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The Portable Antiquities Scheme has recorded over 936,000 objects. Hurrah! But here’s a screenshot from our site taken at 4.09 pm yesterday afternoon….
Some people say the Counter can be safely ignored: “Ludicrous” (say Detectorists), “Lacks credibility” (Head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme), “based on nothing but presumptions and inaccuracies” (Detector retailer), “should be viewed with contempt” (National Council for Metal Detecting).
Maybe. But all it is saying is that on average each active detectorist finds 0.69 recordable items a week (a lot less than the 0.99 that CBA/EH estimated previously) and that the great majority don’t get reported. If true, it’s a lot of knowledge loss, and a shame. Bad, aren’t we!
As you were. Nothing to see here.
by Nigel Swift
To summarise: last week at a club dig Medway History Finders unearthed Anglo Saxon artefacts and crudely dug the whole assemblage out on the pretext they couldn’t contact an archaeologist and if left there it might be stolen overnight. They say they were subsequently told they’d acted correctly: “The BM and our FLO said we done the best thing by taking out what we could”.
Failure to stop digging is actually common (though usually brushed over by PAS). In 2011 the Salisbury Museum director was glad a detectorist had stopped digging the Tisbury Hoard but said “you could count on two hands the number of Bronze Age hoards which have been recorded professionally by archaeologists in this way”. But PAS saying it’s sometimes OK is brand new. If true it’s a damaging triple mistake: it asserts bad practice is good practice, it slams the door on scope for reducing the reward as a warning to others and it gives all irresponsible detectorists a perfect excuse for digging up hoards or graves in future: “I was alone, my phone battery went flat, so I got out my long spade and “did the right thing” OK?” The bits are in this bag!”
The realty is that there are numerous options for protecting artefacts in situ if archaeologists can’t be contacted. It’s hard to credit these finders didn’t know that but since PAS hasn’t listed them on their website they’re free to claim they were unaware – and thus to claim a full Treasure reward despite trashing the site. As amateurs we’re used to PAS ignoring us but the grim truth is that we’ve had the precise advice they should have been giving detectorists about this situation on the Heritage Journal for several years! If they’d not ignored us (I know they’ve seen it) or if they’d given me, a know-nowt extremist obsessive amateur, a couple of column inches on their website there wouldn’t have been a Medway History Finders scandal would there? I’m thinking haughty collective pipe and smoke it. They have things to learn. Anyway, here’s what we said in 2011:
“There’s NO excuse for digging out a significant hoard, and people that might be looking for one shouldn’t be given one. It’s not rocket science so I’m emboldened to draft below the advice PAS should be giving (if only they weren’t both constantly frit of the way it would play in the cheap seats):
“From the moment you become aware you have found a significant hoard you should treat it as what it is – State Property – and if you want to be regarded as a history lover, a responsible detectorist, a potential reward recipient – or even just a half-decent citizen,you MUST take on the role of guardian on behalf of the State, and cause no further disturbance whatsoever to it or it’s context or the associated knowledge. That means always stopping digging, whatever the circumstances, and doing everything you can to protect it until archaeologists have attended. You should do this in conjunction with the landowner if they can be found and necessary actions could include camping out nearby, getting a lighting hook-up into the field from the farm, spending the night in a parked car, asking a couple of colleagues to help guard it in exchange for a small share of a future reward or even hiring a security guard (you and the farmer could go halves on the cost out of the reward money).”
There are other options that could be added no doubt and I’m sure PAS (and thoughtful detectorists) can come up with many more to put on the PAS website. Ideally it needs to be published within days so as to quickly counter any wrong and Kentish ideas that may just have taken root. Plus, “detectorists as guardians of Treasure on behalf of the State” is a concept that needs promoting. (They ARE guardians! If they took a spade to that Treasure when on their kitchen table they’d be jailed so how is it different in a field?). Any true history lover would do it right without demur. You can’t be a history lover and an anti-social, over-hasty, self-serving acquisitive yob as well, you have to decide which. Whether you keep digging will determine that.
