Friday 23 April 2021

The Archaeological Values of the PAS Database (XVIII): Smart Alec and the Crotal Bells (part one)


                        Crotal bells (metal detectives)                    
no scale but tend to be 25-35mm diam

Metal detectorist Smart Alec decided to make a contribution to the discussion of the reliability of the database created by the Portable Antiquities Scheme of public finds (including from metal detecting). He comments on my post "Detectorists Decide How Reliably PAS Database Reflects what is Taken". This discussed the comment of a metal detectorist who asked "Exactly, just how many crotal bells and buckles do you need to record? An explanation to what these items are and a date should suffice" and I pointed out that this was not preservation by record of the archaeological record that is being trashed. Alec decided to 'enlighten' us with a perfect illustration of tekkie intellect (and intellectual curiosity): 

Historical context.. fell off a cow in 15th c because the farmer couldn't attach his dingaling properly.. subsequently the cow wandered off and ended up in the medieval version of mcdonald's.
Dingaling and McDonalds, only 'passinittly intrestid in histry'. 

I must admit to having a soft spot for crotal bells. When I was a young lad just starting out in archaeology, I got really interested in researching the finds and writing them up. One of the first opportunities to do this was in a small local amateur group excavating threatened sites in NE Essex, before development. One of them produced a crotal bell. In those days (late 1970s/early 1980s), researching this stuff involved trawling paper publications, and I managed to find what I was looking for and wrote it up.

Smart Alec has not really looked into the subject before spouting off about it. First of all they were not used for cows (or if the PAS says they were, I'd challenge that). Rumbler bells were primarily used on horse harness and vehicles. They were not used by farmers as such. 

So a find of one of these could be an off-site loss due to carelessness or damage to an attachment, as Alec says. But the fact it's lost in a place means it was first of all in use in such a place (that brings us to the dot-distribution maps I hate so much - see below). But some of them (like the one I wrote up) were site losses. We need to know about the context of site losses, and what they were found with and in what contexts. Of course the metal detectorist and PAS do not tell us any of this. Are they found in contexts related to stabling for example? Did the objects get re-used after their primary purpose was fulfilled as some form or charm or plaything? And so on. 

The PAS database contains information about 3,082 crotal bells, of which 144 are claimed to be "medieval" examples (from mid-thirteenth century onwards, it says). The UKDFD also has a bunch and a useful finds guide.  The plot of post-medieval ones known to the PAS (to the right) may be used to look at Smart Alec's "dropped off a cow" explanation. 

Let's just assume that this map of dots is not an artefact caused by the means of gathering the "data" (actually, we have to because the PAS database does not contain a mechanism of  checks and  balances that allow us to check this out). 

At once we would see that Smart Alec's "farmers and cows" would have to have regionally determined behaviour, it's not really a viable model. 

There are regions where these bells are found on sites/off sites in some abundance and other areas where they are relatively rare on site/off site finds. The red square in Aldbourne Wiltshire is the site of the factory where it is claimed many of them were manufactured. The distribution does not seem to be biased to proximity to the place of the origin of their distribution. 

The usual interpretation is that they were largely used on horse-drawn vehicles (oxen were rarely used in Medieval England to draw carts) to warn other road users of their approach. Why then, were they not lost over large areas of northern England and Wales? While I suspect their broad distribution is only coincidentally partly coincident with the landscape zone of the Midlands dominated by open fields, I suspect the coincidence with that of High Medieval coins may not be mere accident. 

It is a theory worth investigating that we see the functioning of zones with different mechanisms of exchange, an area where goods were transported on carts (and by other means such as water transport) and those where pack horses were used as the main form of road transport. The difference is that a lumbering cart would be difficult to stop if something/somebody was right in its path (hence the need to warn them to get out of the way earlier) while a team of pack animals would just walk around the obstacle - and therefore did not need warning bells. It is interesting to note the crotal-bell-free zone running from the Cotswolds up the Jurassic ridge to the NW. It would seem plausible that carts were not used so much in hilly terrain, and packhorses took over the role on and crossing the upland ridges. 

Whether or not this was so, we can only use PAS "data" for interpreting the past even in very simple terms as above if (a) they are representative and not skewed by uneven reporting, and (b) the information in the database [replacing the actual objects themselves] is expertly created. If Smart Alec was a self-recorder and made the reports of his own finds, he would make decisions about what to include on no firmer basis than his flippant remarks quoted above. Even the description of the finds he does record cannot be relied on, as he quite simply has no idea at all what he is looking at, and not the intellectual curiosity to look it up and learn before writing something down. A "database' created in that manner is no use for research purposes, just show-and-tell.


Alec said...

So your disputing that they were used for agricultural use and thus implying that everyone at PAS are therefore incompetent ?
Rather surprising then that going by your horse and cart theory that most main cities/large towns have very few listed when I thought these would of been in abundance rather than in rural fields that would of hardly seen in traffic. Your entitled to your opinion which is as usual purely fantastical and completely wrong

Alec said...

Who said anything about metal detecting on concrete or asphalt ? Lots of relics have been found during building works in built up areas...strangely very few crotal bells though.

Paul Barford said...

Where does the PAS say they were "for agricultural use"? But this only goes to show that x-marks-the-spot findspots tell us nothing about the contexts in which items like these were used.

If they were used on grazing animals, then surely you'd find them in the upland pastures, the very regions that the map shows them being absent.

As for the absence around towns and cities in the UK, there does seem to be a problem metal detecting around most towns. We call it "concrete" and "asphalt".

"Would have", "you're".

Paul Barford said...


Paul Barford said...

As you know, because of the way the "data" are collected, the PAS database consists mainly of metal detected finds, which dictates the nature of the record for areas where this activity is constrained by other factors (Katherine Roberts 2014, Portable Antiquities Scheme: A Guide for Researchers )

and you still have not given the reference where the PAS say they were used "agriculturally", could you please?

Alec said...

Paul Barford said...

You WROTE: "So your disputing that they were used for agricultural use and thus implying that everyone at PAS are therefore incompetent ?"
I aked you to substantiate that, so you give me a link to an article ten years old from NOT-THE-PAS? Come on, get serious please.

Alec said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alec said...

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