by Nigel Swift, Heritage Action

It is madness to imagine that civil society can fill the gaps left by a retreating state…”

Let’s hope Anna Coote of the New Economics Foundation got it wrong with regard to the Heritage Sector at least – since daily it becomes more certain that rather worrying commercial philanthropy,  and getting the public to take over heritage protection (not to mention the idea that archaeology is really about recovering shiny artefacts for huge prizes, which has been relentlessly rammed into the public consciousness) are precisely the sort of Big Society measures the government intends to leave in the gaps as it retreats.

In the case of the retreat from the Heritage Sector, it is a retreat from the heritage protection duty that has been seen as theirs since the days of Sir John Lubbock in the nineteenth century. Back then, (in a sketch about him in Popular Science Monthly 1882) the idea of his Ancient Monuments Bill “so commended itself to all persons interested in the subject that every archaeological society in the kingdom petitioned for its passage.” But how things have changed! Now, our Society is about to get Big! Every archaeological society in the kingdom can petition till it’s blue in the face for whatever it likes but it will get nowt. Outreach is for metal detectorists. Heritage protection is mostly for… well, archaeological societies and anyone that wants to do it for free. There ain’t no government money left for that old cocker!

This is not to say that English Heritage, in being forced to cut down what they do, haven’t made some pleasing choices as we suggested recently. Indeed, three cheers for something else that we didn’t mention in our recent article: they are allocating £571,000 towards fighting heritage crime (by which they mean all sorts of deliberate damage and theft at buildings, monuments and sites, ranging from organised operations down to anti social behaviour.) It is pleasing they acknowledge crimes are under-reported and infrequently acted upon and they’ll aim to develop “cost-effective deterrents and interventions”. 

In contrast however (and illogically in my view) they say it is “not currently considered affordable” to address damage arising from “recreational activities” (examples being given as off-roading, caving, legal metal-detecting and sports diving). Damage is damage, whether criminal or recreational so it’s hard to see why one is to be targeted but not the other. Especially as the plan outlines the simple nature of the needed action: “educational measures and guidance on mitigation of impact”. Surely that could be delivered at very modest cost? On the EH website for a start! “Advice to Landowners: let no-one detect on your land unless the local archaeology service says it’s OK” isn’t very expensive to type.

So my particular concern (no surprise) is that not a single penny of EH’s budget is to be spent on reducing the damage from legal metal detecting. Hardly a reflection of the views of many in EH, so it seems possible it’s less a case of unaffordability and more a reluctance to step on the toes of PAS. Bearing in mind how much the latter organisation pulls its punches in its advice to detectorists and (far more so) to landowners it means no-one will be addressing the issue properly. 

But it’s worse than no-one properly addressing the problem: the spending choices made in the Plan will, in my opinion, convenience and expand legal metal detecting and artefact hunting and it’s associated legal, recreational damage. In three respects: 

1.) £1.86 million is allocated for continuing the work of the National Mapping Programme. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s a fact that each previously unknown site that is revealed is pounced upon with relish as a potential new source of collectables. Arguably, the main beneficiaries of that £1.86 million will be legal metal detectorists – and they sure as hell won’t do those hundreds of newly discovered archaeological sites other than harm, whatever EH’s sister organisation might try to imply to the government and the press and the taxpayer! Not EH’s fault, but it is the way things are.

The New Forest: 150 scheduled sites - but how many more "productive sites" will the taxpayer reveal for the use of artefact hunters through the £1.86 million National Mapping Programme (while judging any straight talking on the subject of damage "unaffordable"? (Image Credit RJ Higginson, Wikimedia)

2.) Expenditure on studying “Ploughzone archaeology” is judged unaffordable in the plan. The difficulty with that is that the ploughzone is where PAS encourages detectorists to operate – on the grounds that little harm can be done, whereas in contrast EH implies otherwise in the Plan – “Lithic scatters, early medieval ‘productive sites’ and chance finds of nationally important artefacts (eg Staffordshire Hoard) all demonstrate the significance that can be found within the surface horizon and plough soils. For prehistory they can represent the vast majority of known sites. For some sites they represent the total surviving evidence.”

 So hardly a ringing endorsement of the claim that detecting on disturbed soil is harmless – nor of PAS nor of the Code of Responsible Detecting. Yet sadly, although EH says the appropriate action would be for them to develop “detailed understanding of site distributions” with a view to developing assessment systems akin to those used for selecting sites for designation, it simply isn’t going to happen under the Plan. Which means…. no-one is going to move towards protecting sensitive flint scatters or even discouraging their removal. (Why not, one might ask? It’s not very costly for EH to prove conclusively that important (and indeed minor) scatters are damaged by collectors and then to publicise the fact to relevant landowners! (Toes? Not to be trodden on? Aah!)  

 3.) A further green light is given to artefact hunters by something else it says it can’t afford to address: EH says it will support local communities in protecting significant (structural) heritage assets (to the tune of £300,000) but specifically says it will not support the equivalent preservation of significant but non-structural assets (likelithic scatters, and palaeoenvironmentally rich locales”) since those currently lie outside the framework of statutory designation – and changing the position by seeking legislative changes is considered unaffordable at present.  

A nationally significant scatter? The only surviving evidence of an ancient site? To be left wide open to destruction since identifying it, advising the landowner about it and developing protection strategies for it are all judged currently unaffordable. (Image credit Tobias Rütten)

Meanwhile, the damage continues and heritage assets are being lost. Surely, whatever the current budgetary constraints,  at least some expenditure is called for, even a token amount, to show EH is on the side of heritage protection and the Angels? As to that, it seems PAS may get involved in a dumbed down populist “archaeology is just a treasure hunt” TV programme – “pseudoarchaeological brain-pap” Paul Barford has just called it.  And see what he says about it here If it’s true, and it happened, it would be a scandal, and would remain so however  “clarified”, modified or spun. Come on EH, you are intelligent people without an axe to grind, you know he’s right and that such a programme couldn’t be worse timed from your point of view, whether it goes ahead or is quietly squashed, how about spending a pound or two resisting the damage the very suggestion will be contributing to? 


More Heritage Action views on metal detecting and artefact collecting