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by Nigel Swift

No-one took up my challenge in Beyond the mumbo jumbo – Part 1 to define the “common ground” where archaeology and metal detecting could comfortably co-exist.  Quelle surprise!

So far as I can find out, the only time that fabled land has ever manifested itself is in the form of Mumbo, Schroedinger’s jumbo, who has his tusks both conserved for the community and hacked off for personal gain at the same time…

Mumbo, Schrödinger’s Jumbo, turning pink with anticipation, waiting for British archaeologists to explain how he can both lose and retain his tusks….

One look at Mumbo brings it home what a whopper the British public has been told for the past thirteen years, over and over. In truth, you simply can’t conserve the resource for the community AND erode it away for personal gain at the same time however many thousands of times you say “we’re working together to achieve mutual respect and understanding”!  It’s bad enough to kid the public all this time that acceptable common ground exists (when simple logic shows it doesn’t) but it’s even worse to kid them that if  a minority (which you constantly imply is a majority) of ivory hunters say they’ll keep to the Code for Responsible Tusk Hunters then THAT is the acceptable “common ground”. It’s not. That’s a lie. However many ivory hunters are code-compliant Mumbo’s tusks will still eventually end up totally ripped off. As will the public. Denials anyone? Or must Mumbo turn scarlet?


But so far as I can see a further charge must be laid at the door behind which the archaeological establishment stays silent: it is that actually, Archaeology has absolutely no business trying to find common ground with metal detecting anyway, for reasons I’ll lay out, and that the founders of PAS never intended that such a search should be undertaken.

PAS was set up to retrieve some voluntary benefits out of the metal detecting activity in the absence of proper legislative controls and constraints. Yes? So where does it say it was set up to promote or protect or expand or partner or endorse metal detecting or to find the mythical “acceptable common ground”. All of those things are subsequent distortions of PAS’s original intended purpose, ideas that have grown out of nothing but which happen to suit the preservation needs of both metal detectorists and PAS (but certainly not of the resource or the public).

An ideal starting point in illustrating why the very act of hunting for this non-existent snark is to consider this very recent remark by Paul Barford: “The problem with the CBA’s archaeology discussion list is that it is infested with artefact hunters.” Pretty harsh. And I can hear the angry reactions – devisive, elitist, and, as the Portable Antiquities Coping Scheme might say (and actually has previously), “unhelpful” to archaeological-detectorist relations. It’s certainly that alright….and yet, as I see it that IS the problem, not just with Britarch but with the whole portable antiquities debate, for the thing is, portable antiquities are not a matter for negotiation (or shouldn’t be). There are certainly two sides and Kneejerkery might suggest that in a bilateral dispute a negotiated settlement is called for.  But Kneejerkery needs to be correct, not politically correct. Consider the two sides:

  • Ten thousand detectorists – focussed, without a scintilla of scope for denial, on permanently acquiring for themselves what morally isn’t and shouldn’t be theirs,
  • and the country’s Archaeologists – professionally obligated, beyond any scope of denial or avoidance, to represent and defend the interests of the remaining sixty million people whose heritage it morally is and should be.

Looked at like that there is no valid reason for archaeologists as representatives of the people of Britain to negotiate with that six thousandth of the population that holds it has a moral right (“because we have a legal right, OK,  – duh!”) to take for themselves what everyone agrees is actually everyone’s. On whose authority would archaeologists do that? Under which mandate would they do that? By what thread of logic would they do that? In which conservation universe would they do that? In my view, none, none, none and none.

