On 3rd June BBC Breakfast ran a feature on detectorists searching a Civil War battle site in co-operation with a museum. “Marvellous” one presenter said. No problem – providing it was the Museum’s idea in the first place and not forced on them. And they were in full control of events and able to ensure everything complied with the standards laid out for all such professionally organised projects by English Heritage in Our Portable Past. If not, then no, it wasn’t “marvellous” at all.
But that’s not the issue. It’s this: each of the three presenters repeatedly referred to metal detectorists as amateur archaeologists. With repeats, it was said more than a dozen times over three hours. It’s hardly news that the media constantly proclaims that those detectorists that aren’t actually criminal are “responsible” (completely ignoring the figures published by PAS which show the majority don’t report their finds to them and therefore can’t possibly be regarded as responsible). But this new untruth is even more pernicious for people tend to believe what the BBC says and it can therefore be anticipated that many irresponsible characters that ought to be sent packing will be welcomed onto fields by landowners under the impression they are harmless amateur archaeologists and the resource will be damaged as a result.
Lest anyone is in the least doubt that metal detecting/artefact hunting is absolutely not amateur archaeology, see this and this. It’s not rocket science. Amateur archaeologists don’t pick things up and keep them for themselves or sell them. Metal detectorists do. Amateur archaeology is about studying the past for everyone not taking it for personal fun or profit and no amount of claims by metal detectorists/artefact hunters that they too are studying can change the erosive reality (any more than saying you kill whales for scientific study reduces the number of dead whales). It is hardly a difficult distinction for our national broadcaster to make. After all, they haven’t called egg collectors “amateur ornithologists” for donkey’s years (if ever!). Perhaps though that’s because no-one ever pretended to them that egg collecting wasn’t the collecting of eggs!
We’ll send them this article and explain to them that the documenting and collecting of things from the past for their own sake is not archaeology, amateur or otherwise, but antiquitism. Let’s see if they desist from tarnishing the good name of tens of thousands of genuine, selfless amateur archaeologists – or if someone has a quiet word asking them to carry on. Keep an eye on the box, we’ll all know which soon enough.