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“They said someday you’ll find
All who love are blind
Oh, when your heart’s on fire
You must realize
Smoke gets in your eyes” – Jerome Kern & Otto Harbach
“I like to think I’m safeguarding our heritage. There are still a few people who are not recording, but the number is getting smaller, and overall, detectorists are much more culturally aware.” – a metal detector user
In the course of preparing these four pieces I read a number of newspaper articles – one, in particular, stood out; a report from the Times of November 23, 2007 entitled “Metal detectives are a national treasure”. This article stressed the volume (and quality of some of) the finds recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme; “the extraordinary achievement”, in the words of Neil McGregor, director of the British Museum. The year-to-date figure that it gave for these “objects unearthed by members of the public” (misleading – this should, of course, read ‘unearthed and reported by‘) was a seemingly impressive 58,290. Let’s think about that. It’s probably the key argument for ’keeping it legal’ – the claim that the finds and what remains of their context after digging, aren’t lost to archaeology but that, to take a word from my second quote above, “overall”, they tend to be pinpointed and recorded.
According to the article, over three-quarters of these 58,290 recorded finds were made by metal detector users, a group that it numbers at 10,000. Detailed report statistics are available on the PAS website and taking the last four years (that is, the year in question; 2006 – 45,294; 2007 – 67,247; 2008 – 49,421; and 2009 – 58,335) gives us an average of 55,000 objects, found by detector and reported, per year. Some estimates raise the ‘10,000 detector users’ figure to 20,000 or 30,000 – indeed, a recent correspondent of ours; ‘Big Mick‘, after warning us; “we know who and where you are.”, boasted of 1,000 new metal-detecting recruits since last November alone (go, tell it on the mountain?).
Nonetheless and for example, if we use the 10,000 figure, that would imply, if all finds were recorded, that only about five-and-a-half archaeological objects were unearthed – per user – per year, for the last four years (55,000 divided by 10,000). Then, using the 20,000 estimate would reduce the ratio to two-and-three-quarter finds per year and so on. Would you carry on fishing, say, every second weekend, if you only caught one solitary fish in five outings (26 weeks divided by 5.5 finds), or in ten outings (26 weeks divided by 2.75 finds)? Are there really only “a few people who are not recording”? Unfortunately, up to recently, we could only point out this absurdity and indicate our own calculations of what actually had been taken out (and estimates of the number of detector users are often put far higher than any of the above – see the third paragraph that accompanies the Heritage Action calculation).
In March, of this year, however, Paul Barford examined three sets of statistics on his blog, two that had been presented to a CBA-sponsored conference and one that (briefly) appeared on a UKDN forum. To save information overload and for the purposes of this article, I will only use the (comprehensively written-up) rally at Water Newton, an important Roman site, but details of the others can be found by following the links provided.
320 metal detector users took part in the Water Newton rally, over two days, and 287 (272 artefact finders, 15 non-finders) of those users reported 585 recordable items. This provides a find-rate (585 finds divided by 287 users) of about one item – per user – per day and doesn’t seem too far off an average mark. How does it transfer, then, to our PAS statistics? Using that rate, if every found archaeological object is recorded with PAS and there are 10,000 users, then, on average, they must be going out detecting only about once every two months. Furthermore, if there are 20,000 users, then they are only going out about three times a year. That’s, again, obviously absurd – one of the users in the “national treasure” article ;”has devoted about four hours or so every weekend to metal detecting.” Even giving them a few months off – if every user, of 10,000, went out for just one session each, for 40 weekends, then that would imply 400,000 objects unearthed per year and a PAS-reporting rate of about 13.8%.
In his feature, Paul Barford uses an average of fifteen trips – per user – per year, which may well be generous, although it does at least have the advantage of not being easily criticisable by metal detector users. If applied to the Water Newton find-rate (and the UKDN survey rate is significantly higher), it implies that about 150,000 archaeological objects would be unearthed by 10,000 metal detector users in a year, and 300,000 objects by 20,000 users. This would give a PAS-reporting rate of about 36.7%, if the former (55,000 objects reported as a percentage of 150,000 found) and 18.3%, if the latter (bear with me – I’m almost there).
