by Nigel Swift

For me (until recently anyway) 2013 would have gone down as the year the Culture Minister hailed responsible metal detectorists as real heritage heroes while the top officials of the PAS stood by and beamed. It amounted to misleading by omission as it is never pointed out that “responsible detectorists” are criminals elsewhere for perfectly rational reasons and in addition constant praise for any sector of metal detecting actively lends a cloak of respectability to the majority who claim they too act responsibly when they don’t. It’s a view widely shared by professionals but careers, funding, credibility and votes prevent it being admitted.  Still, archaeologists and officials are ordinary, rational people and some of them confide in me.

So I was cheered to find something that far outranks Mr Vaizey’s faux pas. It’s Stories We Tell: Myths at the Heart of ‘Community Archaeology’  a paper by John Carman of the University of Birmingham’s Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity. We’ve always maintained there’s no possible common ground between archaeology and artefact hunting (see here) and that “outreach” can never bridge the gap. Mr Carman has said precisely that: “The ultimate—and possibly depressing—conclusion of this paper is that in conducting public archaeology (whether we call it ‘outreach’ or ‘community participation’ or ‘democratic archaeology’ or any of the other terms identified by commentators: see e.g. Carman2005:86; Smith and Waterton2009:15–16) we are always and inevitably—and despite any desire to the contrary—dealing with people like ourselves. This of course is neither what we imagine we are doing nor what we would prefer to do: what we intend is to ‘reach out’ to those who would otherwise not have access to us and our work. But in the end all we can do is talk to those who already speak in our language and share our values.

The evidence is clear. 15 years of outreach has persuaded only 30% of detectorists to conform only to a grossly emasculated version of archaeological and conservation ethics. 15 seconds of such outreach would have got 100% of Heritage Action members on board with no emasculation needed! Ditto thousands of amateur archaeologists – tell them what’s ethical just once and they’ll do it. It all depends who you outreach to. People taking stuff for themselves aren’t acting for the common good and no amount of outreach can make it otherwise. As Mr Carman says: “For us to alter our behaviour to accommodate the excluded—by changing what we do—will mean that we will cease to be archaeologists. For them to change to accommodate us will mean they lose their own sense of who they are. As archaeologists we can do nothing about this because we would cease to be archaeologists if we did.” Maybe one day, what he says will be admitted and British policy on portable antiquities will change from cajoling those who clearly won’t listen to absolutely insisting they all act in the common interest. Mr Carman’s insight will surely prevail over Mr Vaizey’s foolish pronouncement in the end.



More Heritage Action views on metal detecting and artefact collecting