Tuesday 20 February 2024

Nigel Swift: Friend, Fighter, Legend

Interests: Looking, Aimless Rambling and Rambling Aimlessly.
Conclusions: None
Dislikes: Whiskered Lady Foxhunters, who set him off like a firework
(UPDATE, 17 Feb 2005, the day of the Ban - Hahahahaha!
How d'you like that you witches from Hell!!), and little else.
Likes: Laughing, Red Dwarf, Dylan Thomas, Tiswas (this site, really).
Earliest Recollection: Ascent of Everest by Hilary Benn, 1953.
Latest Recollection: September 1968, a lay-by outside Swindon.
Minders: See Rota".

It is with great sadness that I announce the passing of my friend, colleague and co-author Nigel Swift, who died peacefully on the night of February 19/20, 2024, after a long and courageous battle with illness. He was surrounded by his loving family, who gave him comfort and joy in his final days.

Nigel Swift graduated in Economics and Politics (University of London) and was a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. He has published articles and lectured at various universities on surveying-related topics. Following his early retirement in 2001, he expanded a keen interest in archaeological conservation issues.

Nigel was a remarkable person, who touched the lives of many with his kindness, generosity, humour, and passion. He was a loyal and supportive friend. He loved nature, especially butterflies, wildlife and landscape photography, was an avid conservationist, and active opponent of fox-hunting and other activities detrimental to the countryside. He also had a keen interest in history and archaeology, and in particular historical sites (especially prehistoric megaliths) in the landscape. Not content to be a passive consumer of heritage, Nigel's two interests intersected in a way that led to him becoming a fierce advocate for the protection of our archaeological heritage. 

This stage of his life began with his contributions to the 'Modern Antiquarian' forum (March 2003 onwards). A spinoff of this was the formation in 2004 of the grassroots goup "Heritage Action" (HA) of which Nigel was one of the founders and later became its long-term Chairman, leading this informal group of amateurs and enthusiasts from all walks of life with energy, dedication and direction. 

The group launched its online journal in blog form in March 2005 as "Heritage Journal". Its aim was to "promote awareness and the conservation of the incomparable but often-threatened heritage sites of Britain, Ireland and beyond".  It was later to transpire that that the seemingly obvious name was chosen without much thought what certain factions across the Atlantic thought a group called "Heritage Action" should be doing, which resulted in the journal being the recipient of texts full of neo-fascist/white supremecist hate and conspiracy theories. Despite this, the Journal continued steadfastly to advocate for the landscape heritage and protection of the archaeological information they contain. In this, Nigel and the group he led were more active and consistent than many professional archaeologists in Britain.

And then there were the metal detectorists.

I am not quite sure precisely when Nigel became concerned about this issue. It was before our first online contacts in (I think) about 2005. At first, he did not want to get the new group Heritage Action involved in the 'detector debate', but after a while found it increasingly impossible to ignore his convictions and remain silent. He began to say on various online platforms what many in the British archaeological establishment avoided saying about the conservation of the archaeological record in the face of mass removal of diagnostic artefacts from surface sites by collectors.

It was about this time that we began our online collaboration. One early product of this (2007) was the Heritage Action Artefact Erosion Counter (the idea and text are Nigel's), but for seventeen years there was participation in online discussions on archaeological and metal detecting forums/discussion lists and work on a number of more formal texts together (not all of which, to my shame, have made it to print, yet).

Nigel was one of the best informed people in the UK on what metal detectorists get up to, and in particular what they say on their forums. Most archaeologists rarely go there, but Nigel considered that the best source for understanding metal detectorists was 'netnography' to observe what they said and did when they thought nobody was watching. Nigel pioneered this kind of work, spending many hours a week documenting his observations. This led to a specific kind of gamesmanship, where detectorists were trying to detect his several accounts and block him from seeing what was going on in the closed groups, and , failing abjectly (to judge from what he was sending me). 

