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Who needs a history book?! The depressing cul-de-sac that is Britain’s portable antiquities policy can be deduced from just three flyers…. . .
First, British archaeologists expressed outrage…. .
Then they settled for “do it if you must but please tell us what you find”. And that’s where we’re stuck, 17 years later, with most finds still not being reported. Meanwhile, over in Ireland they have THIS flyer in every library and police station….. . .
It says things that are unspeakable in Britain, things like unregulated detecting “causes serious damage” and it’s illegal to do it “without the prior written consent of the Minister” and that will only be forthcoming if “the greatest possible level of archaeological knowledge is obtained”. The British Government and all 8,000 British archaeologists bar none strongly agree but the boat you see, it mustn’t be rocked..
So there we are, two countries, one of which makes the other’s policies look ludicrous. However, there’s a third flyer, something we published 3 years ago, that could save Britain’s blushes for now, without waiting for legislation. Both CBA and EH have signalled that its aims correspond with theirs so it’s an open door waiting to be pushed…..
(Vistaprint will supply 5,000 flyers for about £70 – enough to put one in every public library and police station in England and Wales. If PAS, CBA or EH can’t afford to pay that then we could. Alternatively here’s a version the public could print off and deliver to their local library or police station. Why not? It’s their heritage knowledge that’s not being delivered.) .
PS…… In fact, you could print it off and apply to put it on your Parish Council notice board or sweet shop window. After all, if you don’t, this is the sort of message farmers will get (which appeared just two days ago): “Please let us onto your land….. We will pay the farmer or landowner £10 cash per member on the day of the search (which normally takes place between 8am and sunset) and also give 50% of the value of any item found worth over £500 to the landowner.” . There’s no requirement to show recordable non-Treasure items (99.999% of them) to PAS. History ISN’T something that should be treated like that. As the Irish know.
A telling contrast is on display at this very moment in the tranquil, picturesque Worcestershire village of Wichenford…..
. In the village centre there’s this poster on the Parish Council notice board. It’s all about persuading the 200 residents to do some “gleaning” – that’s gathering left-over produce from the local fields so it can be given to needy people.
Meanwhile, on the outskirts of the village hundreds of people from all over Britain have been persuaded by a foreign detector manufacturer to come and do a spot of self-seeking (and a coin dealer has been invited to set up a stall, naturally) …. .
By any measure, the first activity is selfless and involves no depletion whereas the second is the opposite in both respects. They say the quality of a civilisation can be measured by its relationship with its land. Makes you half proud to be British.
We picked this up from The Pipeline blog. Here’s what Mr Whittingdale said in the Treasure’s Act debate in 1996. Can we dare hope Britain is moving towards a position closer to the rest of the world by regulating artefact hunting and unbonkering itself?
“…there is a need for a much more wide-ranging measure to cover all portable antiquities.”
“Although I welcome the Bill and the provisions that will clarify and extend existing protection considerably, I believe that there is a need to go still further. The Bill refers only to treasure, and treasure is very strictly defined. It must have at least some gold or silver content, and the Bill will clearly be a major improvement in respect of the protection of such items, but there is a need for a much more wide-ranging measure to cover all portable antiquities.
Some protection already exists in legislation covering ancient sites and monuments, but not all ancient sites and monuments have yet been discovered. By the time we have agreed that something is an ancient site that should be afforded protection, we may be too late and many of the artefacts there may have been lost. I hope that, in due course, we shall re-examine the law in this respect.”
“In due course, I hope that we can go further still and re-examine ways in which we can best protect that heritage and learn more about it for our children and grandchildren.”
So has “in due course” been arrived at, nineteen years later? Who knows? One thing CAN be predicted though. Ed Vaizey (who is to stay on as Culture Minister, reporting to Mr Whittingdale as Culture Secretary) is unlikely to be having any more days out like this:
More Heritage Journal views on artefact collecting
It will soon be the CBA’s Festival of Archaeology and it’s time for us to express our annual complaint that metal detecting ain’t archaeology. If anyone wants to argue otherwise we’re ready and waiting. In particular we were unimpressed by this scheduled Festival event:
Charnwood day of archaeology East Midlands | Leicestershire Sat 25th Jul 2015
A day looking at the archaeology of the Loughborough area, run in conjunction with the Loughborough Coin And Search Society, with newly discovered objects to view and hands on activities including the chance to try your hand with a metal detector.
We aren’t fans of The Loughborough Coin and Search Society and don’t think it is engaged in archaeology. Here’s what we said about it 3 years ago. You decide.
“Beat this, Tescos! Out of the ground and sold to customers the same day! The Loughborough Coin and Search Society’s “Detecting Liaison Officer” (yes!) has just revealed that providing a day’s detecting for his 50 club members will net a farmer £400. Or, a large weekend rally could earn him “up to £8,000″. Not half bad for opening a gate to a field that’s perceived by the customers to be “productive” (or “an unprotected archaeological site” as archaeologists would term it!)
But there’s more to the story than that. The club is merged with a coin collecting club and it lets the artefact hunting members take their finds back to club HQ to finds tables and flog them to the coin collector members. Tidy. Rumours that the operation is overseen by a gent called Fagin are yet to be denied. However, the fact the farmer doesn’t get to see the stuff but is later sent “a brief resumé of what was found” suggests it may not be Mr Brownlow, Oliver’s charming old grandfather.”
You may have heard some people calling for metal detecting to be legalised in Ireland. There’s something they haven’t been straight about. They paint the Irish authorities as simply having closed minds with no reason to oppose the activity but that’s a mega-fib. Their central claim, as displayed on an Irish detecting forum, demonstrates the fact: “Detecting is a skilled activity that is often misunderstood and dismissed by those too quick to criticise. The Irish lads are top class, very knowledgeable and with many years experience. Its an honor to be involved in their struggle for freedom to detect, Liam”
Skilled yes, but the skill in question is the sort of skill no detectorist will explain to you in detail. Basic detecting comprises sweep / beep /dig, nothing else, a monkey could do it (no, that’s not offensive, it’s simply the truth) but the skill – the ONLY skill recreational detecting involves – lies in an ability to be selective about which beep to dig. Detectorists get quite good at it they say (and if they aren’t they can also switch their machines to “discrimination mode” to signal or exclude “undesirable” targets).
That’s not archaeology or science. It’s the opposite. It’s artefact hunting (for personal or financial reasons) and hunting for a tiny subset of artefacts to boot. 99.9999% of artefacts are the “wrong” sort of metal or are non-metallic or broken or not saleable and are ignored or rejected so “context”, which is the essence of archaeology and knowledge and science is totally dismissed and very often distorted or destroyed – purely for reasons of personal acquisitiveness or financial gain. That’s the fundamental problem with recreational metal detecting, it’s selfish cherry picking of everyone else’s history and it’s why the Irish don’t allow it.
All else you may be told is baloney.
Grunter’s Hollow Farm,
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!“
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?