by Nigel Swift

The government is currently reviewing the workings of the Treasure Act. One thing they might decide to do is expand the definition of Treasure. The recent discovery of the Crosby Garrett Helmet, which falls outside the current definition, has convinced everyone that an expansion would be a good idea but there are also more controversial suggestions in the wind such as adding Roman base metal hoards and single finds of certain Roman and Anglo-Saxon coins to the list. Our pals the metal detectorists were incandescent at the latter idea on the grounds their grabfreedom would be deliberately eroded (which it would!) So maybe we should just let metal detectorists re-write the Treasure Act, to avoid them being upset about what they could and couldn’t flog for their own benefit? Or maybe not, let’s leave it to people that want to see auspicious artefacts end up in museums rather than in Kevin’s kitchen or Chuck’s condo. Bravo DCMS, expand the definition like blazes, do it for Britain not Brian!

Ah, but it’s not so simple! What about the cost? We’re already paying millions in “rewards” for what we believe is rightful national property, and the country is in financial crisis – how can we think of paying more? Clearly we can’t. So what’s the answer to this conundrum? How can we rescue more nationally significant items from EBay, Christies and the metal detecting heroes without paying more?

Well, a simple person like me might say legislate and educate the difficulty away – reduce or cancel the rewards and go back to the half-remembered good old days of my Cider-with-Rosie childhood when kids would find stuff in the fields and hand it in to the local museum because …well…because that’s where it belonged and thoughts of a reward simply didn’t arise. (What happened to those far off days and those kids? I know for sure none of them ended up on metal detecting forums because by the time they left the primary school every single one of them could spell far better than 90% of the metal detectorists that post on a lot of forums. Oh, what an outrageous claim to make – yet absolutely true. How did we get to this situation in this country? But I digress….)

No, things have changed. People with entirely different perceptions and characters are now in the fields searching electronically for that self-same stuff and I rather doubt they can be educated into the innocent, community-minded attitude of my erstwhile companions since whether they keep it or sell it matters little, the crux is that it’s no longer mainly a stumbleupon process in which the museum benefits, it’s an active search that mostly benefits the searcher alone. That’s why they search, whatever they say. So the “stuff” has become commodified – with all that entails: blue remembered hills echoing with acquisitive bleeps. And afterwards, cider with Delboy!

So I guess until Britain finally decides to legislate itself out of its position as the crass man of Europe the name of the game is coping – as it has been for many years now. (“The Portable Antiquities Coping Scheme” – wouldn’t that have been a controversial title, yet a deadly serious expression of what everyone saw it as at the time it was designed and launched. How come that “coping” purpose has been written out of the record and replaced with “partnership”? Do quangos have survival instincts? Does a rabbit hop?!)

Thus, for now, we can forget the good old days when finds were lucky for everyone not just someone. If we want it, we must pay for it:

Simple innit? Darren absolutely MUST get paid for national treasure, one way or another, ‘cos he found it see? And he spent thousands of hours looking, and petrol’s expensive.  And it’s the law and gawd help Britain if it thinks of changing that law. Which bit of that moral philosophising don’t you archies and heritage busybodies understand?”

And of course, that claim is hammered home with a threat, mouthed endlessly:

“if you want to see the stuff don’t even THINK of regulating the hobby or reducing the rewards or speaking ill of us or suggesting we mostly don’t report our finds else you’ll drive the hobby (not me, I’m a hero I am) you’ll drive the hobby underground.”

Shamefully, that same blackmail threat pay up or “human nature” will kick in and criminality will result”   (not MY human nature matey nor that of most decent citizens I meet please note!) is cited by many archaeologists and hopping quangos in support of the current policy. “Liaison” (which is PAS-speak for “Kid gloves”) “is the only way else they’ll break the law.” Funny, we don’t “liaise” or “pay” in order to prevent burglary or parking on double yellow lines. So why can’t we stop being threatened and cowed by people that say their mates (not them) will make us suffer if we don’t do exactly what they say? One day, one day.

