by Nigel Swift
To summarise: last week at a club dig Medway History Finders unearthed Anglo Saxon artefacts and crudely dug the whole assemblage out on the pretext they couldn’t contact an archaeologist and if left there it might be stolen overnight. They say they were subsequently told they’d acted correctly: “The BM and our FLO said we done the best thing by taking out what we could”.
Failure to stop digging is actually common (though usually brushed over by PAS). In 2011 the Salisbury Museum director was glad a detectorist had stopped digging the Tisbury Hoard but said “you could count on two hands the number of Bronze Age hoards which have been recorded professionally by archaeologists in this way”. But PAS saying it’s sometimes OK is brand new. If true it’s a damaging triple mistake: it asserts bad practice is good practice, it slams the door on scope for reducing the reward as a warning to others and it gives all irresponsible detectorists a perfect excuse for digging up hoards or graves in future: “I was alone, my phone battery went flat, so I got out my long spade and “did the right thing” OK?” The bits are in this bag!”
The realty is that there are numerous options for protecting artefacts in situ if archaeologists can’t be contacted. It’s hard to credit these finders didn’t know that but since PAS hasn’t listed them on their website they’re free to claim they were unaware – and thus to claim a full Treasure reward despite trashing the site. As amateurs we’re used to PAS ignoring us but the grim truth is that we’ve had the precise advice they should have been giving detectorists about this situation on the Heritage Journal for several years! If they’d not ignored us (I know they’ve seen it) or if they’d given me, a know-nowt extremist obsessive amateur, a couple of column inches on their website there wouldn’t have been a Medway History Finders scandal would there? I’m thinking haughty collective pipe and smoke it. They have things to learn. Anyway, here’s what we said in 2011:
“There’s NO excuse for digging out a significant hoard, and people that might be looking for one shouldn’t be given one. It’s not rocket science so I’m emboldened to draft below the advice PAS should be giving (if only they weren’t both constantly frit of the way it would play in the cheap seats):
“From the moment you become aware you have found a significant hoard you should treat it as what it is – State Property – and if you want to be regarded as a history lover, a responsible detectorist, a potential reward recipient – or even just a half-decent citizen,you MUST take on the role of guardian on behalf of the State, and cause no further disturbance whatsoever to it or it’s context or the associated knowledge. That means always stopping digging, whatever the circumstances, and doing everything you can to protect it until archaeologists have attended. You should do this in conjunction with the landowner if they can be found and necessary actions could include camping out nearby, getting a lighting hook-up into the field from the farm, spending the night in a parked car, asking a couple of colleagues to help guard it in exchange for a small share of a future reward or even hiring a security guard (you and the farmer could go halves on the cost out of the reward money).”
There are other options that could be added no doubt and I’m sure PAS (and thoughtful detectorists) can come up with many more to put on the PAS website. Ideally it needs to be published within days so as to quickly counter any wrong and Kentish ideas that may just have taken root. Plus, “detectorists as guardians of Treasure on behalf of the State” is a concept that needs promoting. (They ARE guardians! If they took a spade to that Treasure when on their kitchen table they’d be jailed so how is it different in a field?). Any true history lover would do it right without demur. You can’t be a history lover and an anti-social, over-hasty, self-serving acquisitive yob as well, you have to decide which. Whether you keep digging will determine that.
Someone on a detecting forum who I had better not describe in the way I’m thinking has said about the Kent behaviour: “Absolutely no need for any justification .. There’s not many who would stop digging”. Anyone like that has no business on the fields and PAS should make that crystal clear – especially to landowners. Let’s see if they will.
Update, same day:
I’ve been looking at this stuff every day for more than a decade then up pops an archaeo on the BAJR Facebook page and puts it better than I ever could! Grrr!
