The Institute for Archaeologists has just codified what we’ve said for years – archaeologists mustn’t get involved with commercial metal detecting rallies:
Rule 1.7 A member shall not knowingly be employed by, or contract with, an individual or entity whose purpose is the sale of items excavated and/or recovered from archaeological contexts and where such sale may lead to the irretrievable dispersal of the physical and/or intellectual archive, or where such sale may result in an undispersed archive to which public access is routinely denied.
About time! Archaeologists are committed to giving so have no business aiding a process of taking. Further, citing mitigating benefits as justification won’t wash, only not doing it will do and a document as serious and precise as a code of conduct could hardly say otherwise. Up to now some have effectively said “never mind the damage, look what’s been recorded” – and even some “neutrals” have felt that way – “The clear ethical dilemma of working so closely with metal detector users is surely offset by the increased data collected from this rally, which certainly would have gone ahead with or without archaeological involvement.” (Dr Suzie Thomas, subsequently the CBA Community Archaeology Support Officer, writing about Water Newton). But the IfA has now made it plain the data collected cannot add up to a defence. It’s an important point. Perhaps CBA should address it.
After all, Rule 1.7 is a quiet earthquake that will travel far because the whole of the British policy of engagement with all aspects of the hobby sits uncomfortably with it, particularly the role of PAS which “supports” commercial rallies and other activities in many ways that may well lead to irretrievable dispersal of the physical and/or intellectual archive, or routine denial of public access to it! Aware of this the IfA has added a note (let’s call it the elastoplast clause): Members may be employed by or contract with, or participate in, projects approved by the Portable Antiquities Scheme.
So it’s unethical and verboten except if PAS approves the event and is itself involved! We doubt PAS wants to be seen as approving commercial detecting rallies but apart from that the note is completely untenable. If something is wrong it’s wrong and no-one can sensibly opine that if PAS does it it isn’t.
Of course, this embarrassment always arises when the searchlight of ethics is directed onto the reality of British conservation practice – which is why “ethics” isn’t much on the menu chez PAS and elsewhere. Pragmatic compromises just can’t be shoehorned into being right or moral or ethical, as IfA has just highlighted. What makes it an earthquake is that this time it’s not us or Paul Barford that has said it – it’s the archaeological establishment!
So what now? Brazen it out with flexible ethics? Or our preference (and IfA’s): start thinking commercial rallies and other destructive activities ought to be opposed not coped with. Hopefully there won’t be a third option, quiet pressure to drop Rule 1.7. We doubt it though – the ethical genie is out of the bottle, having been officially decanted and there’s no way it can be pushed back in!