It’s a fact of British life for now then: the great majority of archaeologists pull their punches about “the hobby” and say in public (though not in the pub!) that the current official policy of engagement, despite being employed absolutely nowhere else on the planet, is the right one and is the best way to conserve the resource. In support, facts are hewn from fictions by sheer weight of repetition:

In particular, detectorists are fatuously portrayed as comprising only two types – nighthawks and non-nighthawks – with the latter, the majority, being described as responsible. Thus, thousands of press stories proclaim, ad nauseam, as if official spokespersons have a script (or maybe a memo?): “The great majority are responsible metal detectorists” – despite the indisputable evidence (ask PAS) that although most detectorists aren’t criminal nighthawks nevertheless most of them  don’t report their finds to PAS and are therefore clearly irresponsible as measured against the official code and are to blame for a vast loss of knowledge (far, far, far more than nighthawks).
The British public are being misled (my lawyer asked me to say). Wow! What a claim! But you can check this out for yourself. Ask PAS, straight out, if their figures show most detectorists show all or even any finds to them.

In addition, try this: “responsible metal detectorists” gets you 4,150 Google hits, “irresponsible metal detectorists” gets you 158! How come?

One of that pitiful 158 hits is ex-Minister of Culture David Lammy no less and he illustrates what is going on perfectly:

Of course there are irresponsible metal detectorists as well, and that has been a real problem with damage to our archaeological sites and the illicit sale of antiquities on auction websites.

See? Implying “irresponsible metal detectorists” are criminals and a minority. Yet they are neither. They are the majority and despite not being criminals they cause far more damage than the criminals he chooses to highlight. The public should not be deliberately misinformed about this grievous, ongoing loss of the knowledge surrounding the bulk of 4 million artefacts since PAS was set up, and many hundreds more this very day.)

The moderator of one of the largest metal detecting forums recently posted:

in the local PAS report for our county, it reported that only 32 detectorists recorded finds with the scheme, yet we know of well over 700 detectorists attended clubs throughout  the year! [make of that statistic what you will!!]”

Why is it left to us (and Paul Barford) to highlight that sort of thing when it is invariable ignored by ministers, most archaeologists and PAS? Make of that observation what you will.

And of course, any speaking out that we do carries little weight. We are lay people, we neither go metal detecting nor practice as archaeologists, we are merely members of the public and as such are dismissed (by both detectorists and officialdom) as  “poor trifling no accounts” as Huck Finn might say. And we’re not portrayed as merely irrelevant and wrong. No, we are said to be preventing (perhaps forever unless we shut up) the process of “liaison” – the triumphant march towards Castille Détente, that shimmering castle in the air where, by a mechanism yet to be explained, both grabbers and statutory guardians will find common ground in which grabbers will still grab and guardians will still guard and both sides will have reached an “understanding” under which the archaeological resource will be both grabbed and not grabbed and everyone will be happy.

It’s a big charge to lay against a heritage website, sabotaging national progress towards better curation of the nation’s archaeological resource – and it has been laid against us many times, not just by detectorists but by the head of PAS no less – so we don’t disregard it lightly. On the other hand, it’s a complete crock of spit – there IS no Castille Détente where taking and leaving are one. Is there Roger?! There ain’t no Ivory Tower where poachers and game wardens both get what they want. No, either the elephant has his tusks cut off or he doesn’t. He’s called Schrödinger’s Jumbo and we’re thinking of sending him along to the next PAS conference.

Berating us for pointing out there simply isn’t any valid “common ground” carries absolutely no weight with me, Wayne from Wolverhampton and Dr Bland from The British Museum. Put it this way, gents, in thirteen years no detectorist, no archaeologist and no Head of PAS has ever written down what the hoped-for common ground consists of. I know, because I’ve asked them to and they won’t respond. I’m not even an archaeologist see, just a poor trifling no account member of the public so that would be a good reason for not responding but that’s not the main reason is it? No, it’s that no metal detectorist would ever try to define Castille Détente because their hobby has kept clear of state regulation for thirteen years by going along with the idea that it exists and is a viable destination (and will for another hundred given the chance no doubt) and at the same time no member of PAS would try to define it as their organisation is too cute and knows that it can’t be done and that to publicise the fact would be to trip itself up while performing the Darwinian quango survival dance!

Or am I wrong? Go on, Dr Bland, write down which sections of the British archaeological resource you’re willing to sacrifice on behalf of the public in order to come to an agreement with metal detectorists and live in peace with them in Liaisonville. And write down what you want them to (and believe they will) give up doing before you are willing to say their hobby isn’t destructive in net terms. Put it on the front page of the PAS website next week with the headline Schrödinger’s Jumbo Captured!

Mumbo, Schrödinger’s Jumbo, with and without his tusks, on his way to the next Portable Antiquities Scheme conference.

For more Jumbo fun see Beyond the mumbo jumbo – Part 2
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More Heritage Action views on metal detecting and artefact collecting
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