Monday 4 January 2021

Artefact Hunters and the Archaeology of WW1 in Western Flanders

A "hobbyist" cannot make an investigation of and record
 such a complex feature with just a metal detector and a spade
 ( photograph  Q 3990 by John Warwick Brooke )
Another special pleading text on behalf of the artefact hunting community by the same merry band of myopic grant-seekers from the Helsinki EPFRN academic network. Suzie Thomas and Pieterjan Deckers have recently published an open access article titled "‘And now they have taken over’: hobbyist and professional archaeologist encounters with the material heritage of the First World War in western Belgium" in the International Journal of Heritage Studies. "The article stems from research carried out in Western Flanders during a research visit to Vrije Universiteit Brussel by Thomas and a collaboration with Deckers".

Since almost immediately after the fighting ended, the First World War (WWI) sites of conflict in Western Flanders, Belgium, have attracted attention from visitors and collectors. Heritage management questions came to the fore especially in the run-up to WWI’s centenary years (2014–2018), and professional archaeologists representing the authorities in Flanders had already begun to take a greater interest in the war’s archaeological remains. The activities of hobbyist amateurs, particularly metal detectorists, came under greater scrutiny. In this article, we explore the perspectives of local hobbyist enthusiasts and heritage professionals in the context of changing attitudes towards and values associated with the material heritage of the WWI in Western Flanders. We reflect upon the tensions that emerge when different interest groups clash, the disagreements between professional and amateur interests, and also upon the particular context of conflict heritage when there are numerous interests and stakeholders involved. 
Here we see these two plugging their usual object-focused arguments ("increasing realisation of the potential of metal-detected finds for contributing to archaeological knowledge if recorded properly" p. 3) and they attempt to frame the discussion "in terms of three dimensions of power in relation to archaeological heritage" (p. 1). They wrote of collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record as "hobbyists who have spent time making their own investigations on the area – with differing degrees of archaeological rigour”. The point is though, surely, the material heritage is not just "digging up things" and people protect rhinos from poachers and whales, or campaign against plastic in the seas as an expression of "power" . And archaeological rigour is what separates responsible use of a resource and its destructive squandering. It is what is responsible for making a contribution to archaeological knowledge. The authors' text contains not a single feature plan or site plan resulting from a hobbyist's "own investigations" of this fragile archaeological resource. 

German army belt buckle
Archaeology is more than just hoiking out loose objects ("here's another belt-buckle, ooo this one's been nicked by shrapnel!")  from x-marks-the-spot. Sites like the one in the photo above have complex stratigraphy recording how they were created, used, damaged and modified. A metal detectorist blindly digging a deep but ultimately narrow hole down through the decayed remains of this because he "got a good signal" is destroying the contextual and archaeological evidence of that site - and thus obliterating the very story the hobbyist hoiker has the ambition to tell. They "navigate" the evidence by digging blindly down through and cherry-picking most of it. 

There was an Eastern Front too, it's a shame - in the interests of transnationality - that these writers do not take a wider view of the question they are discussing and do not reference any literature from recent work on the eastern Front in Poland where some of these issues have also been discussed, and the role of amateur digging in the destruction of the fragile and complex (and contentious) archaeological record highlighted. These sites cannot be "investigated" by just running a metal detector across the top, and anything else is just removing evidence (and disturbing remains). When you look at what is lost through this, it is difficult to see why archaeologists should be ambiguous about the ethical issues here.

Deckers (Aarhus) and Thomas (Helsinki) are among the six academics that authored a paper (2018, 322) that decry polarised "opinions" about collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record and place "ethical standpoints" on the same footing as "emotive arguments". They suggest that such a position loses ground when counterpointed by "a thorough understanding of the background, practices and impacts of nonprofessional metal detecting". It is a shame therefore that they do not consider the impact of hoiking out selected artefacts (only) on the complex stratigraphies of sites of twentieth century conflict due to the "background and practices" of hobbyist "metal detecting". When they do, they might then be in a better position to preach to the rest of us (Thomas and Pitblado 2020) how "harmless" their spades are. 

(and yes, purists, I know the photo is The Somme and not Flanders, and its a formerly German trench being manned by British soldiers, which further complicates the archaeological record)


Suzie Thomas and Pieterjan Deckers (2020) ‘And now they have taken over’: hobbyist and professional archaeologist encounters with the material heritage of the First World War in western Belgium, International Journal of Heritage Studies [unnumbered pages]

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