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At long last an academic has said about detecting: “a disjuncture exists between law (which defines activities that are illegal) and morality (which identifies behaviour that is wrong).” Morality, see? We’ve been obsessing about it for years while academics and archaeologists haven’t. Now it’s in the academic mainstream and hopefully archaeologists will start saying it too, the simple proposition that wantonly not reporting finds is immoral.

Diogenes of Sinope who believed that virtue is better revealed in action than in theory

Diogenes of Sinope: “Virtue is better revealed in action than in theory”

In addition, plain speaking has just broken out among detectorists. A very senior member of the Detecting Wales Forum has just said, rather elegantly: “The often recited old mantra of  “we save history” is laughable at best we don’t save history we dig up pieces of metal from history which are pieces of the jigsaw puzzle picture of history, for every detectorist who records ALL their finds over 300 years I’ll show you at least 10 that don’t so in fact we steal history by taking away parts of the full picture.”  At almost the same moment another self-evidently thoughtful detectorist has said on his blog that although detectorist find many hoards … “it does not in my opinion justify the wholesale failure to record 1000’s of other items as maybe society has lost more with these unrecorded items?”

We ought to sue all three for plagiarism. Like us they risk personal abuse but what’s been said can’t be unsaid. It IS immoral to deliberately avoid reporting all your recordable finds and the vast majority of detectorists DON’T report all theirs. Sad that the Portable Antiquities Scheme still avoids saying either. Once, back in 2001, it was happy to say “The Scheme believes that people have a moral obligation to their heritage”, but that was quickly dropped to conform with the wishes of those who want reporting to be a purely voluntary matter, not a moral obligation. It’s been a bad choice, damaging to heritage, unfair to the public and in the end embarrassing to the Scheme.

It has also been insulting to many reasonable detectorists for it is surely not true they’d record less if it was now said to be morally obligatory? Only people who are already determined not to record would react like that. If that is the case – and it seems very likely that it is – it would have to be said that the policy has been based on a massive misjudgement and needs to be amended. Which is why we see the three quotes as encouraging. A few more and we could be speaking of early cracks in the prevailing paradigm.  The sooner the better. Perhaps academics hold the key. Institutions like Glasgow University’s “Trafficking Culture” focus on illegal  activity. Maybe in the case of Britain they should study the impact of immoral activity, the knowledge loss from which is demonstrably vastly greater?


Update 7 April 2014
There have been some interesting reactions to the above article elsewhere, none of them clear, so perhaps it would be reasonable to invite archaeologists (particularly those who the public are likely to hear) to respond to the core question to which the public is surely owed an answer:
Is wanton failure to report recordable metal detecting finds immoral? Or not?

Update (2)  7 April 2014
By happy happenstance this year’s Conference of the Institute for Archaeologists (“Setting standards for the study and care of the historic environment”) starts on Wednesday in Glasgow, the very place where the “metal detecting is a matter of morality” issue was flagged up. As a result we’re perfectly entitled to fantasise, nay ask, that the event kicks off with an emergency resolution…..


If the timescale proves too tight perhaps other events could address  the issue? Next month Egham Museum is holding what looks like a fascinating one day “Collections and Identity Conference” which would surely be ideal, especially as one of the themes is “What do objects tell us about their collectors”.

Failing those two, surely some archaeologists, curators or academics will address the subject very soon? Won’t they?


More Heritage Journal views on artefact collecting



April 2014

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