered to read the literature about it, so has no way of knowing whether what he's doing to the site is (a) damaging it in some way or (b) adds to what we know about the site (or, c, where he could concentrate his searching and how in order to add information). Mr Just is recording findspots with extreme precision, but the context of archaeological artefacts  is not a single dot on a map but its relationship within a broader pattern of other evidence, something Mr Just's searching of the site obscures (and erodes) rather than reveals. This is NOT "responsible" treatment of the archaeological resource.

As in fact any archaeologist with their hand on their heart would recognise. So why aren't they?  Beats me.

* Most of this is fictional, the object is from EBay not PAS, "Barry Just" does not exist, but the Cottam site does and sites like it are being stripped - ostensibly responsibly - by artefact hunters day after day, and archaeologists seem quite happy about that as long as they can see some of the "thingummies" to study and write about and make dot distribution maps. 

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