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by Alan Simkins
“Can Detectorists be Archaeologists?” You’d think the answer would be a simple “Yes, assuming they adopt the habits and ethics of professional archaeologists“. After all, every year thousands of people do exactly that, getting involved in the many community digs organised around the country by archaeologists and local societies.
However, given that in the past some of my colleagues have been intimidated and threatened by some in the metal detecting community (to the point that police have been involved on more than one occasion), it was with some trepidation that I attended this year’s Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) conference on the above theme earlier this week at the Museum of London (MoL). As it happened, I needn’t have worried as the conference was very much preaching to the converted as far as the audience was concerned. And despite our stance here on the Heritage Journal, I tried to approach the event with an open mind, being neither a detectorist nor qualified archaeologist.
As the start time approached, I estimated that the Weston Theatre was about half full, so around 100 or people present with a good mix of ages but fewer people than I would have expected. Roy Stephenson from the MoL opened the day with the statement “Detectorists are de facto, archaeologists”, which set the tone for most of the day.
Michael Lewis from the PAS then outlined the work being done to kick off similar recording schemes in Flanders, the Netherlands and Denmark in order to combine datasets, and an interesting slide showed examples of similar finds from the four areas.
The other morning sessions were, as expected, full of praise for the work that recording detectorists do, with specific examples from a couple of detectorists as to the lengths they go to in order to meticulously record findspots and analyse the resulting data:
Felicity Winkley told us about her survey of Detectorists, and how she accompanied a dozen or so into the field for extended interviews, looking at their motivations and relationships to their local landscapes. Local knowledge was a major factor in deciding where to detect, and much was made of a comparison between detectorist’s research methods with Archaeological `desk-based’ research techniques, including gridding a potential site to ensure full coverage. Interestingly but unsurprisingly, of those interviewed only a third admitted to actually recording their finds with the PAS.
Dr Phil Harding (no, not that one!) then related his 25 years of detecting in Leicestershire, resulting in over 2000 finds. Due to the volume of his backlog, which the FLO could not cope with, he decided to become a self-recorder, and attended a photography course to improve his records. He then explained how finds scatter analysis could indicate the growth of a settlement, but despite his research and analysis many questions remain unanswered.
Dave Haldenby highlighted his collaborative work with archaeologists which has led to several published articles, once again based upon accurate findspot recording at Cottam B in Yorkshire, a site which traversed the Middle Saxon and Viking periods.
And finally before lunch, Lindsey Bedford described her path from detectorist to archaeologist which led to a degree from Bristol University and told us about her work with the Berkshire Archaeology Research Group (BARG).
The afternoon session opened with Faye Minter from Suffolk saying how working with detectorists using a (systematic) survey technique at Rendlesham produced results. An effort of some 174 man days detecting over a few years over 4 years, resulted in each detectorist finding an average of 3 recordable items per day.
From over 100,000 finds in total on the site, only around 4000 were pre-1650 metallic artefacts. In total, 27% of the finds at Rendlesham were Anglo-Saxon, compared with just 5% across Suffolk as a whole (I can’t help wondering if this is due to under-reporting elsewhere). We were then told about a site at Exning, where use of detectors could potentially have helped identify Anglo-Saxon graves which were otherwise only found accidentally during trenching, having not been spotted on the geophysics results.
As a result of these findings, Suffolk have now amended their requirements in archaeological briefs, specifying that only experienced/known/published detectorists should be used when surveying sites for development.
This point was raised again by Carl Chapness, who admitted that commercial units often only have access to the cheapest detectors, and very little training or experience in their use, mainly due to being commercially driven. Which lead to him raising a counter-question for the conference: “should archaeologists be detectorists?” There was some discussion of night-hawking and the lengths which commercial units sometimes have to go to in order to protect a site under investigation, and Carl suggested that cross-fertilisation of skills and knowledge between detectorists and archaeologists can only be a good thing.
Samantha Rowe then explained her work looking at the archaeology of the plough zone – examining lead bullets from civil war sites and comparing the erosion against the land use, concluding that over cultivation can exacerbate erosion of metallic objects (a real NSS moment there!)
John Maloney from the NCMD then spoke on the ‘Future of Archaeology and Metal Detecting’
I have to say he came over as an unpleasantly smug Trump-like bully – someone who is used to getting his own way and seeing no possible reason for that status quo to change. He started his talk by disparaging the efforts of the likes of David Gill and Paul Barford to debate some of the issues behind artefact collecting, and implied that figures used by critics of the hobby (such as those used by the Artefact Erosion Counter) have no substance in fact (as we know, the counter is based upon figures supplied by the NCMD, CBA et al). I suspect he came away from the conference very pleased with the cap-doffing shown to the metal detecting fraternity during the talks throughout the day. Very much a ‘you couldn’t do it without us’ attitude which was not pleasant to see. When questioned, he declined to tell the conference how many members the NCMD has, but someone in the audience proffered a figure of 11000 members. John said there had been no analysis done regarding ‘active’ members, but that it was thought there was a degree of ‘churn’ in the figures as people tended to buy detectors, join the NCMD, then get disenchanted when they don’t find anything, and fail to renew.
