Monday 26 February 2024

A bit of Honesty and a Comfortable Assumption

 Bronze age hut circles at Shapley common, Dartmoor (Photograph: ASC Photography/Alamy)

This ended interestingly. British archaeologist Mary-Anne Ochota wrote an interesting Guardian article 'Road to ruins: how I discovered the magic of archaeology' with the byline:
"With millennia of history hidden beneath our feet, connecting with the ancient past offers endless fascination, and many ways to get involved".
Readers of this blog will know that if it is British archaeology, that "getting involved" will probably mean.... So quelle surprise as we read on down, we get to the red flag:
"The Portable Antiquities Scheme has a database of more than 1.7m finds made in England and Wales, mostly by metal detectorists. You can see what items have been found in your county, read guides to help identify particular types of artefacts or coins, and get advice on how to metal detect responsibly, and what to do if you find something [but nothing else on the subject of exploiting the archaeological record as a source of private collectables]". 

There is a very nice photo of Bronze age hut circles at Shapley common, Dartmoor (Photograph: ASC Photography/Alamy) in the article. I am very well aware that the author of the text will think that this oh-so-remote site is safe because it is protected by scheduling and under permanent pasture (and of course, since that is the mantra all British archaeologists absorb with their breakfast cereal, that "the majority of metal detectorists are responsible and law-abiding" - yeah yeah...), but the evocative photo invites us all to reflect on how vulnerable archaeological sites and the information they contain are to just one self-centred bloke with a metal detector, a spade, a few spare hours and deep pockets. And a site like this will have only a few diagnostic metal artefacts and the majority of them just below the surface.  

I could not help the kneejerk reaction, thinking that (like most British archaeologists encountering uncomfortable comments on metal detecting) the author of the text would block me:
Paul Barford · 3h
"Get involved [...] read guides to help identify particular types of artefacts or coins, and get advice on how to metal detect responsibly, and what to do if you find something". That's not archaeology, but object-centred Treasure hunting. Archaeology's not just about "finding old things".
Instead of a ban, this got a response (Mary-Ann Ochota): " No indeed. But clear information on responsible detecting behaviour, and what to do if you *do* find something (however you find it) is key. like the people digging a pond and finding gold coins. or the kid on a school trip. or the farmer spotting a shiny thing in the pigpen". So, really, though she had just agreed that archaeology is not about finding things, she still insists that finding things and telling the arkies about them is "getting involved in archaeology". I decided not to leave it there:
Paul Barford: · So then, if all "done responsibly", is this [link,] "getting involved in Archaeology"? (Labelling of individual artefacts and not flogging it off on eBay are among the things NOT in the PAS "Code of Best Practice...)
I linked to a random eBay-seling metal detectorist ("illnevergetananswernow") who caught my eye due to at least two bits of Anglo-Saxon metalwork - one probably from a cemetery (and the irony of the choice of name for an artefact hunter hoiking stuff out of the archaeological record preventing us from getting any information from it afterwards). I have no idea how "responsibly" he was taking stuff from the record in realtion to British archaeology's piss-poor Code of so-called "Best Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting in England and Wales". 

In my opinion, merely following this code with their metal detector does not make the ("responsible") artefact hunter a participant in archaeology. In no way. I was interested to hear what Mary-Anne Ochota thought of that. I was surprised but not surprised:
Mary-Ann Ochota 6hReplying to @PortantIssues and @guardian
In absolute honesty, I'm not sure what I think of this. Left in for example plough soil, they'd be lost. so where do they go? I don't think an overwhelmed and poorly indexed archive is necessarily better than ebay. (of course I absolutely appreciate that lots of finds aren't from disturbed contexts).
I'll wager this is the first text by a British archaeologists about the issues surrounding artefact hunting that starts by professing "In absolute honesty". I was also surprised to find a British archaeologist saying outright that the quality of the mitigating record-by-preservation is important, rarely do you hear that from her colleagues, the PAS is there, and that allegedly solves any problems "as long as items are recorded".That of course is totally not true. But most British archaeologists don't think, or don't care to think, these things through. Mary-Ann Ochota seems here to be a refreshing exception. 

Not entirely, though. The old trope gets trotted out: "left in for example plough soil, they'd be lost".  So artefact hunting is a form of "rescue", yeah yeah, we've heard it all before. Many times. Even from the PAS.

But what is rescued are "things" and if the recording is not done properly, loose things. They may have an "x-marks the spot" findspot accurate to the zillionth of a metre, but that, by itself [as all PAS "x-marks the spot" findspots are], is archaeologically virtually meaningless (except as a dot on a Kossinnist distribution map). It does not record where the object was removed from in relation to other types of evidence visible on the site surfgace or in its structure (even if it is a disturbed-surface site). Archaeology is the recovery and methodological interpretation of information, information in context. Again, we come back to the point that merely pulling loose items out of the ground is not "doing archaeolgy". It is actually destroying and discarding the information that is needed to do archaeology. Artefacts lying in situ, in cntext of other information are not "lost", that is the view of a "gimme-gimme" artefact collector. It is not an archaeological concept.

I think she also meant that "left in the soil, the object will disintegrate" - that is the usual argument. Often we get "power harrows: and "artificial fertilisers" added to that...  ("common sense, innit?"). I've addressed this a number of times (see below).  I'm not denying that there is anecdotal evidence (and a couple of case studies) that do show damage is occurring in ploughsoil, I would suggest that it is not as general a phonomenon that is commonly claimed and would like to see better evidence for this justification of supporting artefact hunters. I'll just say that in my view this is just a comfortable assumption to avoid taking any action.

Reading List on "Artefact Loss"

Wednesday 28 October 2015, 'Artefact Hunting, the "Lesser of Two Evils"? More on "Fragmentation"...'

Thursday 29 October 2015, Two Warsaw Chambers of Numismodeath

(while the experiment did disprove the tekkie assertions, the documentation was lost  Friday 27 November 2015,  Artificial Fertiliser (1)Artificial fertiliser (2);  The Artificial Fertiliser Experiment (3) Thursday 6 April 2017, 'The Chambers of Numismodeath')

Wednesday 14 October 2020, 'The Broken Brooch Fallacy', 

Friday 16 October 2020, 'Friday Retrospect: Finds Rescue by Hoiking (a repost with brief introduction relevant here, of a text from a decade ago: Sunday, 24 August 2014, 'The Tekkie Myth of Finds 'Rescue'..'). 



M.K. said...

The Anglo-Saxon objects that you noticed are not the only cemetery finds in that wild mountain of eBay artifacts - there is an orthodox 18th/19th century "female" old believer style cross pendant lying in between (lower middle area of the photograph) that's most likely also a grave find. Surely not found in Britain, probably dug up in either Ukraine or Russia ...
You can compare it with the female cross portrayed here:

Paul Barford said...

Thanks for that, the article you linked to is most interesting.

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