There was a downside to this search for knowledge. His interest in finding out about artefact hunting and writing about it in the public domain led to Nigel's exposure to some exceptionally nasty attention from elements of the UK (and indeed part of the US) metal detecting fraternity. This took a number of forms. There was persistent name-calling, verbal personal attacks, insulting remarks. The metal detecting community produced and circulated (including on the British Museum's PAS forum)* fake homoerotic photos with Nigel's face photoshopped in with another guy. There were threats of physical violence too, an episode of stalking (reported to the police), two episodes of doxing with incitement of fellow detectorists "to pay him a visit", this is behaviour that went on, online and off, for years. Some of this insulting material is still online, but I am not going to link to it. 

In addition to that, the professional archaeological community was less than supportive. A number of detectorists report PAS FLOs telling their detecting "partners" to ignore the issues raised by Nigel. In particular that his Artefact Erosion Counter was mere ranting. Another archaeologist criticised the "logarithm" (sic) behind it. One academic archaeologist for some reason falsely accused him on social media of "harrassing young women" because he'd merely written questioning the position of a FLO who happened not to be a man. The PAS, the CBA and other archaeological bodies constantly sidelined any questions raised by Heritage Action activism. 

For me, this has a somewhat distressing context. Few knew at the time that Nigel had been disgnosed with terminal cancer and given the proverbial six months to live before I even met him. He had, however, the luck to find a doctor who managed to choose the right medicines. Because of this managed to live a life that until fairly recently, was from what he said in some of our frequent phone conversations passably decent a lot of the time, but this was interspersed every few months with low points that sapped his energy and seemed to be a harbiger of the end. Yet a number of times he pulled through and carried on as before. In one such inteval he visited the Staffordshire Hoard field and documented the traces of the ongoing speculative nighthawking that professional archaeologists were turning their backs to. One others he visited commercial rallies to see what was going on. Each week, he published a short pithy comment on Heritage Journal addressing an issue connected with current British "policies" (I use the term loosely) on artefact hunting and collecting. 

The series of Farmer Silas Brown posts is notable, through this persona Nigel raised a number of points, though they were lost on some in the detecting community who thought they were 'so clever' to recognise that this was "not a real person, because the public love us". 

As I said, all of this was studiously ignored by the Establisment, if they pretended they did not see what he'd put in the public domain, the jobsworths would not have to address the many issues raised. Yet, though living on borrowed time, he was convinced that there are serious heritage issues that in the public interest should not be allowed to be swept under the carpet. Nigel carried on for nearly two decades (in fact as he proudly told me some two years ago, his survival at that stage of the disease set some kind of a medical record), devoting a lot of his time to trying to get more engagement with the issues. From what I see, it would be hard to find many British archaeologists with that amount of dedication to the conservation of the archaeological resource. But then, Nigel was not, as he often remarked, an archaeologist

Nigel was never invited to any British archaeological conference to comment on policies and their effects, or share his deep knowledge of the UK detecting community. So there are no papers in conference proceedings. He was invited by French archaeologists and wrote a paper 'Fantaises, fictions et faussetés: quelques tristes réalités derrière la coopération metal-detectoristes-archéologues en Grande Bretagne pp. 243-260 [in:] Compagnon, G. (ed) 2010) Halte au pillage !, Paris, Errance, coll. « Les Hespérides ». There is a similar text forthcoming in a collected work in preparation. Of course there is also a large number of pithy remarks in a whole series of posts by Nigel in the Heritage Journal that will repay reading. Some themes repeat, but each text is a unique contribution to a debate that is long overdue. 

Artefact Hunting
All our articles from 2005 onwards on unnecessary exploitation and damage to the buried archaeological resource for recreation or profit – presented as a foil to the shameless pro-detecting public noise from detectorists and PAS…

Nigel was not afraid to speak his mind, challenge the status quo, and stand up for what he believed in. He earned the respect and admiration of many, even some of those who disagreed with him. Nigel will be greatly missed by his family, friends, and fellow heritage enthusiasts. He leaves behind a legacy of activism, inspiration, and friendship. He was a true legend, and we are lucky to have known him. At his request, there will be no formal funeral service, family and invited friends will be meeting on March 9th to celebrate a life exceptionally well lived, but his family add: 

Whilst we would be extremely happy to see you there, please do not feel obliged if your journey is long or if life gets in the way- Nigel would hate the idea of putting anyone out. You can stay at home and remember the twinkly-eyed old rascal just as well, in the sparkling stardust of the night. 