Someone on a detecting forum who I had better not describe in the way I’m thinking has said about the Kent behaviour: “Absolutely no need for any justification .. There’s not many who would stop digging”. Anyone like that has no business on the fields and PAS should make that crystal clear – especially to landowners. Let’s see if they will.
Update, same day:
I’ve been looking at this stuff every day for more than a decade then up pops an archaeo on the BAJR Facebook page and puts it better than I ever could! Grrr!
“And I have to say that while I know there are many responsible people who care about archaeology AND own metal detectors, one cannot escape the reality that those persons are few overall, and the kamikaze treasure hunter yahoos are not merely a majority, but the standard. Pretending that the few who care means that we cannot castigate the many is to duck the issue entirely. The only way to prevent wholesale destruction-for-profit is to license and police. Maybe this seems harsh – but if the public understood that it is they who are being robbed, they might feel differently about seeing metal detectoring as a handy get-rich-quick scheme.”
Update 3 March 2014
From Rescue’s Facebook:
“Nope, no denying these self justifying dolts acted apallingly stupidly, need to be told they acted apallingly stupidly (removing what looks very much like a grave assemblage) and given no comfort whatsoever by the Treasure Act. The fact archaeologists have working hours and that these particular detectorists don’t trust each other enough to turn their backs is a pisspoor whimper of an excuse. I see no sense of personal responsibility here – just personal entitlement. That said, two separate issues have been very cynically conflated in this article, and it’s a shame, if no actual surprise, that the main purpose of the piece is to use the episode to attack PAS – a scheme HA clearly believes is corrupt and immoral, and insufficiently proscriptive.”
No. Just insufficiently proscriptive. It’s the system. It stinks. FLOs are prisoners of it and we all lose by it. Know it by its net results, unspun. C’est tout.
Update 4 March 2014
I confess I found the above a bit upsetting as we’re well used to detectorists misunderstanding or misrepresenting what we’re about but not archaeos. However, I’ve perked up with the news that the author may be related to a FLO so it looks like we’ve had 18 “likes” on the Rescue FB and just one criticism, from a FLO’s relative. It’s what I would have expected and it’s encouraging (although from now it will change radically no doubt!). BTW it would be a mistake to think we don’t talk in confidence to lots of archaeologists, including FLOs. We may be amateurs but we’re not operating in the dark.
Update 5 March 2014
On a lighter note …
Augustus Pitt Rivers, dubbed the Father of British Archaeology for expressing the importance of thorough site excavation through stratigraphic observation and recording. His most important methodological innovation was his insistence that all artefacts, not just beautiful or unique ones, be collected and catalogued.
Subsequently in Britain those principles have been held to be unnecessary for work involving non-archaeologists. No-one has ever explained why.
Update 8 March 2014
A message to all my fans in metal detecting: there’s an awful lot of “most people would have done the same through excitement” sentiment flying about. Please desist, it encourages future bad behaviour. Even if true it is no excuse. If you’re going to play in Society’s back yard AND take rewards AND expect respect you have to play by Society’s rules, OK? You see, it’s theft, plain and simple. Knowledge theft. “Excitement” is not an excuse for shoplifting and the magistrate would take a dim view of anyone that claimed it was. Just behave, OK? No excuses, no cover-ups, no telling each other (as some have) not to video the discovery of future hoards. Just behave, OK? And certainly don’t steal. If you feel you can’t trust yourself in Tesco’s don’t go in there, even if you know the security cameras are switched off.
Finally, we live in a VERY peculiar country where not only are there very few laws prohibiting the cultural theft of the knowledge attached to portable antiquities but also where the authorities are pretty frit to condemn it out loud. It’s still wrong though and while you may think you don’t do it yourself, making any excuse for your colleagues that do it or indeed having any truck with them is aiding and abetting them. Nearly 12 miles of artefacts laid edgeways, mostly not reported! Get a grip. Thanks.
