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Culture Minister Ed Vaizey said yesterday:
“I salute all the responsible metal detectorists – true heritage heroes – whose patience and unceasing curiosity do so much to bring this treasure to light”.

Rescue News (The British Archaeological Trust) tweeted promptly and succinctly:
“Absolute rubbish. Heritage heroes are the people who look after our heritage – not those that seek sordid profit from it. True “heritage heroes” are museum staff, local authority HER Advisors, the thousands of volunteers at local societies & academic researchers … As well as archaeologists, conservation officers, curators and conservators.”

Ed’s remark echoes the one by his predecessor David Lammy, which caused massive offence (but it’s so much worse now against the background of redundancies and vicious funding cuts). He needs to be better briefed. We have to tell you Ed you got it horribly wrong. We’re big fans of archaeologists and heritage professionals (loads of study and dedication and a terribly low level of remuneration – what’s not to like?) But we’re less keen on artefact hunters – all of them have too many pockets and a lot of them have too much interest in money and not enough social conscience (while the precise opposite of all three are pretty much the defining traits of archaeologists, both professional and amateur).

And no, defining some of the artefact hunters as “responsible” does not make them praiseworthy! Archaeologists are responsible. People who run conservation websites are responsible. Bus drivers are responsible. So what’s special about these detectorists? They report their Treasure Finds – fantastic! But that’s just complying with the law like the rest of us do constantly without being hailed as heroes. And don’t forget, unlike almost anyone else in Britain they get massive rewards for doing so!

Ed: badly briefed.

Ed: badly briefed.

As an example of one of Ed’s heroes let’s go to the top – the poster boy of the Treasure Act, the finder of the Staffordshire Hoard. Truth is, he was indulging in his hobby, simple as that and got lucky one day. And for that he and the farmer got paid the annual salaries of 200 archaeologists. So he needs no deification – indeed if the role of that finder is to be highlighted at all then the number of days he kept digging and piling the stuff on his kitchen table without contacting the authorities shouldn’t be brushed over should it? Fair’s fair if society is going to make him a millionaire, eh?

So it’s like this Ed. The treasure finds are great and, to mouth a platitudinous truism, “if it wasn’t for the finders we wouldn’t have them”. BUT – and here’s where you need to concentrate and take wider advice than you have evidently been getting: to say as a consequence “treasure = good ergo artefact hunting = good” is simplistic – nay childish – and certainly wrong for it completely conceals the bigger picture.

You should consider why PAS was set up 15 years ago. It was NOT because it was felt “artefact hunting = good” . PAS was tasked with outreaching to, educating and persuading artefact hunters in order to mitigate the malign effects of what was universally seen as a damaging activity (which it still is – see the Artifact Erosion Counter). It was not set up to partner, promote, encourage or expand the activity – those are perversions of the intended purpose – as are statements by two Culture Ministers saying metal detectorists are heritage heroes. The hope expressed in the Commons in the debate that set up the Treasure Act: “I trust that we will now join the great majority of other civilised countries in passing a law to protect our rich and important heritage of portable antiquities” has yet to be fulfilled by a single molecule. It isn’t even regulated for goodness sake. Talk of heroism isn’t going to help.

Finally, Ed, consider this: no foreign Culture Minister talks like you and no other country is clamouring to legalise an army of artefact hunters so they can unearth their own treasure items – responsibly, heroically or any other way, even though it’s a cert they’ll all have them. No, marvelous though some of the treasure is, it comes at far too high a price and every other country knows it does (your previous claim, that PAS is probably the envy of the world has simply no basis in fact. You really do need to get better briefed – whoever let you get photographed metal detecting a while back – when PAS employees have always made darn sure it doesn’t happen to them has rather let you down! Here’s a little calculation for you that is likely to have been made in other countries but hasn’t been put to you: how far would the one thousand treasure items found each year stretch if each artefact was lined up edgeways? A yard or two? The artefacts dug up and mostly not reported since PAS began would stretch 11.75 miles. Now, what was that about heroes?

PS – we’ve sent a link to this article to Ed. If you need to have a word with him his email address is vaizeye@parliament.uk

Update: see the upshot of this article here

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More Heritage Action views on metal detecting and artefact collecting

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