I'd like to end this with one of Nigel's many poems (this one from the Modern Antiquarian) that seems fitting to today's occasion: 


The Ridgeway (Ancient Trackway)   

A mere one thousand years ago,
King Alfred marched this crest of chalk
To fight the Danish foe,
And strained to see that very lark.
In this same Saxon blue.

Just two thousand years ago,
The feet of Rome stamped here and here
Upon this bouncing turf,
And glittering, ravenous conqueror’s eyes
Devoured these seemly, gentle hills.

From here, four thousand years ago,
The men of Bronze surveyed their works
Through eyes as wide as mine,
As wondrous Silbury, virgin white,
Bedazzled in it’s prime.

And here, six thousand years ago
Gazed Neolithic eyes
On wonders older still:
On tombs of Kennet, Avebury Henge
And ancient, ancient Windmill Hill.

Now they are gone, those mighty men,
Those Lords of all they saw,
And only I am left to walk
This high and winding lonely lane,
Whilst all around, on deep-etched hills,
Their proud, immortal marks remain.

What voice commands, what power compels
That such as they should go?
It is the same insistent call
As whispers in my ear:
There is a time for mortal men,
You may not linger here.

Perhaps, like mine, their spirits soared,
Above this magic land,
Perhaps they both rejoiced and cried
At beauty unconfined,
Perhaps this final earthly view
Blazed in dying eyes.

Perhaps that spark has never died,
And essences remain.
For see that joyous soaring lark
And hear it’s blissful cries.
It could not be more free than I,
Nor joyful nor fulfilled:
Perhaps no power, no time, no death
Can take me from these hills.

*That forum has now gone, the photos were one of the reasons why the PAS decided to abandon this as a way of promoting interaction between "finders" and the public. It showed the general public all too clearly what kind of people take up metal detecting.


Alan S. said...

A fitting tribute to a wonderful man.

De. William Shephard said...

''Martin was one of the best-informed people in the UK on what metal ''DETEECTORISTS'' get up to. Such a pity he didn't know what metal ''DETECTORISTS'' got up to!!! And you, you love child accuse us of being illiterate!!!

Paul Barford said...

I also find a lot of metal detectorists lack basic social skills and kinderstube. QED

De. William Shephard said...

Oh, do you? Then engage with me in a battle that will once and for all determine the rights and wrongs of metal detecting as opposed to the rights and wrongs of Archeology. I am well-armed Paul, go for it...
The Dr...

Paul Barford said...

I do not think you understood that last remark or your postition here.

Paul Barford said...

This is a blog where I discuss "the rights and wrongs of artefact hunting" in their archaeological context. Apart from here, I have a number of articles published in peer reviewed publications in three countries that do the same thing. Nigel Swift also published a lot of material. You come here (not my other publication venues) to "engage" with me alleginng that you are "well-armed" and seek a "battle". Yet EVERY SINGLE comment that you have sent to this blog (a) fails to engage with the actual content and points made by the text it follows [comments "on"], and (b) is merely composeed of low-brow puerile invective and taunting with zero cognitive content or contribution to any discussion. From that point of view, I have long considered that you are by no means as "well-equipped" in intellect, knowledge, reflexion, or articulacy as you so clearly imagine. In fact, you come over as a living embodiment of the Dunning–Kruger effect.

So, instead of impudently using an obituary notice of my friend to challenge me to a battle with YOU "that will once and for all determine the rights and wrongs of metal detecting as opposed to the rights and wrongs of Archeology" (sic), you would do well to either (a) start making some substantive comments to the thousands of posts here setting out my views on precisely that topic, or (b) starting your own "well-armed" blog, systematically setting out your problems as a metal detectorist with the "rights and wrongs of archaeology". Off you go. Go on. I promise to read it.

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