It’s almost exactly five years this weekend since the “Near Avebury Metal Detecting Rally”, a crass and vulgar grabfest dedicated to “self” and a denial of the existence of “society”. 480 people lined up along two fields at Winterbourne Bassett and rushed forward on a signal (“like the start of the Grand National” crowed the organiser in the press) to grab what they could of our history. Which in this case was very rich, from Palaeolithic scatters onwards, as might be expected in this world-famous area under the scarp of the Marlborough Downs, overlooked by The Ridgeway, a White Horse, 2 Iron Age forts and countless bronze age barrows and visited but not harmed by John Aubrey, William Stukeley and scores of famous archaeologists since.
The usual claims underlay the event – that it was “disturbed plough soil” so no harm could arise – a demonstrably false mantra that PAS consistently avoids correcting. And we know that “Don’t worry, we all report to the PAS” was actually said to the elderly landowner. And as one said in our hearing “Anyway, it’s legal, innit?” It sure is. It’s not right of course as the rest of the world knows, but in Britain you can’t get locked up for it so that’s that.
PAS didn’t attend (it’s unclear whether by accident or embarrassment but who can blame them – no professional would want it on their CV!) Of course, if they and detectorists are to be believed it didn’t matter as most detectorists heroically record their finds anyway. If you believe the PAS records for those two fields show a commensurate huge spike in numbers we suggest you become a supporter of unregulated metal detecting – or even Minister of Culture! If on the other hand you believe that absence of records means absence of recorders whatever chatter may be put forward you’ll be less than happy to think of all that Wiltshire history being carried away without trace to Bootle, Bognor and Brussels.
So, now that five years have passed……we should ask whether anything in Britain has changed since that toe curling, populist display of cultural philistinism. Is our national behaviour less at odds with opinion abroad? After all, everyone was assured at the time that things would change. Both detectorists and PAS explained over and over that all that was needed was patience. Everyone needed to stop complaining about the damage, jump on the train to Liaisonville (as PAS put it) and trust PAS to offer detectorists understanding and education and outreach and liaison – and some more understanding – and definitely no criticism – as a result of which, very soon, more and more and more of them would see the light and become “responsible” rational citizens that recognised that their interests were as nothing compared with the interests of society and would start to regulate their own behaviour accordingly. In other words, they’d start to act like other people.
Well, for a start, this weekend there are not one but two metal detecting rallies in North Wiltshire – one of them a little way north of Avebury literally within a stone’s throw of the two fields that were used for that 2005 rally. So self interest still completely outranks communal interest, five years later.
However, at least the five years has brought the publication of a Code of Responsible Detecting. That’s a big step innit (as they say!) Trouble is, although it’s centrepiece is the assertion that to be responsible you have to report all your finds to PAS, PAS’s own statistics clearly indicate most detectorists still don’t – despite PAS regularly re-jigging the basis of calculation to make things look better than they are. No change there then – after five years most detectorists are still not responsible as defined, they are still knowledge thieves, plain and simple.
Also, some Guidance on Rallies has been published. Now that IS progress, because the Establishment has finally admitted publicly we were right that rallies are extremely damaging (or “troubling” as they put it!) . The problem is, the guidance doesn’t say what it should – don’t hold rallies, they are vandalism writ large – it merely offers some obvious suggestions that no-one with a conscience wouldn’t be doing already. Worse, some less-than-archaeology-friendly rally organisers are using guidance compliance as a marketing ploy. Crude bellicosity towards archaeologists and an endless succession of adverts for scores of rallies effectively saying “meet at the layby on the A1 and we’ll pilot you to the unpublished venue” hardly instills confidence in such rallies does it? Ah, but each rally is Advice Compliant, innit? Yep.
One other thing that has certainly happened over the past five years is that PAS staff have spent 1800 days outreaching, educating and persuading detectorists so some of that must have rubbed off. Or has it? This very day, a few minutes drive from the place where the Near Avebury detecting disaster took place the Colchester detecting society is holding the Foxham Rally – which is depressing enough since it shows no progress has been made, but worse, they are holding it on pasture that has remained undisturbed for 100 years, this being in direct defiance of both the Code of Responsible Detecting and the Guidance on Rallies. Why? Because they haven’t heard it’s not acceptable? Hardly. The hapless taxpayer has spent millions of pounds and more than a decade trying to get that message through their skulls. Presumably then, simply because they want to and they can.
Not that any of them are likely to do advanced heritage irony or even irony but if the attendees happened to look around Berwick Bassett on their way to one of their “fun weekends” (as one of the rallies is being marketed) they might well see traces of stones that Caleb Bailey smashed and removed from the Avebury stone circle to make stone cottages in the 1740’s – because he wanted to and he could and he fancied a fun weekend.
And that, it seems to us, illustrates the profound flaw in the “persuasion, education and liaison strategy” that Britain alone has adopted. It might not have been obvious at the start but it certainly is now. Like Caleb Bailey you can inform the majority of detectorists what’s right till you’re blue in the face, but you can’t get them to do what’s right if they find it more self-fulfilling to do what’s wrong. There’s no reason to take our word for it though, look at the PAS statistics or ask detectorists themselves. Both will confirm we are correct.
So is that it? Nothing has really changed over the past five years? PAS still liaising, most detectorists still helping themselves and North Wiltshire still subject to a self-serving pestilence? Pretty much. Except for one thing. Detectorists have used the extra five years provided by the liaison policy to lift another 1.44 million artefacts from the record, mostly without reporting them. How many is that? Well think of Wembley’s pitch. It wouldn’t be big enough to lay them all out. Britain is utterly barmy say know-nowt amateurs.