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A video calling for metal detecting to be legalised in Ireland has just been published. It claims that unlicensed metal detecting in England and Wales is a triumph and uses the familiar tactic of highlighting some positives (in this case that Norwich Castle Museum is replete with detecting finds!) to imply that detectorists in general conform to good practice (“mutual respect and a closely forged partnership”!) If only that was true! We could be campaigning for artefact hunting to be on the national curriculum and for the whole population to be doing it for the national benefit!” Maybe the Norwich archaeologists should be calling for that?! Or maybe they should talk to CBA, EH or even PAS who are in a rather better position to know the wider reality of the activity?

Unfortunately it rather looks as if they’ve been dragged unwittingly into personally endorsing the introduction of unlicensed English-style detecting in Ireland, merely on the basis of their local experience – even though nationally most English and Welsh finds don’t get reported to PAS and the resultant net knowledge loss is scandalous (which neither CBA,  nor EH nor PAS will deny). It seems a bit like someone being manoevered into appearing to say “shoplifters don’t come in my shop so it can’t be a problem elsewhere and laws to control it should be ripped up in an adjacent friendly independent country!”

I suspect if editorial control had been in Norwich some acute embarrassment would have been avoided. Indeed, just a bit of wider enquiry would have avoided it. Looking at PAS’s statistics would have been enough. The fact CBA, EH and PAS weren’t appearing on the video was another huge clue. There was also an even more massive warning light flashing in plain sight – a public comment made by none other than the author of the video, Mr Nolan, about another recent video titled “Ireland’s First Metal Detecting Rally“. That video documented a recent blatantly criminal event in Co Wicklow which appalled Irish archaeologists. The comment he added to it was “Well done everyone!

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“Well done”?

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In the words of Irish Archaeologist Stuart Rathbone (as quoted by Robert M Chapple) :  “One of the 15 participants at the Wicklow rally busily committing heritage crime. Apparently the participants donated 150 Euro’s to a local charity after the event. Hopefully they will soon be making far larger ‘donations’ considering the maximum penalty for illegal Metal Detecting is a €63,486 fine”
[Stuart Rathbone’s article and Robert Chappel’s blog are here]


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People often ask why we’re so strongly opposed to laissez faire artefact hunting, especially rallies. It’s evidence and logic mostly, but sometimes it’s emotion.  Here’s our article from ten years ago about a full frontal assault on our beloved Avebury:

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ten years ago.

Unfortunately little has changed since then and in the subsequent ten years there have been many more rallies and club digs near Avebury and about 30,000 more nationally. Since PAS says most metal detecting finds aren’t reported the information loss from those rallies has to have been vast. The most PAS can bring itself to say is that they “aren’t fans” of big rallies whereas what they mean is they oppose them. Of course they do, they conflict with all notions of conservation good sense and public morality worldwide.

How much longer will it be before educated Britain is told exactly that by officialdom? Will we have another ten years in which they continue to be presented with a false picture, as typified by this soothing but wildly inaccurate claim by an academic at the UCL Institute of Archaeology: “metal detecting without reporting finds is nearly as reprehensible and harmful to heritage as excavating without publishing. Fortunately the Portable Antiquities Scheme and its hard-earned relationship with the metal detecting community offers a practical, pragmatic and proven solution to this problem Reprehensible and harmful but fortunately solved by the existence of PAS? Hardly. He really should go to a rally, preferably near Avebury or indeed at any of the unprotected archaeological sites that are invariably targeted by rally organisers (as they can make more money that way), or familiarise himself with the rules of detecting clubs, almost none of which make reporting obligatory (why???) or simplest of all, talk to a PAS staff member in private.

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As we were saying, PAS publicizes good detecting practice but rarely bad practice (for fear umbrage will be taken presumably). It’s a dubious strategy – for ignoring misbehaviour rarely reduces it and anyway PAS has no mandate to offer an inaccurate picture to the public. Also, the strategy is demonstrably damaging.

Here’s why: landowners are the sole group with absolute power to allow or disallow detecting so they are pivotal gatekeepers both metaphorically and literally. If they aren’t made aware of bad practice (or the fact PAS’s statistics show it is very widespread) they aren’t equipped to make informed, heritage-friendly decisions or to curate the history in their fields on our behalf.