Taking the least damaging scenario with this Water Newton find-rate (as generously applied to only 10,000 users, going out just over once a month, and given, amongst other factors, its addictive nature, both figures should, of course, be much higher than that); 63.3% of archaeological objects dug up in England and Wales are not recorded with PAS. In other words, you will never know where they came from. And, to quote myself, that doesn’t even reckon with the loss of associated information; “in the earth that flies from the spade, or in the ‘worthless’, non-treasure, items thrown to one side.” In addition, most of these items, recorded or not – and unlike in Ireland, for example – will never be the property of the people, but will be hoarded or sold.
(And apply your thoughts, specifically perhaps, to the Water Newton site itself, the scene – witnessed by millions – of ‘live’ metal detecting on the One Show. The loss there, on those two days, would have been bad enough; both of artefacts and of properly excavated context, but consider this; Rally Mark IV is now being advertised – in other words rallies have continued there each year since. What sort of hole have they now ripped in the historical record of that place?)
“…it would appear to me to be inconsistent with the framework of the society sought to be created and sought to be protected by the Constitution that such objects should become the exclusive property of those who by may find them.” – Mr. Justice T.J. Finlay
“..,the physical context in which an object is found is often more valuable in terms of the information which can be gleaned than the object itself. It has been said that the objects are only the index of a great text book while the context in which such objects were deposited represents the text.” – Minister Michael D. Higgins
Two (repeated) quotes and, perhaps, a couple of links to ponder. Firstly, the raid, earlier this year, on the home of a suspected ‘night-hawker’ in Sussex, after which the English Heritage Director for the South East stated that; “Nighthawking is on the increase”. Secondly, the English Heritage ‘Nighthawking Report’, summarised on Britarch to include, inter alia, the following sentence; ”The crime is most prevalent in central and eastern England but the survey found it was almost unheard of in Northern Ireland” (in Northern Ireland, metal-detecting is legal only where it is conducted in a structured manner – for the benefit of the community, rather than individuals).
UAU: Unqualified, Acquisitive, Uncontrolled
Where does metal-detecting stop and night-hawking begin? How short is the step? Metal-detectors are promoted to, sold to and regularly used by, members of the general public as tools for finding archaeological artefacts in England and Wales. Users can freely and legally, detect on most ancient sites and keep, or sell, the proceeds – how short is the mental step to one that is scheduled? Do you remember our ‘fields near Stonehenge’ correspondent? If we use the Water Newton find-rate, as above, then – at the very least – over 60% of archaeological objects, found by detector users, are never recorded with PAS anyway. Context is lost, or destroyed by unqualified excavation and the sites that are supposedly protected are increasingly now being targeted. How can this be worse than the alternative; that is, making the detecting for artefacts illegal, without an official license, and banning their promotion, or sale, for that use?
As far as I have noticed, a number of prompts exist for Governments to change laws, namely; public opinion (votes), finance, pressure from acquaintances or lobbyists and pressure from the EU. At present, public opinion is (naturally – “when your heart’s on fire“?) influenced by the excitement of found hoards, or by the threat that they would ‘never‘ be found otherwise, and as long as finders and landowners own the archaeological objects and the treasure is bought by individual museums – or public appeals -, there will be no substantial financial pressure placed on Government.
It would be interesting, however, to see how quickly that opinion might change, if the money wasn’t always raised for hoards and the treasures began to be dispersed, although, obviously, it would have to happen on a number of occasions before the Government would look at the underlying problems of ownership and reward. Or before it would subsequently realise that it couldn’t rationalise buying, or storing, well in excess of 150,000 objects – only our ‘least damaging scenario’ – per year, plus multiple amounts of treasure (until artefacts and treaure inevitably ran out). And take the next logical step – to remove the detecting supply source. Pressure from more archaeologists on this issue would certainly be helpful.