Monday 23 May 2022

Verifying Ex Cathedra Statements on UK Metal Detecting in Public Media

       Archaeologists fine with the damage      

This has been going on quite a while now (Nigel Swift tells me he wrote the same kind of letter on the same matter to the same gentleman eight years ago) but the latest BBC metal-detector fluff piece prompted me to scribble this (not sure of the title, he's an FSA and based at Canterbury University and his extramural job description "Head of Heritage Crime Strategy at Historic England" [formerly "and Policing Advice"]) so his ex cathedra prononcements quoted by the public media in Britain carry some weight. I decided to attempt to check something:
Dear Professor Harrison,
you are frequently quoted in the British media giving the public a picture of the artefact hunting and collecting community that invariably follows the same scheme as is exemplified by the recent BBC article (21st May 2022) “Nighthawking: Metal detectorist explains why he broke the law” (
“But Mr Harrison said the majority of detectorists were law-abiding and reported their finds. "I'm impressed by their determination and patience. I haven't met anyone that says 'I'm out to make a lot of money.' "They're proud of what they've found, however, there's a small minority who are intent on stealing our past," he added.”

Leaving aside their “pride” and alleged lack of interest in money, I would like to ask you to point me towards the recent research on which one could base the firm statement that “the majority of detectorists”... do something and “a small minority” (we note the “small”) have a different intention. Also noteworthy is that this is talking about motivation, not effects. Let us leave out the 2009 “Nighthawking Report” with its rather superficial data-gathering, and referring to a situation 12 years ago before some major changes that have taken place in UK metal detecting since then. Surely there must be fresher data.

Secondly, I do not see on what evidence one would make the claim that “the majority of detectorists [...] reported their finds”. The proposal here is that the pre-pandemic averages of c. 80,000 English and Welsh public finds reported to PAS per annum represents a “majority” activity. Whether or not that is so rather depends on what HE considers to be (a) the number of active metal detecting artefact hunters removing historical artefacts from sites and assemblages and (b) how many finds they each have been making on average a (pre-pandemic) year. After 25+ years of official public-funded outreach through the PAS, do HE have figures on these parameters? In what way do they lead to this conclusion?

Thank you. Paul Barford
Let us see what data are quoted to support this statement. Let the apologists for collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record have their opportunity to present their case. I'll let you know, dear reader, what ensues.

UPDATE 24.05.2022
Actually, the enquiry produced a reply, the next working day, quite a long one. I did not seek permission to quote it here, but here is my response to it.
Dear Mr Harrison,
Thank you for that, I can appreciate the amount of work that went into producing that reply. To be honest, however, I do not understand this response in relation to the two questions raised. I was enquiring into the evidence on which you based two reassuring statements you are quoted making by the BBC (but I have seen the same phrases attributed to you over the past few years in other media). In fact you answered neither question.

I do not think one can ascertain how many detectorists are law-abiding by the number that are caught and charged with illegal activity. The data-gathering for the original 2009 Nighthawking Report was flawed, and the situation in metal detecting in the UK has changed dramatically over the intervening decade (many of those now detecting have come to the hobby after 2009 – it is not the same population). Observing discussions on the UK detecting forums over many years indicates that the issue is much more complex and needs looking into again.

The same for the extent of reporting metal-detector-found artefacts to the PAS. It has been determined from the existing evidence that there are most likely some 27000 active detectorists in England and Wales (not everybody agrees, but no evidence-based alternative figures have been produced). In that light, I think one does not need to ask the PAS if their (pre-pandemic) figures of around 80k items reported a year by all members of the public is indicative that the majority of detectorists are reporting their finds. It is disturbing that (in the name of accountability) PAS do not actually publish the figures in a way that will allow it to be determined how far their 25+ years of expensive public-funded outreach has achieved the success that your statement in the national media ascribes to them. Which is why I asked on what you based it.

Thank you
Paul Barford
Surely, until some newer and more nuanced research is done into the scope, nature and reasons for the number of misdemeanours related to this activity, the only honest statement is that “we currently do not know what proportion of metal detectorists are law abiding [but we hope it's a lot]". As for the level of "responsible detecting" going on... Mr Harrison suggests that its the majority of detectorsts. On the other hand, for some years, I have been putting in the public domain a lot of information that challenges the pro-detecting propaganda being put about by those of my colleagues who should be concerned with the protection of the archaeological heritage of the British Isles. According to my research, I believe we can show that as many as eight in nine artefacts removed from the archaeological record by artefact hunters are not reported. I have yet to see a single challenge to that information that actually produces an alternative evidence-based figure, it seems most colleagues prefer to believe that if you ignore a problem long enough it will go away. If, however my figures are close to reality, that reality is that something like just a little bit over 11% of detectorists in England and Wales are responsibly reporting artefacts to the PAS so that they can become part of their records and contributed to our, and everybody else's knowledge and understanding of history (whatever that means). The other 89% are selfish bastards that just rip up and pocket history for their own selfish gain, and destroying the archaeological record without even attempting to replace the information about the past that they have stolen from the rest of us. Why the Head of Heritage Crime Strategy at Historic England issues public statements that suggest the contrary must for the moment remain a mystery. 

And just before the metal detectorists start their endemic taunting... This is not me complaining that "I am being ignored and dismissed" (although of course this is what is happening). What I find astonishing is that everything I write here (and set out how I arrived at those conclusions) is based on information available to anyone, any one of you. I'm sitting here with my cats in an upstairs workroom looking out over a forest on the outskirts of a city far away in a foreign country. It is true that the antiquities market, the PAS, metal detectorists etc. etc. try to keep as much information as possible close to their chest. But it is there, a mouse-click or two away. It's not there just for me, but anyone who cares to look. And that's the crux, "who cares to look". So why is it that there are only a handful of people (myself, Nigel, Sam, David - who else?) who are actually trying to access and use these data to check out the mainstream view that "everything is fine"? Although it may be unfashionable to say so these days, it seems to me that to check data on which to form opinions is a natural thing to do. So why is it that there are all those people that are not doing it when it comes to collection-driven exploitation of the archaeological record? Why do platitudes always in this area replace a more nuanced view? 

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