Thankfully, Mike Heyworth from the CBA, speaking on the same subject brought some common sense to the debate, saying that in the end a metal detector is just a tool that used in the right hands can be a boon to archaeology (as some of the talks highlighted). However, if the person using it has the wrong motives, or lacks the necessary archaeological skills and knowledge then no good can come of its use. “People using a detector as a tool to study the past in a responsible manner are archaeologists”
He is very interested in pushing for a redefinition of ‘treasure’, and a potential system of abatement of rewards to pay for conservation and preservation of finds, with additional penalties if the finds have not been uncovered in a responsible manner (I’m guessing Lenborough would have qualified for such an abatement). Sadly such a change would be dependent upon an overdue review of the Treasure Act, which the DCMS are dragging their heels over. However, the much vaunted ‘Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting’ is undergoing review for a second edition. This will very much be a case of ‘evolution rather than revolution’.
So what did I make of the day overall? As I said at the start, it was very much preaching to the converted – everyone there had a vested interest in building bridges between the two camps. Sadly, those who could learn most from the day were the very people who would not attend – the ‘Barry Thugwits’ and first-time detectorists of this world.
I would have liked to have seen some of the talks recorded, and made available to metal detectorist clubs so that the message of how the two sides can and should work together can be more widely spread.
Next year’s conference will be held in York, and will cover the subject of ‘Treasure’ (in all its forms, apparently).
I left the conference with the same thought that I had before I arrived (and indeed the conference strengthened my feelings): Of course detectorists can be archaeologists, providing they do it for public benefit and in accordance with archaeological methods and morals and they don’t pocket the stuff for themselves. Set against the selfless benefits which thousands of amateur archaeologists quietly deliver in exactly that way, cheerleading for artefact hunting looks bizarre, to put it mildly. PAS could have saved their money and breath, cancelled the conference and announced a replacement one titled: “Hurrah for amateur archaeologists!”
PAS’s mandate extends only to England and Wales yet it now cheerleading for the British system to be adopted elsewhere. For example: 1.) A film praising the PAS by Irish detectorists campaigning to legalise detecting in Ireland was narrated by someone sounding remarkably like PAS’s Dan Pett. [Mr Pett has now told us: “that video is nothing to do with me. I left PAS in May 2015“. We apologise to him.] 2.) PAS’s Dr Michael Lewis spoke at the inaugural meeting of the European Council for Metal Detecting (an organisation devoted to exporting the British system throughout Europe), where his contribution was hailed as “outstanding”. 3.) And now, (see The Searcher Magazine) we have PAS attending a public debate aimed at persuading Ireland to change its laws ….
Why? Why is PAS promoting the British system abroad, despite having no mandate or funding or visible incentive to do so? Why are the French, Germans, Dutch, Spanish, Poles, Italians, Swedish and Irish being lobbied by a small British quango with an entirely parochial vested interest in praising artefact hunting at home? Why is it commending to others a system which is supported by detectorists in Britain only 30% of the time at best? Why on earth has PAS become part of a campaign run by detectorists to persuade two dozen sovereign European countries to rip up their laws on metal detecting?
6 years ago today we highlighted that “Minelab has just launched the GPX5000….it can easily find small objects at 24 inches” whereas a farming forum survey showed 80% of farmers plough no lower than 9 inches. So people with GPXs could now detect small objects 15 inches below most ploughsoil. But now things have got even worse. See this from Minelab’s website :
So you can now detect small items two feet below most ploughsoils! And nighthawks on the Staffordshire Hoard field (and they do exist – we’ve photographed their holes here and here) can detect small gold objects far lower than the machines used by the two archaeological surveys there. What shall we all do about that? Pretend technology hasn’t changed out of all recognition? For our part we’ve written to the Archaeology Forum yet again …..
To The Archaeology Forum firstname.lastname@example.org
You may recall we’ve previously written to you 4 times (see here and here and here) asking you to address the growing threat posed by the new deep seeking metal detectors such as the GPX 5000 and the Blisstool LTC64 V3 and you ignored us. The position has just got 40% worse with the advent of the GPZ 7000 (see our latest article – “Enhanced technology leaves remaining Staffordshire Hoard wide open to theft”). Any chance of you reacting?
