The temporary change of Paul Barford’s blog to invitation-only status following concerted efforts and threats by a group of artefact hunters matters for one stark reason: few involved with the activity, be they detectorist or archaeologist, publicly question its overall effect, whereas he does. Why he’s right to do so can be expressed in 3 brief paragraphs:
1. It is very clear that metal detecting forums and metal detecting clubs mislead the public (see here and here) but so do the two national bodies: both signed the official Code for Responsible Metal-Detecting yet only ask Members to adhere to their own codes that don’t mention the official one or the need to report finds to PAS. So all three types of detecting bodies project a “responsible” public image yet demand no such behaviour from Members.
2. That wouldn’t matter (as misinformation can easily be countered) except that The Establishment has been arrayed in a way that it too feels a need to adopt a highly positive attitude to artefact hunting and a rosy account of PAS’s progress lest it loses the support of those detectorists that co-operate with it as well as its government paymasters. So it’s a potent mix – an activity with an incentive to misrepresent itself and a quango with an incentive to let them.
3. Thus, any farmer will tell you (having heard it ad nauseam) that criminal nighthawks are a problem but legal detectorists aren’t as they’re “responsible”. But equating “legal” with harmless is a distortion, as PAS’s figures show: most detectorists don’t adhere to the official Code or report all their finds – and since these legal but non-reporting detectorists vastly outnumber nighthawks they cause vastly more cultural damage than nighthawks do.
So that’s how it is, landowners thinking legal means “harmless”, the public thinking metal detecting is in the national interest and no-one now asking if mining hundreds of thousands of archaeological sites for artefacts each year is damaging. Things couldn’t be more different abroad, with not one country taking Britain’s lead or setting up a Portable Antiquities Scheme of their own. Rónán Swan, Acting Head of Archaeology for the National Roads Authority in Ireland expressed the general foreign view: “It’s inconceivable to me that you can have metal detecting on archaeological sites by non-archaeologists”.
Nevertheless, the British three monkeys approach to heritage conservation and protection, that has never reduced the rate of recreational erosion by even a fraction, now seems set to continue unopposed. “All my fields are hammered, I now have to travel a long way to detect” moaned a detectorist years ago – and on the basis of the present trajectory it seems we may have to say “All OUR fields are hammered” within this generation – but no-one is saying so. Despite any denials, there’s an unofficial and official distortion going on and Paul Barford, who in my view is a better friend to Heritage than those that are party to it, is silent.