Wednesday, 8 September 2021

BBC Interview with Artefact Hunter


            Group Heritage Looting in Essex (Noreen Linale)           

BBC Norfolk has done a puff-piece on collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record (Katy Prickett, Metal detecting: 'I dream of a find that changes history' BBC News, East 5th September 2021). A bloke in Essex has a machine that electronically detects pieces of metal and seems to think that we will find it surprising that wandering around the litter-strewn landscape of Brexit Britain, "the majority of his finds are "rubbish" including broken bits of farm machinery". Surprised? I dont think anyone who has ever have been fieldwalking there in recent decades would think that's a bit puzzling. But the artefact hunter and Ms Prickett are out to convionce us that collecting bits of the archaeological record is an anorakish, and even benign hobby. After all, Morton has had 20 of his finds declared Treasure and the article stresses that as many as two of them "are now in museum collections" - the journalist neglects to say if the finder and landowner waived the rewards, as I am sure they both will have done.

John Morton, 57, from Wymondham in Norfolk, took up the hobby aged 12 when he borrowed a detector and promptly found a Charles II coin. [...] Mr Morton "wouldn't like to think" how many hundreds of artefacts he has unearthed over the decades - the majority "rubbish", such as bits of farm machinery. Others, including tiny bronze Roman coins worn smooth over centuries and silver medieval pennies, have very little value, but he just "loves to think about when they were last in someone's hand". He said the hobby had grown in popularity since he began [...] But for Mr Morton "the dream is to find something that changes history - who knows what is still under the soil waiting to be discovered".
I wonder what that "find that changes history" would look like. What individual decontextualised metal object dug up loose in a muddy field would substantially change history? A coin minted in Atlantis for the Athenian trade in 9600 BC maybe? A coin struck with the name of Coel Rex or any of the other early monarchs mentioned by Geoffrey of Monmouth? An early Roman period bracelet inscribed for Joseph of Arimathea found at the foot of Glastonbury Tor? Germanic bracteates with a clear representation of a bridled sauropod and the inscription ᚨᛚᛚᚤ ᛏᚺᛖ ᚨᛚᛚᛟᛋᚢᚱᚢᛋ? The mind boggles. But do you see a pattern here? Newspaper hyperbole is full of this or that "delighted expert" proclaiming that a metal detectorist's discovery "rewrites history". Most of the time those who actually know history can see this is just patronisingly head-patting bollocks. Some cases where it "does" (a) are not anything much more than, say, a Roman emperor who declared himself a rival imperator, struck a few coins before being assassinated, and (b) is usually declared on the basis of an addressed source (i.e. an object that was specifically made to convey information by pictures or writing) such as a coin.

Instead though, what those same "delighted experts" are not intellectually honest enough to say (in addition to not admitting the most important: "Oooo, I can get another point-scoring publication out of this") is that the collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record (a.k.a. trashing sites and assemblages) is destroying history much fasted than it can allow rewriting it. The trashing of sites and assemblages by artefact hunters ("metal detectorists") is preventing their use as a source, as evidence, that will allow the study of the history they contain. All of those hundreds of artefacts Mr Morton "would not like to think of" (and where are they now?) came from the archaeological record that he has decimated removing random items from it.

Apart from seeking acclaim as the discoverer of the Find that Changed History Forever, and possibly a five-minutes-of-fame on Discovery Channel, we see another two motivations, personal reflections on non-omnis-moriar transience and mortality ("loves to think about when they were last in someone's hand") and possession of something valuable ("Others, including tiny bronze Roman coins worn smooth over centuries and silver medieval pennies, have very little value").

Britain really does need a public debate about Collection-Driven Exploitation of the archaeological record. Are the BBC up to being able to follow it?    

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