So here’s some “advice to landowners”. We’ve sent it to the PAS management with a polite request that they publish something similar on their website and in the farming press. We are certain that if they did it would make a huge difference to conservation. We’ll let you know how they respond.

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Bad practice in metal detecting: what landowners need to know:

“Bad practice” in metal detecting is any behaviour that results in loss of historical knowledge (such as digging in sensitive places or not reporting all archaeological finds to the Portable Antiquities Scheme). In Britain it is not usually a crime but it invariably damages the interests of the rest of society. As such it is strongly opposed by the Government and every archaeologist bar none. Please don’t allow metal detecting bad practice on your land.

What you can do:

1. Good and bad practice are defined in The Code of Practice for Responsible Metal-Detecting in England and Wales which is supported by all the main archaeological and farming organisations. Please make sure any detectorist on your land adheres to that code and no other. There are numerous other codes and assurances in existence and it’s vital you do not confuse them with the official one or assume any of them are officially sanctioned. They are not.

2. Before granting permission please obtain from the detectorist two things:
a.) Written proof that they are in a detecting club that insists on all members adhering to the official code, no other.
b.) Contact details for the local Finds Liaison Officer and Local Archaeology Service so you can check on both the detectorist and the suitability of the land as necessary.


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The Gatekeeper, Pyronia tithonus. Like landowners, blissfully unaware that bad metal detecting practice has absolutely nothing to do with nighthawking.

The Gatekeeper, Pyronia tithonus. Like landowners, it is left blissfully unaware that bad metal detecting practice has absolutely nothing to do with nighthawking.

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For years PAS has dismissed us as “trolls” and this week they have added “prejudiced and ill-informed” to the list. Their complaint is never about what we say (how could it be? If our facts were wrong they would have said so, not just insulted us) but about what we don’t say.  Our sin is that we point out that loads of detectorists behave badly but we don’t add yes but some don’t. So we’re accused of not providing “a balanced picture”. Sorry but we aren’t going to play. Here’s why:

Detectorists who behave themselves really don’t need constant praise, it’s patronising and insulting, implying that it’s a surprise that they should do so (ask some of them, we have!) No-one deifies amateur archaeologists or people who don’t park on double yellow lines or the millions of people in every walk of life who quietly do right by the community because it’s the civilised way to behave. It’s the disfiguring of Stonehenge that matters, not banging on about those who don’t damage it. How ludicrous it would be if there was a quango issuing weekly press statements praising people who don’t shoplift!

It’s damage that matters, not its absence and (as PAS knows very well from their published figures), the great majority of detectorists don’t comply with the official code, don’t follow best practice and don’t report all of their finds. That is crucial information that is owed to the public and landowners in plain, unvarnished form, not glossed over by the addition of the “yes but” platitude (or, even worse, totally falsified with the demonstrably untrue statement that “most detectorists are responsible”). PAS and thousands of detectorists misinform thousands of farmers weekly in that way and have been doing so for years and years and years. We’re not going to join in, whether PAS continues to call us prejudiced and ill-informed or not.

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Update Sunday 5 April 2015
Paul Barford has just posed a simple question about PAS that is relevant to the above: “Can they commit themselves to a firm policy of not only in a somewhat passive manner promoting best practice but actively condemning bad practice?” You might think that after 17 years and millions of words and pounds they had already done so. But no, there’s no trace – unless anyone can show otherwise. I think perhaps it’s time we wrote a succinct statement for them (as is our prerogative as prejudiced and ill-informed trolls), one which actively condemns bad practice and acknowledges for the information of taxpayers and landowners that the evidence indicates it is very widespread not rare, and publicly ask them to concur. So that’s what we’ll do in a few days.

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It’s a simple story. A hoard is found but the museums say the Treasure Valuation Committee valuation is too high so they decline to buy it. So it has gone to auction and out of the public’s view forever. In the event it sold for a little more than the Treasure Valuation figure but of course anyone other than those with the playground mentality of most detectorists will know that valuations comprise a spread of probabilities and ranting about and appealing against the half you don’t like makes you look like a greedy, illogical dimwit. As always, if these were amateur archaeologists that would be understood and there would be fewer complaints about the system.