Of course, although PAS doesn’t (and can’t) claim a moral or intellectual reason, it does cite a practical reason for cozying up to those that it knows, with every fibre of its combined archaeological training and ethical framework, shouldn’t be doing what they are doing. It is to “stop them doing worse”. However, we’re entitled to examine what that actually means. After all, after thirteen years of persuasion it’s a plain fact that most detectorists don’t report to PAS and of the minority that do, most don’t report most of what they find. So reporting is very much a minority event, with details often minimal and extracted like molars, at great taxpayers’ expense. “Worse” is where we’re at already, and there’s every indication that the amount of voluntary reporting is starting to flat line and has reached as far as it is going to. This very much weakens the claimed motivation. In addition, whatever reporting is done is conducted exclusively by those detectorists that have come to a realisation that not doing so is morally wrong and/or jeopardises the hobby. This makes it hard to see how there’s much likelihood that reporting numbers will plummet if PAS comes out loud and clear (and honestly) and tells everyone, including (for heaven’s sake!) landowners, that non-reporting is unacceptable and anti-social and anyway the resource is finite. Will this group of  “responsible” reporting detectorists (the only ones that have shown any wish to affect the numbers, remember) react to this condemnation of the majority that are dragging their image down by suddenly becoming “irresponsible” non-recorders themselves?  The suggestion just doesn’t hold water, big-time. Boring old logic suggests that the macho threats about stopping reporting and the hobby going underground come from people who already don’t report, not from detectorists who DO report because they’ve perceived a social and personal advantage in so doing! If that’s right the threats are empty, yet PAS has based its whole strategy on the assumption the threat is real.

On such a basis of justification we now have PAS presenting a radically different stance on our behalf and at our expense than was apparent at the outset. Its original mandate, to simply pick up some of the data that was going down the drain until such time as a proper regulatory action could be taken, like in other countries, has been left behind and now, as is manifest to all, it under-criticises the worst, majority elements of metal detecting and over-praises and endorses the rest – and indeed praises itself!

And that last bit is actually pivotal in my view. Hardly a day goes by without PAS effectively claiming “we are a huge success” (how many government websites outside North Korea are set up to display a different adulatory message about themselves each time you log on?!) and of course, it can’t proclaim itself a huge success without saying metal detecting is an increasingly praiseworthy activity! It’s hardly front page news when a quango develops a penchant for producing decorative statistics purportedly showing it deserves immortality but the unfortunate thing in PAS’s case is that this propaganda of success involves saying how marvellous metal detecting increasingly is. It isn’t. Its erosion and net knowledge-loss (not net knowledge-gain) without good or social reason. Ask the world. Are the British more stupid or more clever than everyone else? No. It’s that we are the only country with a quasi autonomous non governmental organisation that has a vested interest in praising metal detecting.

Of course, I’m not naive and I know that my contentions as well as Paul Barford’s remark  sound shocking to many, cutting across as they do more than a decade of a particular apparent mindset in Britain. Yet I can’t pretend I am less confident because of that since I’m always aware that such statements would raise not an eyebrow elsewhere, illustrating just how far British opinion has diverged from world opinion on this issue. I have never lost much sleep over politically correct (or naive or calculating) outrage about such opinions since there are countless heritage professionals beyond these shores who see my views as entirely unremarkable. And anyway, for me the extreme ire of metal detectorists is not unadjacent to the fury of the man criticised for being found with his hand in the till. Never mind him taking offence, what about his offence of taking?!


Of course, archaeologists may well feel it is appropriate to have metal detectorists and artefact hunters taking part in discussions on the Britarch list. However, if they are to act in the public interest and in step with their colleagues overseas they do need to recognise there has to be one exception, an area of discussion to which it ought not to be in their gift to grant access to artefact hunters, certainly not in any manner that might influence the outcome. That area is any substantive debate upon portable antiquities.

Why is that? Because it’s not rocket science to realise that whether on Britarch or anywhere else any such discussion ought to be exclusively for the moral owners of the resource and their representatives and should be conducted on the basis that there is a fundamental conviction on the part of all the participants that the resource is communally owned. Any other discussions, that allow participants that do not share that fundamental conviction simply make no sense since the agenda is no longer single and clear. Some of the participants have an agenda that is different and damaging to everyone else’s. They do not wish the public well. They wish themselves well, which is different, as may well be the resultant upshot of the discussions. The process thus becomes a negotiation. Concessions become thinkable (when there’s no need or justification). Pressure (through threats of lawbreaking or non-co-operation) becomes part of the process (see Britarch recently for the latest innocuous “word to the wise” delivered by a detectorist/detector retailer, this time against going too far in changing the Treasure Act, but following from a whole series of such instances!).

