Tuesday 2 August 2022

Underneath the ARCHES: Damaging "Participation" Better Than No Damage At All?

The acronym ARCHES is really pushing it, it refers to Antwerp University's "AntweRp Cultural HEritage Sciences" research group of the "Faculty of Design Sciences" (sic) associated with the educational programs of Conservation-Restoration and Heritage studies. It aims to "build bridges between various scientific fields [...] in a transdisciplinary way in pursuit of improving the conservation of both tangible and intangible heritage". One wonders though what they have in mind by the latter term.

They've just bounced out on social media to announce "A new open access article was published, titled "#Metal-Detecting Rallies Characterizing the Phenomenon, Understanding the Challenges, and Identifying Strategies for #Heritage Protection," which ARCHES member Suzie Thomas co-authored. Read it here". I wrote about this text two weeks ago here: 'Ivory Tower Strategy, Carry on Doing What We're Doing'. I thought it was pretty hopeless, and ask where does that multiauthored text get us when it comes to protecting the fragile European (and further) archaeological record from wholesale damaging commercial exploitation by artefact hunters, dealers and collectors.

This is a particularly relevant question to ask ARCHES in this context since they have already published another gleeful text about a project they are doing about artefact hunting, where again it is seen as a "participatory approach" to the "heritage" (objects ripped out of the archaeological record). [ Kiara Beaulieu Archaeological Legislation and Practice of Metal Detection in Ontario, Canada ]. This reads:

By exploring the types of attitudes and legislation found globally it can help identity trends in behaviours, reactions and real-world outcomes of restrictive and permissive approaches to detecting. By identifying if moveable heritage is ‘safer’ in countries with restrictive approaches, this research hopes to understand and illustrate what types of approaches have found successes in artifact protection (sic).

Since her promotor is Suzie Thomas, no prizes for guessing what she'll come up with. I cannot get to understand this fixation these people have with "working out" whether legislation restricting looting protects the heritage more than legislation that lets them get along with it. What in the end this actually comes round to is they fx the question asked and then "evidence" gathered to make it look like liasse faire is in some way better at preventing archaeological sites being damaged by having random objects hoiked out of them by people interested in their values as collectables rather than components of a pattern of evidence (which they don't see because their holes are too narrow and they are not looking for it anyway). As an archaeologist, I do not get it, and none of the people .who adhere to this way of thinking are prepared to explain their views with more than platitudes and appeals to a idealised picture of "metal detectorists' that has nothing to do with the reality clearly visible on the forums they never go to.

Notice that Ms Beaulieu admits at the end of this extract that she is seeking "success in artefact protection" rather than the buried archaeological record that is ripped apart to produce the collectables (and constitutes the essence of the site that is being ripped apart). Perhaps they don't teach students about archaeological sites in Antwerp, just loose "old things". 

I am a bit puzzled, seeing as this is based in Ontario where the metal objects (prehistoric traded copper and meteoric iron excluded) are mostly going to be post-1608-ish, why she's not including the collection driven exploitation of archaeological sites represented by lithic artefacts too. It is exactly the same problem as with "metal detecting" (collection driven exploitation of the archaeological record). It would be churlish of me to suggest that this is avoided as here the issue in question is far too difficult to ignore. Once a collector has picked off the (necessarily fewer) diagnostic artefacts from a site that provide the information on what went on there and when (etc), leaving just the debitage and uncharacteristic bits, the site is all too obviously near-ruined as a source of information about the past. It does not matter if the collector is after lithic points or metal buckles, the effect is the same.  Ms Beaulieu's project only looks at part of the issue she claims to be addressing. Collection of lithics is also a form of "participation", involving the artefacts themselves as well as the landscapes they are found in.  

But then, so is putting graffiti on standing stones a means of personal interaction with sites and monuments of the past. There are a number of studies of graffiti and 'public art' that look at this (see for example here). Personally, I do not see any difference between this form of behaviour and somebody who takes a spade to an archaeological site and pulls out random fragments, leaving nothing except (maybe a scant 'x-marks the spot' record of some of the evidence they have disturbed). In both types of "participation", damage is being caused to the original surviving form of the site. A question I would like to see ARCHES answer is whether closing a blind eye to the damage done by such a "participatory approach to the past" preserving and enhancing the most valuable heritage values of the site affected?

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