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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?

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by Nigel Swift

Gold

They’re making a second series of Britain’s Secret Treasures? “Are you all completely insane over there?” asks my archaeologist friend in France. Here are 5 questions on the matter. No-one will answer of course but the silence will tell all and I’ll tell Philippe.

1.) Has anyone heard archaeologists disputing last Summer’s statement by Diana Friendship-Taylor, chair of Rescue: “We are, frankly, astonished, that the British Museum is prepared to lend its considerable weight to the furtherance of a method of historical inquiry which belongs in the distant past, and which has as much relevance to the practice of modern archaeology as the use of the cranial trepanation has to modern medicine.” No? So where did the push for a second series come from?

2.) Has anyone made an effort to find what effect the first programmes had on sales of detectors? Apart from us, that is. We visited Britain’s largest metal detector retailer and asked them. They said sales have rocketed since the programmes, especially of starter machines. So another question arises: if PAS was set up to mitigate the damage that metal detecting does, how can that purpose be served by increasing the number of people metal detecting?

3.) Cui bono? Who are the two big gainers out of these progammes? Metal detecting manufacturers and PAS, very clearly. Is that a good reason for making them?

4.) Have you seen CBA’s statement (retweeted by English Heritage) about the first programmes? “Archaeology is about knowledge, not treasure…..The best way to extract evidence from the ground is via controlled, high-standard archaeological excavation….. it is best to join up with a local archaeology group if you have a passion for history and heritage…… if you are thinking of rushing out to buy a metal detector to seek out your very own ‘treasure’ you should think again” …. and so much else, all expressing views that are far from supportive of the activities the programmes are inescapably encouraging. So it seems the programmes have had unintended consequences – they have widened the fault line within British archaeological opinion to a degree where it can no longer be concealed. Good. That at least is a plus.

5.) So will EH or CBA say they welcome this new series? I’m betting not. If they believe their own joint survey they’ll reflect that in the ten days the programmes are jubilating over 50 objects we’ll lose another 10,000 bundles of archaeological knowledge. It’s a juxtaposition that just can’t be represented as tolerable. CBA say it all: “Archaeology is about knowledge, not treasure.What other message should Archaeology be sending?

On the other hand, will they be tempted to lend their names to the programmes in exchange for being allowed to deliver a few home truths to camera – which will then be left on the cutting room floor? We’ll see.

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More Heritage Action views on metal detecting and artefact collecting

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Archaeologist goes deaf!
An archeologist was declared clinically deaf the other day after giving a speech in which he rejoiced that the Ashmoleon Museum had raised the necessary £7.83 million to save Manet’s Portrait of Mademoiselle Claus for the nation. Culture Minister Ed Vaizey had placed a temporary export ban on it and made it available to be bought by a British public institution for just 27% of its market value of £28.4 million.

The archaeologist was halfway through saying it might be a good idea to reduce Treasure rewards by the same amount when he was knocked off his feet by a mighty shout of “NO!” from almost eight thousand heroic artefact hunters.

“Sorry, no can do” Mr Vaizey later shouted down the poor chap’s ear trumpet. “We’d love to, but we have to settle for policy inconsistency when it comes to national treasures. It’s horses for courses, see? There’s heroics, and then there’s hero-oiks. Get it?”

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QR at the BM
We’ve featured the idea of iBeaken QR codes in the past, so kudos to the British Museum who are using the codes to run youth workshops in their Anglo Saxon gallery gallery.

Groups of young people, guided by Digital Learning Programmes Manager Shelley Mannion, whirl through the exhibit with Samsung phones, scanning iB codes in order to fulfill a variety of challenges. Shelley creates iBeakens in the morning, prints out the codes and runs her sessions the same afternoon. It’s that easy and fast!

How long now before we see these more widely used in the UK?

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National Trust to allow “intellectual baboons” to retain a toe-hold!
There has been an unholy row over the National Trust having given in to pressure to mention creationism in the same breath as science when presenting its exhibition on the formation of the Giants Causeway. (Richard Dawkins said they shouldn’t have given “any consideration whatsoever to the intellectual baboons of young Earth creationism”!)

Under massive public pressure the Trust said it would review its presentation. Its taking an age and confidence it will do what is needed isnt high. Professor Brian Cox has neatly signalled how they should approached the issue: “I don’t mind creation stories presented as mythology, but to suggest there is any debate that Earth is 4.54 billion years old is nonsense”. Yet its hard to see how the Trust can go back on their claim that the Giant’s Causeway has been and still is a focal point in the debate about the age of the earth. Their Project Director has even “refused to classify creationists in the category of those who believe in Finn MacCool mythology

So its official, for everyone, forever (unless they say they were entirely wrong), The National Trust believes there’s a DEBATE about whether the earth is 6,000 years old, just like there’s a debate about the existence of fairies. And the idea of the Earth being created in seven days isn’t to be categorised as mythology and isn’t to be put in the same category as “myths” about giants!

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For more Cheers and Boos put Cheers in the search box.

 
 
The decorated horse jawbone fragment from Kendrick’s Cave, Wales (BM 1959,1203.1)
 
 
Dated as about 14000 years old, the jawbone of a horse decorated with zigzag patterns from Kendrick’s Cave, near Llandudno in North Wales, is the oldest known work of art from Wales. While it was on loan to Llandudno Museum as part of the British Museum’s UK Partnership Programme, the opportunity arose to reproduce it as a hologram using the most accurate currently available imaging technology. This contribution describes how the jaw fragment was reproduced using the latest techniques in three-dimensional colour holography, developed at the Centre for Modern Optics (OpTIC) at Glyndŵr University, St Asaph.
 
INTRODUCTION
 
The Kendrick’s Cave horse jawbone
 
In 1880 the lapidary Thomas Kendrick found a decorated chin fragment from a horse jawbone in a cave on Great Orme, Llandudno, Wales which was then named after him. The bone has a pattern of incised zig-zag lines on the underside and is the oldest work of art known from Wales. Dated to about 14000 years old it is one of only a small number of decorated Late Ice Age objects found in Britain. After Kendrick’s death the object disappeared but came to light again in London in 1959 when a new owner brought it into the British Museum and it was identified as the missing piece from the cave. As there was no museum service in Llandudno at that time, the British Museum acquired the object and it has been on permanent display ever since.
 
From Volume Four in the British Museum’s Technical Research Bulletin series.
 
 
 
The Staffordshire Hoard by Kevin Leahy and Roger Bland
 
On 5 July 2009 a metal-detector user started to unearth some gold objects in a Staffordshire field. Thus began the discovery of the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found. Consisting of over 1600 items – including fittings from the hilts of swords, fragments from helmets, Christian crosses and magnificent pieces of garnet work – the Staffordshire Hoard is set to rewrite history. This is just the beginning of the story.
 
The British Museum has launched a rapid-response book on the hoard… One pound from each copy sold will be donated to the appeal to acquire the treasure for local museums, to keep the extraordinary objects on display in the county whose history they have transformed.
 
The Guardian
 
The Staffordshire Hoard. Authors: Kevin Leahy and Roger Bland
ISBN: 9780714123288
 
More here.
 

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