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We recently suggested to English Heritage that official coyness about the grim realities of “legal” metal detecting facilitates heritage damage that dwarfs that from illegal metal detecting. Now comes confirmation that general official weakness on the issue is indeed helping to deprive the public of large parts of its communal inheritance.

Of course, an EBay announcement providing “guidance” to sellers of found antiquities and saying they should provide clear provenances (including findspots) and reference numbers from the bodies to which they have been reported seems like good news at first glance. Especially as it is the culmination of five years of behind-the-scenes lobbying by various official bodies (the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Portable Antiquities Scheme, the British Museum, English Nature and the English Heritage Commission).

But sadly it doesn’t mean that hundreds of thousands of British artefacts will no longer be sold unreported through EBay each year. Quite the reverse. Demands made by the official conservation bodies for a  “no cheating” system have been rebuffed by EBay who have instead bowed to malign pressure from people who are implacably opposed to anything which compels them to reveal details of the origin of their goods. Why the official bodies should not announce they think EBay’s behaviour is scandalous is  a mystery.

The British buried archaeological resource has been sold down the river in two ways. Exhibit One is this, a neat little escape hatch right at the end: “You should state in your listing the clear provenance (including findspot) of the item, if known.”  But of course, as everyone knows, there are vitually NO metal detected items offered where a provenance or precise findspot or both aren’t perfectly well known or perfectly able to be established. Yet EBay added “if known”, no doubt because they were asked, rather forcefully, by representatives of their major customers, the metal detectorists and dealers. “Not known” is the magic veil that has been relied upon since time immemorial to hide difficult details by the dubious, the criminal, the lazy the greedy and the morally illiterate in many a field of commerce and never more so than by those who buy and sell unrecorded metal detected items on EBay. It can be confidently expected the magic veil will still be applied and that the vast majority of items will continue to have no provenance, no findspot  and no PAS reference number. After all, things have just got better for the knowledge eroders: EBay has now signalled it’s OK to  say “not known” and officialdom has hailed the wording as a welcome step forward!

The second Exhibit is this: “Sellers on eBay may have a legal obligation to report archaeological finds” and “eBay may remove any listings of archaeological finds on eBay that have not been reported in accordance with applicable law.” Well, that’s very good and strict, but it’s about Treasure items, which comprise 0.01% of metal detecting finds in England and Wales. What about the 99.99% of finds for which no legal obligation to report them exists? What does EBay say about those? It says this: “Finds that do not fall under the definition of Treasure, but are recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme will have a unique reference number, which sellers should list.” So Nota bene, for this is tricky wording of a monumental nature: the new EBay guidance is in no way requiring that a listed item should be recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme, only that a PAS reference number is supplied IF the item is reported to PAS! Non-reporting detectorists are being given carte blanche to continue to offload our history through EBay without telling anyone at all. EBay has drafted words to make it seem otherwise and the British archaeological establishment has said this is all a very welcome development! Hence our thesis: official coyness about the reality of the severe negative impact of legal metal detecting facilitates major heritage damage.

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It is worth reminding ourselves, at the end of both 2009 and the noughties, of the sheer scale of the losses of historical information being sustained under the free-for-all system that currently exists. If our Artefact Erosion Counter is to be believed, the bulk of 289,000 artefacts has gone unrecorded this year and the bulk of 2.89 million artefacts over the course of the noughties.

Of course, we cannot peer over the shoulders of ten thousand detectorists so cannot be sure of those figures (maybe the majority of them has never reported to PAS because they have never found anything and constantly go out with metal detectors purely for exercise!)  And on that same basis (that they too cannot be sure) 10,000 detectorists say our figures are far too high and even the head of PAS says he has no confidence in them. (Strange. PAS was set up on the basis of an  officially trumpeted estimate that 400,000 items  per annum were being removed by metal detectorists yet our estimate of 289,000 is considered to lack credibility!) Of course, the reasons why people might be reluctant to accept our estimates are not hard to work out and it is notable that none of those who decry them offer their own  estimates – presumably because almost any figures reflect badly on the activity.

This state of affairs vis-a-vis a finite resource that deserves protection can hardly be right. Indeed, we hardly think those in responsible professional positions think it is,  and it defies  logic that archaeologists and heritage professionals in Britain truly see things in the opposite way to their colleagues elsewhere throughout the world.  At one time, years ago, the saving grace of official coyness had a certain claim to reasonableness – the hope that things would get better such that the losses would become negligible, given time. This is simply unsustainable now and the claim has become tired and pointless. No amount of statistical gyrations can obscure the fact that the original hopes for the voluntary system have not been proved to be well founded or the fact that after eleven years most of approximately 2.89 million British artefacts are removed and not reported – whereas the equivalent experience just across the water in Northern and Southern Ireland is that the loss, give or take a few, is approximately none.

So here is our view as 2009 and the Noughties come to an end, if we might be so bold as amateurs, taxpayers, heritage lovers and stakeholders to give one that so conflicts with the public (if not private) stance of the British archaeological establishment:

Orwell is dead. The island of Ireland protects its buried archaeological heritage adequately (against this danger at least) without much fuss, failure or expense. If even the Irish government can do so then is it not time the British government and its agents desisted from spin, gave up holding convoluted conferences about portable antiquities  stuffed with carefully selected speakers and told the truth about Ireland? By the time the teenies are over and another 2.89 million British artefacts have been lifted mostly without being reported, the Irish combined damage will once again be approximately nothing.


Metal detecting: a letter to English Heritage

Legalised metal detecting? “No thanks, we’re French (and we give a damn about our resource!)” – Official.

Nighthawking: much ado about the wrong thing.

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