A mighty powerful, conclusive effect such pressures have. They amount to the deliberate creation of a situation in which the public’s representatives are not only negotiating but doing so under duress. Surely not? Surely yes. Remember “Don’t criticise us or we’ll stop reporting”, “Don’t tell us what to do or we’ll stop reporting”, “Don’t undertake surveys of nighthawking else we’ll stop reporting”, “Don’t let PAS dominate us else we’ll stop reporting” (and later: “Don’t reduce PAS’s funding else we’ll stop reporting”), “Don’t impose a Code of Responsible Detecting else we’ll stop reporting”, “Don’t discuss licensing us else we’ll stop reporting”, “Don’t ban inappropriate rallies else we’ll stop reporting”, “Don’t impose restrictions under stewardship schemes else we’ll stop reporting”, “Don’t tighten up EBay else we’ll stop reporting”, “Don’t ever, ever, ever short change us on the Treasure rewards else we’ll stop reporting”, “Don’t abate our Treasure rewards for not calling an archie out else we’ll stop reporting”, “Don’t talk of using some of our Treasure rewards to finance proper excavations of our findspots else we’ll stop reporting”, “Don’t write to farmers without us dictating what is to be said else we’ll stop reporting” …. and now… “Don’t extend the items covered by the Treasure Act beyond exactly what we say else we’ll stop reporting.” Rich, is it not, when the majority of detectorists….. don’t report!

Is it a bit like ummm blackmail?! No of course not. It would be unhelpful to say that. It’s just negotiation. Under duress. “Collective bargaining with a gun at your head” if you like. Fair’s fair, we have to defend our rights. Not blackmail. Not by history loving heroes whose hobby is a harmless hexpression of fundamental freedoms. We’re here to help, not hinder, honest. Let’s liaise some more for a few years.

As a direct result of this remarkably simple negotiating stance on the part of detectorists, UK (Heritage Holdings) Ltd has a cowed set of guardians acting on its behalf with no-one from PAS daring to utter a tenth of the concerns that Paul and I do – and that’s self-evidently not because they have much problem with what we say, only with the fact we say it! Much of the time PAS is all three wise monkeys when it comes to metal detecting. Thus, you may find PAS staff frequently gladhanding on detectorists forums (on the basis of “outreaching”) but rarely are they to be found on landowners’ ones. Or conservationists’ ones. Or Britarch! Are not landowners, conservationists and archaeologists the Public too, and in need of being outreached to? Could it be that PAS does not wish to have to be in a position of having to publicly say things that might help or side with landowners, conservationists or archaeologists but which might upset detectorists?

And then there are the glowing statements issued to the press…. And the years of delay in issuing a leaflet to landowners…. And this bizarre circumstance (sorry to repeat it from the previous article but it remains an unexplained mystery of Loch Nessian proportions: a search for “responsible metal detecting” (a slightly different term from the one in my previous article) gets you 15,300 Google hits whereas one for “irresponsible metal detecting” gets you 9!  I’m not so sad as to have checked but I’m willing to wager that a lot of the 15,300  “responsible” references were supplied by PAS and I know (because I have checked) that NONE of the 9 “irresponsible” references were supplied by PAS! Strange, is it not, for an organization that was specifically conceived, designed, set up and liberally financed by the taxpayer to convert, and ameliorate the damage caused by, “irresponsible metal detecting” to have never actually used the term?!

Thus, it is my firm contention that part of the price for having the “wrong sort of participants in the portable antiquities debate” is the silencing of the “right sort of participants” (such as PAS and archaeologists in general).