“And I have to say that while I know there are many responsible people who care about archaeology AND own metal detectors, one cannot escape the reality that those persons are few overall, and the kamikaze treasure hunter yahoos are not merely a majority, but the standard. Pretending that the few who care means that we cannot castigate the many is to duck the issue entirely. The only way to prevent wholesale destruction-for-profit is to license and police. Maybe this seems harsh – but if the public understood that it is they who are being robbed, they might feel differently about seeing metal detectoring as a handy get-rich-quick scheme.”
Update 3 March 2014
From Rescue’s Facebook:
“Nope, no denying these self justifying dolts acted apallingly stupidly, need to be told they acted apallingly stupidly (removing what looks very much like a grave assemblage) and given no comfort whatsoever by the Treasure Act. The fact archaeologists have working hours and that these particular detectorists don’t trust each other enough to turn their backs is a pisspoor whimper of an excuse. I see no sense of personal responsibility here – just personal entitlement. That said, two separate issues have been very cynically conflated in this article, and it’s a shame, if no actual surprise, that the main purpose of the piece is to use the episode to attack PAS – a scheme HA clearly believes is corrupt and immoral, and insufficiently proscriptive.”
No. Just insufficiently proscriptive. It’s the system. It stinks. FLOs are prisoners of it and we all lose by it. Know it by its net results, unspun. C’est tout.
Update 4 March 2014
I confess I found the above a bit upsetting as we’re well used to detectorists misunderstanding or misrepresenting what we’re about but not archaeos. However, I’ve perked up with the news that the author may be related to a FLO so it looks like we’ve had 18 “likes” on the Rescue FB and just one criticism, from a FLO’s relative. It’s what I would have expected and it’s encouraging (although from now it will change radically no doubt!). BTW it would be a mistake to think we don’t talk in confidence to lots of archaeologists, including FLOs. We may be amateurs but we’re not operating in the dark.
Update 5 March 2014
On a lighter note …
Augustus Pitt Rivers, dubbed the Father of British Archaeology for expressing the importance of thorough site excavation through stratigraphic observation and recording. His most important methodological innovation was his insistence that all artefacts, not just beautiful or unique ones, be collected and catalogued.
Subsequently in Britain those principles have been held to be unnecessary for work involving non-archaeologists. No-one has ever explained why.
Update 8 March 2014
A message to all my fans in metal detecting: there’s an awful lot of “most people would have done the same through excitement” sentiment flying about. Please desist, it encourages future bad behaviour. Even if true it is no excuse. If you’re going to play in Society’s back yard AND take rewards AND expect respect you have to play by Society’s rules, OK? You see, it’s theft, plain and simple. Knowledge theft. “Excitement” is not an excuse for shoplifting and the magistrate would take a dim view of anyone that claimed it was. Just behave, OK? No excuses, no cover-ups, no telling each other (as some have) not to video the discovery of future hoards. Just behave, OK? And certainly don’t steal. If you feel you can’t trust yourself in Tesco’s don’t go in there, even if you know the security cameras are switched off.
Finally, we live in a VERY peculiar country where not only are there very few laws prohibiting the cultural theft of the knowledge attached to portable antiquities but also where the authorities are pretty frit to condemn it out loud. It’s still wrong though and while you may think you don’t do it yourself, making any excuse for your colleagues that do it or indeed having any truck with them is aiding and abetting them. Nearly 12 miles of artefacts laid edgeways, mostly not reported! Get a grip. Thanks.
Update 14 March 2014
It seems to me it is detectorists themselves who are often the most eloquent advocates for legal regulation of their activities. Yesterday one of them wrote: “I do the best I can do, maybe I don’t abide by the rules that Nigel Swift thinks should be made but who in their right mind would? The man is relentless in being a killjoy.”
So it seems beyond dispute that doing things in a way that maximises public benefit not their own is simply not an option for him and most of his colleagues – even though tens of thousands of amateur archaeologists constantly do exactly that without complaint, reward or expensive outreach. What clearer case for legal regulation of artefact hunting could there be?