Sunday, 21 August 2022

Are detectorists amateur archaeologists?

            Sachny, Kijowskie: Dwór Edwarda
           Rulikowskiego, 1882

Are detectorists amateur archaeologists? ask NETcher Social Platform for Cultural Heritage (anon., 19 May, 2020). They say no, which is quite true, but their argument is wrong. It however reveals an important truth:

The damages [sic] caused by treasure hunters using metal detectors are well-known and daily cause irreparable loss of cultural heritage. How shall we deal with them? The question has been heavily debated and opinions are varied, from repression to integration. Some specialists even argue that detectorists are instrumental in the progress of archaeological research and that inclusivity encourages engagement towards protection of cultural heritage. But detectorists do not only detect, they dig holes. At a time when archaeology turns towards non-destructive methods, doesn’t detectorism appear as a debased, harmful version of geophysics applied to archaeology?
Their reading list (unrelated to the text, but worth citing, for what it's worth):
I.Rodríguez Temiño, “Rational Grounds for Dialogue between Archaeologists and Metal Detectorists in Spain”, Open Archaeology 2, 2016, 150-159
P. Deckers, A. Dobat, N. Ferguson, St. Heeren, M. Lewis, S. Thomas, “The Complexities of Metal Detecting Policy”, Open Archaeology 4, 2018, 322-333
Delestre, “Le détectorisme en France : quelle situation et quelle politique publique ?”, Canadian Journal of Bioethics 2, 2019, 158-165
X. Delestre, Metal detection in France, current situation and policy
 The author of this text is correct to point out that the pale euphemism "metal detecting" avoids explaining the actual nature of the activity, they dig holes (I call it Collection-Driven Exploitation of the Archaeological Record). Their argument is that they cannot be amateur archaeologists because "they dig holes" at a time when (real) "archaeology turns towards non-destructive methods" means that "detectorism appear as a debased, harmful version of geophysics applied to archaeology". This skips over what the proper non-destructive, geophysical methods reveal is the structure of the component layers of a site, not individual loose finds within them, whereas artefact hunting "digs holes" to extract just the objects from an ignored contextual matrix. In the geophysical archaeology, it is the nature of a site being studied that is examined, in metal detecting it is loose artefacts being acquired.

It's rather like doing a "historic building survey" that actually consists of looking only at the pots and pans in the kitchen, the doorknobs and metal fire grates. That is not a historic building survey.

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