The dichotomy between the right (and valid) participants in the debate and the wrong (and invalid) ones was expressed by Macrinus, a contributor to Paul Barford’s blog. He said he was an archaeologist but I suspect he was also a carpenter for I’ve never seen a nail hit on the head so perfectly:

There are many pressures on archaeologists and curators in the UK – political, economic, professional and peer group. Not all of us can be outspoken. Many of us have to smile politely to the detectorist who is bragging about his/her latest find, knowing that it is yet another item ripped out of context. Our jobs depend on it (and no, I am not employed by the PAS. I am publicly-funded though). Many detectorists do understand and do care, but there are equally many who have a ‘red-neck’ approach to authority of any sort – and regard archaeologists as being the epitome of authoritarianism. We get in the way of them wanting to do whatever they think is the right (and, by default, whatever they think is right has to be right. There is no dissent) – we are the nasty ‘socialists’, claiming that everyone owns this stuff, they are the ‘neo-con’ freedom fighters. I am not sure we will ever see a coalition of those two camps”.

Well Macrinus, I think it’s a total certainty that we will never see “a coalition of those two camps”. That’s the elephant in the room.


“What happens to the public’s heritage is a matter to be decided exclusively by the public (or their representatives)” is in my view a truism so stunningly obvious that the mere rumour that others are having a say in the decision ought to take the public’s breath away, if they but knew such a thing was happening.

But they don’t know for the most part – how could they? Their main source of information ought to be PAS, but PAS acts in about as brave a way as an Italian tobacconist straight after a visit from “friends”. That leaves only one other source of information, the detectorist at the farm gate… It’s a stunning reality that all metal detecting in Britain is entirely at the behest or otherwise of landowners. It’s an even more startling and unacceptable reality that by far the most frequent advice that the landowners get on the subject comes from a random bloke at his door that is mad keen to get on their fields.

Most people, after 40 years of metal detecting and thirteen of PAS, think it’s all “OK” since OK is the only message they’ve ever heard. No, scrub that. Not OK, positively beneficial. Helpful to history, profitable, a branch of archaeology, harmless, heroic even. That’s doubly tragic because not only is the message untrue it also conflicts with the sense of natural justice that is inherent in people – when they haven’t been deliberately misled. Left to themselves people actually feel that heritage, particularly what pops up out of the ground, is owned by all and isn’t up for grabs or exploitation or annexation or conversion into negotiable currency by a minority.

Sometimes, it’s hard to love metal detectorists. (I hear a muffled gasp of agreement from deep in the bowels of the BM!) I’ve given up trying in the case of the non-reporting ones and quite a few of the others who refuse to condemn them, but at least I don’t have to grit my teeth like poor Macrinus (and a silent majority of archaeologists?) while having to “smile politely to the detectorist who is bragging about his/her latest find, knowing that it is yet another item ripped out of context.”

Things aren’t right when “the system” prevents archaeologists from expressing what is wrong to both the perpetrators and the victims. It is hardly necessary to quote Burke, “For evil to triumph it is enough only that good men do nothing” since everyone knows it is true (even though he never said it!)

More pertinent would be to quote another contributor to the Barford Blog who deconstructed the detectorists’ justificatory mantra “if it’s everyone’s it’s mine” rather well, describing it as

the old mistake of believing that something that belongs to everyone is open to being seized by anybody when they please– whereas the fact that it belongs to everyone precisely means that it’s off limits, and under the stewardship of institutions that represent society”

What say you PAS? Is he mad? Is he wrong to say that if it’s everyone’s it’s off limits and needs to be under the stewardship of institutions that represent society (institutions that say, very clearly, what is and isn’t acceptable rather than pulling their punches) not exploited and randomly eroded under some sort of grotesque “partnership” arrangement? What would your founders say? Did they want you to cope with the fact no laws had been applied until laws are applied? Or did they want you to act and speak as if no laws were needed?

30 years ago a highly placed archaeologist said of metal detecting “The sum of this activity has been to damage the unwritten story of our past while satisfying one individual’s greed for the possession (or sale) of an object from the past.” Today (after a further thirty years of damage to the unwritten story of our past) we are asked to believe that because PAS has been set up and a minority of detectorists reports a minority of finds to the PAS database his words are no longer true. Unfortunately they are. I don’t believe the reverse message should be hammered into the public’s consciousness, day after day and year after year merely because PAS wants to exist. But then, I’m only a member of the public so it doesn’t matter what I think.


More Heritage Action views on metal detecting and artefact collecting __________________________________________________________


October 2010

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