The admirable student-run archaeology journal The Post Hole has a poll this month. It asks a good question, how can relations between archaeologists and detectorists be improved, but it offers some strange options:
1. Better education about detecting for those who want to get involved?
Well! We’ve been paying PAS millions to do that for 16years! Should we ask for our money back?! Maybe, as most detectorists still don’t report all finds. Interesting that 23% of respondents answered YES to that option.
2. Make it easier for the public to report finds?
Eh?! How could it possibly be easier? PAS has a national team you can take finds to. They’ll even come to you or your detecting club or rally and give you a free ID to boot. What other hobby is so mollycoddled by the state?
3. Acknowledgement of the good that can come from metal detecting?
But everyone acknowledges that already! It’s the downside that matters. How can yet more praise and talk of heroes make non-reporters start reporting? (A wild thought – did a detectorist advise on the contents of this survey?!)
4. Find common ground, i.e. projects that all parties can work together on?
To clarify: random, selective, unstructured searching for personal benefit is antipathetic to archaeological ethics so the ONLY “common ground” possible is in projects under strict archaeological control as defined by EH in Our Portable Past. That may shock endless bangers-on about common ground (detectorists and PAS) but it’s true!
5. Stronger regulation of metal detecting
Yep, that’s the one certain way – for how could relations NOT be improved if all detectorists were compelled to behave instead of being given a choice about it, as now. (BTW I see only 13% of respondents went for that option – could that be a clue to which group is piling in to answer this survey?!)
If the York Uni students don’t know how archaeologist-detectorist relations can be improved (which I doubt) they could pop over to CBA HQ where they’ll be told this (in no uncertain terms). It adds up to: “Metal detecting is fine providing it’s conducted in the public interest”. To which I’d add: “since after 16 years of persuasion it mostly isn’t, it’s high time regulation was used to ensure it is!” The effect on relations will be that every archaeologist will then adore every metal detectorist (as will I) and it don’t need no poll to see that’s true!
Update 24 Feb 2014
A metal detectorist asks “Is it not time that he came to the conclusion that his work too force his own thought out regulations upon metal detectorists is not working and could actually be having a negative effect on what he aims for?”
The claim that we (and Paul Barford) are the cause of detectorist misbehaviour is more than a decade old and turns out to be decidedly irrational when examined – so doesn’t need discussing. As for forcing my own opinions, the above-quoted summary of the CBA’s opinion – “Metal detecting is fine providing it’s conducted in the public interest” is one that is shared by just about every archaeologist on the planet so he’d better take it up with them.
(Yah boo to PAS for not explaining it to him!)
by Nigel Swift
You’d think by now the artefact erosion counter would be accepted by all as a sensible evidence-based estimate. But no, a detectorist has just said it’s “a load of tosh”. Amusingly, the next day his forum colleague told him: “One wonders at the percentage of all detectorists who get the FLO to record non-treasure related finds. I’m guessing at about 15 pct” (i.e. half of what the Counter says!) That apart, the problem with calling it tosh is you’re also having to say the same about the 3 surveys it’s based on (by EH/CBA, an achaeologist and a detectorist) which are the only sources of evidence on the matter that exist – so I’m disinclined to spend time defending it other than to make two points:
First, a remarkable fact: the only people who have ever said it’s nonsense are those with a vested interest in doing so and there are no exceptions to that so far as I know! Whereas those without a vested interest take another view. Thus the CBA’s Director, Dr Mike Heyworth, says it “provides a reasonable basis from which to consider the scale of the loss of knowledge caused by metal detecting” and Professor David Gill (Volume 20 of the Papers of the Institute of Archaeology) has posed the crucial question that defeats all who claim it is too high: “how far out would this estimate need to be before it became a matter of marginal concern?”