There hasn’t been much public fuss over the loss of this hoard, probably because people mistakenly equate “not wanting to buy at that price” with “not wanting”. But of course, the hoard IS wanted and in any logical or civilised scenario it should be in a museum. But Britain’s portable antiquities laws and practice are not a logical or civilised scenario and the two finders and the farmer are flogging it for as much as they can get and there’s not a thing anyone can do to stop them.

One thing shouldn’t be forgotten though: if the finders (who reckon they are part of a history-loving group who aren’t motivated by money and who are permitted to pursue their activities on that basis) had offered to forego or significantly reduce their share a museum would have bought it and the rightful owners, the public, would be able to see it.

Update I think we’ve just been Orwelled! A Finds Liaison Officer, no less, has complained on the Rescue facebook page that we are “ill-informed” and “prejudiced” and we haven’t highlighted those who DO give up their rewards. That is because they are a tiny minority and frankly we aren’t in the PAS game of pretending the majority (in this matter and in the whole of best practice) are well behaved and responsible. They aren’t, and even PAS has conceded that in its published figures. We aren’t apologists for metal detecting and our continuance isn’t dependant upon praising them. Can PAS say the same? “Prejudiced” means taking a particular line in defiance of the evidence. Hasn’t PAS done that for 17 years?

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by Nigel Swift

I recently re-read Nineteen Eighty-Four and it brought Britain’s current portable antiquities stance to mind. In both the central theme is fiction relentlessly presented as fact. A couple of instances have just emerged, one from the Head of the PAS and one from blogger-detectorist John Winter.

Mr Winter benefits from the fact some of his readers are pretty uninformed so it’s easy to play to the gallery. Thus he has just resurrected Minister Lammy’s “heroes” statement using the same selective justifications, emphasising the positives and totally ignoring the massive downside, the widespread knowledge theft. That might get you backslapped Mr Winter but it’s not being honest with the public. It’s Orwellian.

As for PAS, in Orwell’s book the party seeks power for its own sake and that’s the connection. Who can fail to notice that much of what it says and does is devoted to delivering a relentless propaganda of success, presumably to promote its own continuance? Winston Smith rewrote old press articles to ensure they supported the party line, PAS does the same in real time. I offer you ten thousand examples as evidence! Here’s Dr Bland this week in full Winston Smith mode, spinning the hurried hoiking of the Lenborough Hoard: “This was a rescue job and Ros, as our sole FLO at event with about a hundred metal detector users, did a heroic job in the circumstances and ensured that all the coins were recovered”. Note the use of the H word, heroic, instead of hurried, echoing Minister Lammy. Pure Nineteen Eighty Four!

It was a rescue alright, but presented like a corkscrew. Why not tell the public straight out (rather than coyly hinting it to those in the know) that the main peril was from some of those present? And why not admit that the FLO’s otherwise inexplicable and otherwise unprofessional decision not to ensure the hoard was guarded overnight was due to pressure and opposition from those around her? Had they been amateur archaeologists the matter would have been dealt with properly. Fact. Metal detecting is simply not as heroic or educated or moral as PAS constantly portrays it to be. Like in the case of Mr Winter, presenting a concocted account is not honest, it’s Orwellian.

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"PAS is a huge success. Detectorists have almost all responded heroically. Their levels of co-operation and ethical behaviour are indistinguishable from amateur archaeologists. Only a minority don't report all their finds". PAS deserves continued funding to maintain this highly beneficial status quo which is the envy of te rest of the world."

PAS is a spectacular success. Detectorists have almost all responded heroically. Their ethical behaviour makes them indistinguishable from amateur archaeologists. Landowners should invite them onto their fields as they can trust them as they are almost all responsible and beneficial to national heritage. PAS deserves continued funding to maintain this marvellous, marvellous status quo which is the absolute envy of the rest of the world.

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Ever heard PAS or the Government say “not reporting detecting finds is immoral?” How come? Well, Britain is special. It’s the country where theft of society’s knowledge of it’s past isn’t morally indefensible – even though it used to be. Back in 2001 PAS asserted “The Scheme believes that people have a moral obligation to their heritage.” Not now though. They won’t even say not reporting finds is irresponsible so there’s no chance of them saying it’s immoral!

