by Nigel Swift

It is hard to see how antiquities collectors can deny Lord Renfrew’s charge that “collectors are the real looters” since looters loot because buyers buy. However, in Britain things are worse than his mantra conveys. Here, incentivising looters is not even the main potential negative consequence of purchasing portable antiquities.

Under our system “looting” is defined very narrowly – or to be precise, many things that are defined as criminal elsewhere are perfectly legal here – including the removal, taking home and selling of artefacts from more than 90% of our known archaeological sites. By any reasonable yardstick, that is looting – particularly since, as the Portable Antiquities Scheme openly admits, most detectorists don’t report most of the details of what they find and therefore offer zero mitigation for their actions.

For any would-be ethical purchaser of British antiquities an appreciation of this reality is obligatory: ILVUD (information loss via unethical detecting) is far, far worse than ILVID (information loss via illegal detecting) for the simple reason that unethical detectorists are very numerous (as PAS concedes) and criminal ones aren’t (as both PAS and all detectorists constantly stress). Hence, those two respective numbers fix the truth like a fly in amber: collectors who buy from the UK may sometimes be the real looters but they are far, far more often the real unethical detectorists and must be complicit in vastly more damage than if they bought only from looters!

In view of its crucial significance for the conservation of Britain’s archaeological record it is remarkable that most collectors, particularly in the US, appear to be unaware of that reality – or more particularly, it is remarkable they haven’t been made very well aware of it. But in fact, official UK advice, along with Renfrew’s mantra, countless press accounts, every dealer and every detectorist all consistently imply that night hawking, not unethical detecting, is the main problem.

I might legitimately enquire, as a member of the public, a stakeholder and a taxpayer (as well as an alleged ignoramus and consequent ignoree), why that is and why, for thirteen years, the true problem hasn’t been both acknowledged and efficiently addressed by British officialdom strongly advising collectors in the US and elsewhere to ensure there’s a PAS number on every artefact known or suspected to have been recently dug up? Here’s a wild guess: frit the NCMD et al will go crazy on behalf of a large number of their non-recording and loudly (E) baying members who will see such a thing as an attack on their “freedom” to “choose not to report”? So another instance of dictatorship of the rampaging Proletariat? Or a fruitful partnership of equals? (They being Cameron and PAS being Clegg?)

[AN ASIDE: This amazing disconnection between reality and its presentation by the Establishment hasn’t gone entirely unremarked (although it has gone unheeded). Paul Barford has been highlighting it at length and depth for many years. I rather suspect he is regarded less as wrong and more as dashed inconvenient – like a talkative witness to an otherwise perfect stitch-up (in this case of nighthawks, who are being fitted up with the vast quantity of information theft committed by others!) Me too, along with my colleague Gordon Kingston, we’ve blown a lay whistle or two, but not being archaeologists I don’t think we’re even inconvenient. We are “bears with very small brains” as one American apologist for the dealers’ lobby called me. It’s true. I’m not smart enough to understand why it is that while criminal information-theft is awful and worth an expensive high-profile nighthawking survey the vastly greater quantity of legal information-theft is worth a commensurately huge wink. Grrr! If only Paul and I were just a pair of winkers (as I’ve seen theorised) things would be so much more harmonious!]

Anyway, official guidance for purchasers saying “don’t just avoid looted items, avoid the (far more numerous) unrecorded items” is long overdue. Rocket science the latter ain’t, in fact in England and Wales it has been made easier to do than anywhere else on earth so “too complicated” isn’t a realistic defence. The lack of a PAS number on any known or suspected recently dug artefact is really easy to spot! I did suggest such a thing a couple of years ago on Britarch but despite some encouragement nothing has surfaced since. It really should – if only to avoid people saying “British archaeologists are also the real unethical detectorists”! (Which Heaven forbid! Who would say such a damning thing and on what basis of logic?!)

So until it gets done officially I feel free to sketch something out (can’t do harm can it? Might even do some good while we’re waiting). In fact I’ve set up a notional Association for purchasers who’d like to do more for Britain than demonstratively and noisily quaff Renfrew Light. I can hear it asked, in a range of styles; by what right do I propose first an Ethical Metal Detecting Association and now an “Association of Ethical Purchasers of British Portable Antiquities”? The answer is none, but there’s a yawning and damaging gap that should be filled but hasn’t been – so why not, pending official action? So here’s the logo – and the website is here.  

We all know how “its legal innit?” has worked for the personal benefit of artefact hunters for the best part of four decades. Why shouldn’t “caveat emptor innit?” be allowed to work for the personal benefit of the rest of the British population?


More Heritage Action views on metal detecting and artefact collecting