by Nigel Swift
Most people think that after 15 years I’ve become a crashing bore on the subject of metal detecting. I have. Jeez, I even bore me. But the recent decline of the PAS project and some issues in my own life make this a suitable moment to explain what has kept me banging on like a terrier on a mission. Yes, it’s terribly boring to go on and on every week but what’s far more boring is that this weekend, like every weekend, more than 4,000 historic British artefacts and their associated knowledge bundles will be sought out, dug up, shown to no-one and put beyond the reach of science forever. They do it every week. I complain about it every week. Boring innit?
I also feel it’s an appropriate moment to offer my thoughts (as a 15 year student of detecting and obsessive eavesdropper on metal detecting forums for every one of the past 5,475 days) on the decline of the PAS project and who or what is to blame. Me and others like me some say. Honoured, I’m sure, but I think there’s more to it than that. Clearly it’s the Government that has wielded the axe but they’re spinning it as setting PAS free. Maybe. But there’s no doubt they’ve stepped back from providing direct funding, just like they have with English Heritage and many others so the strong suspicion is that it’s a political move, a way to avoid blame for future funding cuts. If true that begs a big question: would they have divested themselves of PAS if they truly saw it as a star performer, an organisation which could deliver lots of kudos at modest cost? More likely, in my opinion, some in Whitehall came to realise that PAS’s recent confession of only a 30% full participation rate indicates the project is terminally incapable of being honestly presented to the public or the international community as a net benefit to heritage.
So, if it’s an issue of inadequate performance, the next question is – who is to blame for that? Well, we’ve long complained that PAS could have done much better if it had adopted some different tactics. In particular, it appears to have been caught in a self-preservation quandary in which it feared that overt criticism of irresponsible detectorists would reduce the number of items being reported and therefore prejudiced its chances of continued funding. Many detectorists were happy to feed that fear (the paragraph highlighted in red here lists 15 different occasions when detectorists threatened a recording strike if the authorities didn’t do exactly what they wanted. We always felt PAS was foolish to heed such threats. After all, they came from people who already didn’t report finds, not from those who were responsible. In addition, dire warnings that attempts to control metal detecting (sometimes repeated by PAS) would lead to “an explosion of nighthawking” can be logically shown to be groundless. Tell it to the Irish who have banned it or the Northern Irish who have regulated it! In my view if only the PAS hadn’t been frit to condemn bad behaviour and particularly to fail to explain the realities of that bad behaviour to those magnificent, all-powerful gatekeepers of our heritage, landowners, the portable antiquities project could have been very different.
So who is to blame for the decline of the PAS project? The Government ostensibly, for pulling the plug. But PAS on a more fundamental level for not being clear about right and wrong and especially for failing to explain it to every landowner in the country. Yet ultimately it’s neither of those that is truly to blame. It’s the 70% of detectorists who were offered a brilliantly generous and world-unique deal – respectability, legitimacy, money and flattery in exchange for mere good, unselfish practice – and utterly rejected it while pretending they hadn’t. Being a bit of a crank I’m quite bitter about that.
Perhaps I’d have done better to spend the last 15 years busying myself with my real interest, lepidoptery, talking to people who (these days at least) are entirely non acquisitive and honorable. On the other hand I think the mood music has changed. Ten or fifteen years ago almost all archaeologists chanted a single foolish and uninformed mantra, that “the vast majority of detectorists are responsible”. It was always a massive and damaging lie yet it was repeated in tens of thousands of press articles, encouraged by PAS and detectorists. At it’s heart it had a confusion, often deliberately promoted: it allowed people to think that since “nighthawks” were a small minority and irresponsible then the rest, the great majority, were responsible and therefore fit to be let onto the fields. The passing on of that fallacy to the public and landowners has dealt a massive disservice to heritage in my opinion for while nighthawks are small in number, legal detectorists who don’t act responsibly comprise many thousands of individuals and are responsible for massive ongoing information theft from the rest of us. At last, archaeologists are beginning to take that simple and provable reality on board. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if the new PAS management at the British Museum changed course accordingly and now advised every landowner to allow only the 30% of Best Practice detectorists onto their fields and strongly and fearlessly lobbied the Government to bring in measures that made Best Practice compulsory not voluntary?