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Aristotle once asked Plato: “Is it right to take for one’s own benefit knowledge that belongs to all?” to which the old man is thought to have replied “Well, it’s legal innit in an uncivilised Northern realm?”

There’s to be a conference on “heritage ethics”. Good. But one discussion topic is “the rights of  “disfranchised groups” to access heritage”. Disfranchised is a much used term and it’s no secret it’s a coy way of referring to artefact hunters. But are they truly “disfranchised”, i.e. locked out of conventional archaeology? Personally I don’t see it. In Britain literacy is high, books and websites are numerous, training, museums, community projects and local societies are open to all. So where’s the barrier? Isn’t it that detectorists make a free choice to interact with archaeology in their particular way?

Moshenska and Dhanjal (Community Archaeology: Themes, Methods and Practices) describe two perceptions of archaeology. “Closed” which “should only be carried out by trained professionals” (or at least, in ways they approve) and “Open”, based on the idea that the public have an absolute right to experience it on their own terms with or without professional guidance. The latter version, the idea that the archaeological record is a common treasury for the population to enjoy, exploit and interact with” is self-evidently what every artefact hunter acts upon – by deliberate choice, not disfranchisement. 

So who started the disfranchisement rumour? Probably Culture Minister Lammy (in PAS’s 2005/6 Annual Report) saying PAS had “helped to break down social barriers and to reach out to people who have often felt excluded from formal education and the historic environment” and “almost 47 per cent of people recording finds with the Scheme are from groups C2, D & E.” The intended implication (else why mention it?) is that detecting is for those too uneducated to do Archaeology properly. Patronising, yes. But worse, very damaging because PAS (despite knowing full well detecting is inferior to Archaeology in terms of knowledge-loss) has adopted a core message of “please detect more responsibly” when it should have been saying “please join your local archaeology group and do Archaeology more responsibly”. It would be great if THAT was discussed at the University of Kent.

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More Heritage Journal views on artefact collecting

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