“Artefact hunting (done right) is good for you – and Britain”. That seems to be the message of Britain’s Secret Treasures. Who could disagree? Well, nearly all of the world’s archaeologists and governments for a start – but they’re conspicuously absent from the screen. Then there are the home-grown spoilsports who think half a million finds with less than immaculate provenance doesn’t make up for the four million finds not declared to PAS in the same period!  Where’s the knowledge gain and national benefit from those? So it’s like this, nice and simple: to present a balanced account, five nights of jubilation about Britain’s Secret Treasures should have been followed by forty nights of outrage over Britain’s LOST Treasures. Only then would the public see the true, proportionate picture.

The Council for British Archaeology was involved in these programmes – with little enthusiasm no doubt as they stand for “archaeology for all” not “exploitation by some”. But they hoped that at least the series would increase “best practice” – though why that would happen after all these years and how boosting the number of artefact hunters would benefit Britain is unclear. Now though, they’ve come out with a remarkable article – perhaps as a reaction to the way the programmes came over, entitled “Archaeology is about Knowledge, not Treasure”.

They say things that don’t usually get said. Things that unashamedly champion archaeology not the collecting of it:

  • Remains in the ground “are best left undisturbed”!
  • If you are thinking of rushing out to buy a metal detector “think again “
  • “in many cases, it is better to wait… as long as it remains safe then it is better to leave the evidence for future generations to investigate with better techniques and with better-informed questions to ask.”
  • “intervention is only justified if the evidence is at risk of being lost or damaged”
  • “any excavation work has to be carried out carefully to ensure that we extract as many clues as possible not just about any objects that are found”
  • “Team up with an archaeology group”
  • “The best way to extract evidence from the ground is via controlled, high-standard archaeological excavation.“
  • “There are many groups across the UK who are capable of such high standards, both in the professional and voluntary sector, and it is best to join up with a local archaeology group if you have a passion for history and heritage”.
  • “Ethical metal detecting…. care is needed to ensure that ethical codes are followed”

Bravo to CBA for unashamedly expressing why they prefer Archaeology to artefact hunting and pointing out precisely why talk of combining the two is a foolish and impossible British aberration: if  “the best way to extract evidence from the ground is via controlled, high-standard archaeological excavation” and “intervention is only justified if the evidence is at risk of being lost or damaged” then of course a large proportion of artefact hunting cannot be hailed as valid by archaeologists. The talk of “common ground” between the two is nonsense and always was. Define it if I’m wrong – or ask those that speak of it to do so!

One thing needs clarifying though. What can they mean by “ethical” detecting and “ethical” codes? Not the NCMD or FID codes for sure, as those don’t insist on reporting to PAS! Nor the official Code of Responsible Detecting – as that doesn’t mention any of the things listed by CBA above. In fact, the only Code that comes within a hundred miles of satisfying at least some of what CBA say is required….. is OURS!

So far though, after over a year and a half, zero detectorists have agreed to it so perhaps what CBA needs to decide next is what they consider should be done about an activity that they believe should be conducted to a particular ethical standard when there is scant evidence that anyone other than a tiny minority is willing to operate to that standard or anywhere near it. Bearing in mind that all early indications suggest the programmes are going to cause a huge increase in both detector sales and would-be treasure hunters, the issue has perhaps become more urgent than ever before. Take a look at our erosion counter. For the next few months should we double the rate at which it shows depletion going on?

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UPDATE, an hour or two later:
We aren’t entirely naive amateur spoilsports with the wrong ideas about both artefact hunting and these programmes apparently. Mike Heyworth of the CBA has reiterated on Twitter that people should get involved in archaeology not treasure hunting and English Heritage’s Archaeology spokespersons no less have just re-tweeted his message!

English Heritage ‏@EHArchaeology  RT @mikeheyworth:    Watching ITV’s #secrettreasures? Get involved in #archaeology, not treasure hunting. Suggestions here http://ow.ly/ciUsT

I think that settles it, especially when you read precisely what his suggestions are. They display no compromises at the expense of our communal heritage whatsoever, just as they shouldn’t. But are words enough?

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More Heritage Action views on metal detecting and artefact collecting

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