Second, I’d like to stress the sheer scale of the loss of cultural knowledge the Counter is implying. Here’s one of my previous attempts. Viewed edge-on a typical artefact such as an ancient coin is about a sixteenth of an inch wide:
On that basis the Counter says if you lined up edgeways all the artefacts legally dug up and mostly not reported since 1975 they’d stretch for about 12 miles. That’s not tosh but it’s hard not to see it as a national shame – and yes Professor Gill, it would still be so if it was only one mile.
Surrey County Council say their metal detecting policy “is based on the premise that an applicant will be considered to be part of an ongoing archaeological survey of SCC properties. Applicants will in particular be expected to have a proven track record in reporting and recording. Finds would normally remain the property of Surrey County Council.”
Now Friends, here’s a heck of a question. If that’s the premise on which they work in order to protect their own interest as owners and the public’s interest as stakeholders, how come we landowners aren’t advised to adopt it too? Beats me. If you have a moment please email anyone involved in British portable antiquities policy and ask them: “Should landowners hold rallies only on the Surrey Council Premise and if not why not?”
If you get no reply, ask again. And again. This country is owed an answer. Meanwhile, I’m about to hold a detecting rally myself here in Shropshire using the Surrey Council Premise. Will the BM say well done Silas? Will lots of detectorists turn up? Who knows? I’ll let you know.
Grunters Hollow Farm,
Professor David Gill has been musing about “the alleged burial place of the so called Crosby Garrett helmet” and the “unsubstantiated rumours” highlighted in the latest Current Archaeology that perhaps it was found elsewhere and relocated in order to give it a false provenance. I have no idea about that but it put me in mind of a section of our recent wall chart …
It illustrates that some dug up artefacts pass through a criminal “Laundry” or a legal “Fibbery”. A Laundry of course is where criminals launder their loot by giving it a false provenance. But the process of Fibbery is less spoken of yet may be vastly more common. It’s where something is dug up perfectly legally but then a big fib is told about where. There are many motivations for doing it but the big one is where you have a 50-50 agreement with one farmer but not with another and so …..
“That’s very rare” detectorists would say without knowing if it was, “don’t insult the rest of us”. But actually it’s merely saying detectorists are no more saintly than anyone else. So (in best margarine ad style): 10,000 random people were asked “if you could double your money by saying you got something in Harrow when you got it in Jarrow would you do it?” X% said yes.
Now, unless you can say how much X is, which you can’t, you’d have to accept that to a degree that can never be known, a portion of PAS’s data is deliberately falsified. So, Professor Gill, never mind where the helmet came from, the pressing question for Britain is where did all the other finds come from?
by Nigel Swift
Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, believes the Portable Antiquities Scheme “is envied the world over“. Not enough for any country to have ever copied it I think. However, in case any are thinking of doing so they should be aware of some basic realities. Well one actually. In Britain, doing without regulation and promoting a voluntary system for 15 years has preserved the overall situation of ADWIM – “avoidable depletion with inadequate mitigation”. I believe Neil MacGregor could not disagree that that is indeed an accurate description and any wannabe overseas PAS-cloner should take heed.
However, if any foreign heritage professionals are thinking of going down the British route (which I sincerely doubt) they would also need to consider how they could persuade their taxpaying and stakeholding public that overall “Avoidable Depletion with Inadequate Mitigation” is fine – and both preferable and more effective than statutory regulation. As to that task, they would clearly be well advised to emulate the way Britain has done just that (not willingly but forced to by the lack of legislation – but successfully nevertheless). It involves some actions and inactions they might not be too keen on from the point of view of archaeological ethics (just as Britain’s archaeologists may not be) so I’ve drawn up a wall chart showing what they must say and not say. Here it is -
Hello Fellow Landowners,
Yes it’s me, Farmer Silas Brown, once again promoting your interest in relation to metal detecting because the Government and officialdom won’t.
