Back in the heady days of 2004 the metropolitan elite still imagined most detectorists would play ball so the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) was presented as part of The National Grid for Learning, an online educational portal. PAS was, said the Arts Minister, an opportunity for the public “to become involved and learn more about our past and to assist in preserving our heritage for the benefit of future generations“.
Time told a different tale. PAS’s target audience proved largely resistant to its persuasion and quite recently it has admitted that 70% of detectorists still haven’t adopted Best Practice or been prepared to report all their finds. It’s not possible to see that as “preserving our heritage for the benefit of future generations” and the recent downgrading of PAS suggests the Government may have finally come to that view. PAS’s one-time cheerleader, Ed Vaizey, was pretty dismissive in Parliament this week, offering a tolerable impression of a man dumping a tiresome girlfriend: “I have made no assessment of the impact that the changes in funding arrangements have had on the Scheme as I believe it is right that the British Museum has more freedom to make its own decisions on spending in this area“. The Government has divested itself of PAS in an unceremonious fashion and offloaded the responsibility onto (as Paul Barford has said) “a small sub-department of a museum in Bloomsbury”. What happens next isn’t hard to guess: the BM has hundreds of marvellous projects and highly appreciative audiences. Why would it spend much time or money trying to “teach” the 70% of detectorists who have said “no” for so long?
I think the public is entitled to be bitter – not merely because the bulk of a hobby has cocked an 18 year snook at the rest of us but because The Archaeological Establishment is still not publicly admitting the fact. Meanwhile there’s evidence things are about to get worse: detectorists, including the 70% snook-cockers, are about to be handed another crucial research aid to enable them to target “productive sites” (which means unprotected archaeological sites – who can deny it?). From September 2015 all the Environment Agency’s LIDAR data will become Open Data and everyone will be able to use it (for free. A detectorist writes: “You’ll see 100% discount on the final page, you will have to specify a reason for your request, i put Archaeology / Site Search“). One detectorist has already tried it and his assessment couldn’t be more ominous: “Saw it at the weekend and it is absolutely superb and far,far better than any of that commercially available. Saw at least 3 features that have produced finds in the locality that are invisible on Google Earth/Bluesky etc.” The number of archaeological sites that metal detectorists can target is about to be greatly expanded. Poor silly Bonkers Britain.