Monday 27 July 2020

Some Thoughts on Pieterjan Deckers' Privileging "Archaeology's Awkward Allies"

An "awkward ally"
of archaeology?
Typical representative
of the milieu (photo
 Stout Standards
When I wrote my response on reading the Antiquity debate article on "Responsive Artefact Stewardship", by Thomas and Pitblado it was not clear that there were others, I think they only appeared later. Anyway, there are three of them, and then a response from the original authors.  The first of these responses was from Pieterjan Deckers (now Aarhus University) but Thomas and Pitblado respond by merely saying "as our views align closely [...] we welcome his contribution but will not say much more about it in this response". Since the all three take place in the same Helsinki project, I guess it would be difficult for them not to say anything else...

Dr Deckers' essay is short, but the way it is phrased lightly skips over a number of issues. He titled his piece "Archaeology's Awkward Allies" but it is not clear from his text in what manner that adjective is used.

The young academic first of all expresses surprise at the straw man argument constructed by Thomas and Pitblado about "everyone's" ideas about artefact collecting. As well he might, as opinions on these matters across the world are far more nuanced than it seems he can imagine.

Dr Deckers then goes on to seem to claim that his views as "an archaeologist working in North-western Europe" and those of the essay's authors are "reasonable and nuanced" (as are the "the Society for American Archaeology’s (SAA) recommendations" referenced in the article), and he seems confident that the rest of us that consider their approach to collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record to be "highly problematic" will benefit from the "insights and experiences from both sides of the Atlantic" they can offer us. It seems he thinks that those who do not share his views do so out of ignorance and poor thinking. Arrogance.

This same "insight" claims Thompson and Pitblado's article to be "timely" in that it arose in the era of the Internet that we can now use for "content-sharing and social interaction"  and face the "globalising [of] communities of artefact collectors". This is a bit odd as it does not seem to recognise that the internet  (www) has been around since 1991 and the first metal detecting discussion group UKDN was founded in 1994, Moneta-L in 1990, Yahoo's ancient and medieval coins discussion group in 1999 and eBay in 1995. It seems that wannabe heritage theoreticians have a somewhat different sense of time from the rest of us! Deckers goes on to write:
With the rise of the internet and social media, new avenues of research on otherwise obscure but crucial aspects of metal-detecting and other avocational heritage practice have become available. 
It "rose" quite a while ago. Nigel Swift and I have been using it in 2001 onwards to study those aspects of collection. It's where the thinking and research behind the creation of the Heritage Action Artefact Erosion Counter (2007) had its beginnings. Both of us have been assiduously monitoring certain collectors' forums daily for the last decade and a half (at the beginning participating in them, now incognito). I doubt many archaeological supporters of artefact collecting, or PAS staff members even, can say the same. On that basis, I feel that Dr Deckers (probably a schoolboy when we started) is hardly in a position to lecture all of us about "who metal detectorists are" and "what could now be done with the rise of the internet". Arrogant.

Dr Deckers sees the collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record (merely) as an issue of "opportunities for public participation in archaeology" which I guess means the thinks artefact collecting is archaeology (or maybe that archaeology is just digging up old things). It seems to me that a whole series of issues is lost in such a superficial approach to the discipline.

He says "the debate" [sic] "has become polarised between tolerance and prohibition" [but can be "moved forward"] if two basic conditions are met". Apparently the first is that "we" "must accept that others in society may have interests in archaeological heritage that only partly coincide—or even clash—with our own". Hmm, but then HE should recognise that equally there are many, potentially very many, in society that have interests in archaeological heritage that do not in any way coincide with a minority of grabby selfish individuals that want to pocket bits of it, and equally self-interested individuals who for the right money will help collectors satisfy those desires by selling such material. In the UK there might be 27000 artefact hunters, but the PAS is also there to serve (yes) the interests of the other 56,073,000 members of the population of England and Wales who are not collectors, but are nevertheless stakeholders. Don't give all the privileges to the acquisitive please Dr Deckers.* We should also consider ourselves responsible for preserving the archaeological record and interpreting it for the benefit of the larger group of non-collectors in the public too. 

I think also the heritage debate that involves and affects those 56.1 million people is far more complex than "tolerance and prohibition" of "avocational artefact collecting". It is furthermore obvious that this particular acquisitive hobby and consequent commercialisation of archaeological objects cannot simply be split off from that wider debate just because some blinkered academics abroad want to get their hands on some nice metal artefacts to make their dot distribution maps across the North Sea area. Arrogance again.