This time I’m highlighting the fact lots of detectorists take finds home without showing us. Not sure what they tell farmers but they tell the public it’s “because he isn’t interested”. Hmm. Does that sound like you or anyone you know? Thought not. They also tell the public “If he had them he wouldn’t report them” – implying the average farmer is less educated or socially responsible than the average detectorist. Hmm again! Take a look at any detecting forum!
But the main issue is they’re our finds not theirs so letting anything be taken away unseen is crazy. Many finds are valuable, but how would we know? Plus there’s an immutable law of the universe: what leaves an owner doesn’t necessarily all find it’s way back to him! So my strong advice (and something the Government and officialdom ought to spend outreach money telling you) is NEVER let your property leave your farm until you have obtained independent advice on its value and significance. You can then decide what YOU want to do with it. That could include showing it to PAS. (You can phone them or visit them, here they all are. They might even visit you as they visit hundreds of pubs to meet detectorists – so it really couldn’t be easier for you to report your property to them, whatever you may have been told!)
That advice, and much else is in the Journal’s Ethical Detecting Code. You won’t find any official or archaeologist saying any part of that is wrong so if any detectorist says he won’t keep to it, well, you decide! The Southern Detectorists Group detects 20 farms and in no case do they hand the finds to the farmers at the end of their digs. I’m only a humble farmer, less educated or socially responsible than the average detectorist, but to me that’s scandalous. And it’s not just me. Tesco’s don’t like people taking things home without going through the check-out either.
For a moment it seemed nagging had paid off. For 13 years I’ve said if some enlightened detectorists formed an ethical detecting group they’d get massive prestige and others would follow and everyone would gain, including detectorists. That’s what our Ethical Metal Detecting Association is all about. Trouble is no-one has ever bitten – until recently when a detectorist contacted us saying he agreed with many of the pledges it contains and wanted to persuade his club to run along ethical lines.
Sadly though it turns out he and his colleagues can’t live with Pledge No. 3: “Members will promptly deliver ALL finds of interest into the hands of their legal owner, the landowner, so that he/she can consider what (if anything) should be done with them. Members will advise landowners to obtain independent advice upon the significance and value of all finds.” It’s “not practical” he says – because farmers are less likely to report the finds to PAS than detectorists are!
I bet you find that hard to credit Dear Reader, considering most detectorists don’t report to PAS! But be that as it may, the crucial point is that the finds are the farmer’s property so it can’t possibly be ethical for Joe Bloggs from Bootle to take them home instead of delivering them to the owner. Our correspondent might be sincere but it’s naive to think there aren’t a large number of Joe Bloggs’ who will never come back from Bootle with what they’ve taken (but who will love to adopt his ethical cloak as an aid!)
Such a shame, it could have been the start of something good. But you can’t pick and mix when it comes to ethics – and you particularly can’t ignore the biggest one of all, Pledge 3, which expresses something very basic and important: don’t take a bloke’s property away without showing him! (Duh!). Tesco’s don’t agree to people taking their stuff home without going through the checkout. Why should farmers be asked to do so?
English Heritage Chief Simon Thurley has just said there is evidence that many of those who dig up archaeologically rich sites looking for valuable artefacts are … “habitual offenders” who “trawl English Heritage’s own databases of protected sites looking for places likely to contain rich pickings” and that “there’s no disincentive – if you get a slap on the wrist, you just go and do it again.”
How awful, Dr Thurley. Drat those criminals. And yet…. digging up archaeologically rich sites looking for valuable artefacts is the very essence of all metal detecting, as is habitual trawling through all archaeological databases to find unprotected but important sites likely to contain “rich pickings”!
In addition, since 70% of what’s legally found isn’t reported it’s beyond denial that the loss of cultural knowledge caused in that way utterly dwarfs the losses caused by the few hundred criminal nighthawks that you complain about so bitterly. So where’s your slap on the wrist for that? Or even your mild rebuke? Or even your admission that the present free-for-all is having an unacceptable impact on England’s heritage?
It’s the legal damage that warrants your urgent attention, see?