Why the change? We think it dates from when it became evident that most detectorists take “voluntary” to mean “not necessary”. At that point, for the Scheme to assert reporting was necessary on moral grounds would be to point out a too-painful truth to their partners and indeed to their funders. Thus, “moral obligation” has been dropped. Oh to be a British artefact hunter, free of an obligation to the rest of society! Oh to be a taxpayer not having to fund a fiction!

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Bonkers Britain, unique in the world, has painted itself into a corner where theft of society's knowledge can't be described as immoral. Don't believe us? Write to PAS, or one of the FLOs or the Government. Ask them straight out: "do you think not reporting detecting finds is immoral?" If they don't say yes you'll know we're right.

Bonkers Britain, unique in the world, has painted itself into a corner where theft of society’s knowledge can’t be described as immoral.  (Don’t believe us? Write to PAS and ask them if it is!)

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US antiquities dealers who have long called for an American PAS have got their wish in Staten Island where the Parks Authority issued 548 metal detecting permits on the understanding the detectorists will report any significant finds. Sounds good, and familiar. A voluntary social contract, just like in Britain. They get to detect. Society gets benefits. What’s not to like?

But blow me down with a bagel, look what happened: “All of the 185 permit holders who actually filed reports for 2013 wrote that they found diddly squat, records show. Five permit holders mentioned that they managed to locate some change by waving their wands and listening for beeps — but the coins weren’t worth anything.”

So the exercise was so dodgy it could have been Barry Island, not Staten Island – and the similarity with Britain doesn’t stop there for a spokesperson for the American PAS (if it existed) would surely have said: Yeah, of course we believe that all 185 (and the other 363 who didn’t file a report) found nothing, American detectorists are as honest as their British counterparts. The main thing achieved is we can now go to Government and explain they’re highly reliable and it’s worth funding us for the next 30 years to tell everyone so. Let’s dig America together, innit?”

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Time for an American Nose Hiding Scheme?

Time for an American Nose Hiding Scheme – or will US archaeologists heed the toe-curlingly embarrassing position Britain has put itself in?

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We recently managed to shame the country’s largest metal detecting shop, Regtons, into stopping selling night vision gear. It was a victory for conservation (which PAS and The Archaeological Establishment should have secured, not us) but it was only a small one, for two reasons:

First, Regtons may have desisted but lots of other detecting outlets haven’t. Just look at all the “Night Owl” gear that Joan Allen Detectors will deliver to you on a next day basis. It is difficult to believe that detector shops that sell items that nighthawks find useful are unaware of precisely what they are contributing to. What do you think?

Second, as we’ve said so often, the debate about whether nighthawks are a tiny minority or not is a damaging distraction for it diverts the public’s attention from the real scandal – that the knowledge theft that nighthawks cause is dwarfed by the knowledge theft perpetrated by the far more numerous non-reporting legal detectorists. One day no doubt Posterity will judge today’s archaeologists harshly for not shouting that simple truth from the roof tops and particularly in the corridors of Whitehall and Westminster. The fundamental reality of the British portable antiquities policy is that non-regulation of “legal” detecting causes far more heritage damage than flogging night vision equipment to criminals. It’s not a great charge to lay at the door of British Archaeology but there it is.

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Aunt Bella’s School for Nearsighted Young Women and British Archaeologists. Missing the bleeding obvious.

Aunt Bella’s School for Nearsighted Young Women and British Archaeologists. Missing the bleeding obvious.

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We’ll keep it simple. Several years ago Central Searchers hid their “Rule 11″ from public gaze. (No wonder. It said any non-treasure find worth up to £2,000 belongs entirely to the finder). We assumed they’d then quietly drop it and that would be the end of it. But no, we’ve just discovered it on full public display again but in a different place and re-named as “Rule 14″. Here it is in all its history-loving fair-minded glory:

14. Items found by any member/non member/guest can be retained by the member/non member/guest as long as its value is no more than £2,000.

Is that fair or does it suggest an acquisitive attitude towards heritage that even a Minister for Culture would be hard-pressed to describe as heroic? You decide. All we know is that more than an eighth of all detectorists and lots of PAS employees have attended Central Searchers rallies and we’ve heard not a word from them about Rule 14 being a disgrace or that they won’t attend because of it. So maybe it’s just us?

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How 50 valuable finds would be divided under Rule 14

How 50 valuable finds would be divided under Rule 14

 

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