Deckers blunders on,
"A [sic] second condition transcends the level of professional ethics and day-to-day, interpersonal interaction. As trained experts, we have a duty to help in the formation of legislation and policy regarding avocational heritage engagements. In doing so, we must be willing to challenge the ideological stances that often govern the debate. As Thomas and Pitblado (2020) argue, blanket, unfounded assumptions that confuse and conflate a wide range of motivations and behaviours are unlikely to form a sound basis for appropriate reactions to the phenomenon in legislation, policy and practice. Instead, our responses must be grounded in fact.
Right, several of us would like to challenge the ideological stance precisely of those (like the Helsinki Gang to which Deckers belongs) that want to govern the heritage debate with their ideas of collaboration with collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record. When Sam Hardy attempted that, shamefully the band from Ixelles wrote an article that cannot be said to have challenged what he had written (by proposing alternative facts)  but simply poured patronising ridicule on it. That is claimed to represent the best these particular "trained experts" can do! (Deckers was corresponding author of that article.)

What we have to "do", Dr Deckers. as archaeologists is to help in the justification and formation of legislation and policy regarding the  mechanisms of protection and effective and sustainable use of the entire accessible archaeological record within the broader heritage catering for both cultural/social as well as scholarly needs, rather than just concentrate as you would have it on making a few tens of thousands of artefact hunters happy. And let's see artefact hunting as just one of the processes eroding that archaeological record.

Frankly, these "blanket, unfounded assumptions that confuse and conflate a wide range of motivations and behaviours" that he thinks so important really are beside the issue. Whether a collector of wild bird eggs loves or hates birds is irrelevant to whether that kind of collecting is right or not. The same with the people denuding the bluebell woods, because they "love the flowers".

What actually these "motivations and behaviours" can tell us is whether a programme of promoting "responsibility" through generating "responsiveness" will actually work. Well, the PAS has been doing it now for 23 years. And I do not care what Deckers, Thomas and Pitblado have kidded themselves the "facts" of PAS success are, I challenge them to produce the actual facts that prove the Heritage Action Artefact Erosion Counter is hugely wrong (and I do not care if they chose to do the original version, or my revised one using Hardy's figures - which they STILL have not disproven). Facts, Dr Deckers, facts. Yes please. 

Then - from the position of "trained experts" in (real) archaeology - what, actually, is truly responsible removal of selected artefacts from a complex pattern of any surface site. Is it really just recording an x-marks-the-findspot and walking away with it? Is that it? Or is an archaeological site a little more complex than the bargain bin in Rossman's? Is responsible tooth extraction just a matter of knowing the name of the patient?

Dr Deckers (who titled his paper "archaeology's awkward (sic) allies" ends: "It is important to remember that we have numerous potential allies, if we but reach out to them". Hmm. My bet is that by this he meant artefact collectors are our "potential allies". Not the millions of people that are not archaeological artefact collectors in any shape or form.

Some metal detector owners possibly are. Two (I think it is) UK metal detectorists have now because of PAS outreach done archaeology degrees, one of them at least hung up his detector. 27000 have not. I think Deckers is guilty of the same "unhelpful blanket generalisations" as those he, Thomas and Pitblado criticise.

If Dr Deckers had spent the time on (for example the UK) forums and detectorists' websites that some of us have, he'd have a list by now as long as both of his arms of screen names of UK metal detectorists that everything indicates will never be any kind of "ally" of archaeology, archaeologists and anything that stands in the way of them doing precisely what they want, where and when to the archaeological record and filling their pockets. This is not always for ignorance of what archaeology is, they "know", it is their attitude. I really do encourage Dr Deckers to go over now to one of them, and start his search for the "responsiveness" that he believes he will find there. Tell them you're an archaeologist and you support the Code of Best Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting in England and Wales and you've come to offer them... well, what? Also you could ask a FLO or two how to go about it, it's their job, they are paid to know, they'll tell you. And they'll tell you why so few of them hardly ever go there to participate.... Try it and write an honest paper about the response. Ask Suzie Thomas about her outreach experiences on UKDN and the UKRallies site.

*With regard this elitism, it is worth looking at the discussions earlier on this blog concerning US collectors of ancient coins (search terms ACCG, CCPIA, Moneta-L, Unidoit-L, Dave Welsh, Peter Tompa)  that clearly see themselves as an elite whose interests trump those of others and in particular the citizens of the countries that the coins they collect were smuggled from. 

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