Friday 17 July 2020

Thomas and Pitblado "Responsive Artefact Stewardship"

Apparently, according to a recent Antiquity article, we are all (still) in danger, of muddling "responsible artefact hunters" with "nighthawks" (Suzie Thomas and Bonnie L. Pitblado 'The dangers of conflating responsible and responsive artefact stewardship with illicit and illegal collecting' Antiquity 2020)
Archaeology and private artefact collecting have complex and inextricably linked histories. Archaeologists have long drawn attention to criminal activity among collectors, but to assume that all private owners of cultural material—and any archaeologists who interact with them—have ill-intent or engage in illegal behaviour can cause as much harm to the archaeological record as the criminal actions themselves.
I am really at a loss to know what on earth this is about.

The authors construct a straw man of "archaeologists [who] simplistically assume that non-professional or avocational collectors and artefact searchers invariably practise their hobby illegally and unethically, and that they do so to make money, to launder money or to engage in other nefarious activities"  - so an unsubstantiated stereotype of their own.

They then go to battle with their own straw man, pretending to be the sole arbiters of the "true nuanced" picture. This is so Ixelles Six/Helsinki Gang (without the other five). From what they write, it seems they feel that no other heritage professional has ever seen a paper on "the complexities of the relationship between the physical remains of the past and society in general", so they remind us of lots of it, going back a decade or so (and every single one in English...) but only from the side of consumption, rather than conservation.

Anyway, after the bla-bla, we get this:
We do not need to look far for examples of the benefits to archaeology that can accrue when archaeologists collaborate with ‘responsible and responsive stewards’ — a term adopted recently by the Society for American Archaeology (SAA) to refer to private artefact collectors who follow cultural resource laws and practise appropriate collection and curation standards (see Shott and Pitblado 2015; Pitblado et al. 2018). These are precisely the artefact collectors at the centre of this argument—those who should never be conflated with looters, and who can contribute to archaeological knowledge if recognised as legitimate sources of information (Christensen 2013) and treated with respect.
Right. So they mention two separate groups, the naughty black hat guys of the alleged "uninformed archaeologists's stereotype" and these white hat guys, "responsible and responsive stewards". There is no mention in their paper of anything in between. So how many of these RSSs are there? Are they R and R before we start giving them this "respect", or do they earn our respect by being R and RS? The authors don't say.

But this is exactly the same Black/White argument that we were hearing back twenty years ago from the PAS, "responsible detectorists vs nighthawks". Since this distinction was being made from the very beginning of the PAS, I do not see why 23 years later the authors seem to think that nobody (else) has heard of it!  But there is a problem that the real "nuanced" picture is that it is not "black" and "white" that we need to concentrate on.  What is important is the size of the grey zone... and how (un)surprising that it is precisely that question that the nasty Ixelles-Six/Helsinki Gang attack on Hardy's paper (of which Thomas was one of the co-authors) tries to dodge being asked and answered.

But I think we should know about what precisely is meant here by "practising appropriate collection standards". What is "appropriate" from the point of view of sustaining the use of the archaeological record (also part of that  complex relationship between the physical remains of the past and society in general) when stripping collectables from a surface site? And is it the same when dealing with lithics scatters and the metal artefact and pottery scatters of Lowland Britain? Or a Second World War battlefield in Central Europe? What "standards" are required from the responsible artefact hunters? The authors do not say.

And this word "steward". What is being stewarded when an artefact hunter removes collectables from an artefact scatter? I have a rather unpleasant feeling that what they are talking about is an object-centric notion of "stewardship of the collectables" rather than a site-centred one. But archaeology is more than just "digging up old things".

And I would question very carefully the notion (apparently derived from an object-centred vision of archaeology) that collectors (RRSs or not) can be  recognised as legitimate sources of information  about the sites that they have taken random collectables from. But the authors seem to be speaking of an x-marks-the-spot notion (like Pitblado's Clovis) rather than artefact hunters closely documenting the contexts of discovery of the collected items using the metal detector as just one survey tool to document a surface scatter as it is taken apart.

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