As a minimum, we would have thought, the amendments to the detecting code currently being drafted ought to include a very clear statement that using a machine that detects lower than the ploughsoil is not responsible detecting.
The Heritage Journal
This week CBA Director Mike Heyworth chaired a meeting “to agree a revised metal detecting code”. Good. We farmers need a “Tesco clause” saying “show everything you intend to take home and get a receipt for it” (like millions of Tesco customers, including all detectorists, do all the time.) Which honest detectorist would object to that? And how could archaeologists oppose it (given that it would stop PAS’s database being infected with nighthawked items and/or false findspots).
So the new code will be a litmus test of who controls Britain’s buried heritage, professionals or the rough wing of detecting. If a Tesco-like clause is inserted it will be a step towards resource and landowner protection whereas if the code is emasculated, as happened to the original one, then the pressure from dishonest detectorists will have prevailed. Over the years there have been 15 “recording strikes” threatened when reforms were proposed. Soon we’ll know if a sixteenth (and there will be one – just watch!) has succeeded or not.
In case you doubt it, here are the previous fifteen:
“Don’t criticise us or we’ll stop reporting”,
“Don’t tell us what to do or we’ll stop reporting”,
“Don’t undertake surveys of nighthawking else we’ll stop reporting”,
“Don’t let PAS dominate us else we’ll stop reporting” (and later: “
“Don’t reduce PAS’s funding else we’ll stop reporting”),
“Don’t impose a Code of Responsible Detecting else we’ll stop reporting”,
“Don’t discuss licensing us else we’ll stop reporting”,
“Don’t ban inappropriate rallies else we’ll stop reporting”,
“Don’t impose restrictions under stewardship schemes else we’ll stop reporting”,
“Don’t tighten up EBay else we’ll stop reporting”,
“Don’t ever short change us on our Treasure rewards else we’ll stop reporting”,
“Don’t abate rewards for not calling an archie out else we’ll stop reporting”
“Don’t use some of our Treasure rewards for proper excavations of our findspots else we’ll stop reporting”,
“Don’t extend the items covered by the Treasure Act beyond what we say else we’ll stop reporting” and perhaps most telling of all:
“Don’t write to farmers without us dictating what is to be said else we’ll stop reporting”.
Update, 18 October
The anti-heritage wing of detecting has reacted to the idea of reform already:
“I can see that following the new Code will be mandatory and any deviation of for example finding a Treasure item on grassland or digging below the ploughsoil will carry an abatement of any award.”
“Exactly! However many folk, me included, often fail to see the “desired end result” of such political manouvering. We are lucky to have individuals with such foresight & knowledge looking out for the hobby.”
“The Rally Guidance note will be next to Review i am sure. Why do one and not the other. However none are compulsory and so unenforceable.”
Nice, heroic attitudes! (And one of them is a NCMD official!). Can’t see the “desired end result” of resource protection measures; they are merely “political manouvering” and not too worried because the codes aren’t compulsory and are therefore “unenforceable”. Does Britain really need such people on the fields? Which farmer, if only the authorities explained it to him, would let them through his gate?
Grunters Hollow Farm,
by Nigel Swift
There’s a big shadow over Britain’s portable antiquities policy. It’s that PAS’s data can’t be authenticated. So it’s right to speculate on the level of false reporting. Many nighthawks lie about findspots, for obvious reasons, but PAS data is likely to be further corrupted due to what I term the “share gap”. See below, two very different documents dealing with the sharing of finds:
Detectorists can insert whatever figures they wish in the first. Typically they offer a 50% share of items worth over £300, whereas under the second they don’t have to share at all if items are worth below £2,000. That’s the share gap. Clearly, if you find a £1,900 item at one farm you can “save” £800 by “finding” it at a Central Searchers’ rally down the road and have it laundered and enhanced to boot by getting it authenticated by PAS. Common sense suggests masses of findspots get falsified that way but the matter is never mentioned by PAS. We’re all losing out in secret due to the survival instinct of a small quango.
Our Counter proposes 8,000 detectorists each finding 0.69 recordable artefacts per week (far lower than all surveys suggest) so those two figures combined result in it “ticking” upwards at a rate of one recordable find each minute during daylight hours. But look at this detecting Facebook group ….
It has 10,787 members! That changes everything. If a single group has nearly 11,000 members surely we can assume there are another 11,000 at least who aren’t members. So the total is 22,000 not 8,000! If so, collectively they’re removing one recordable artefact every 21 seconds (and only telling PAS about little more than a tenth of them). Is that a satisfactory state of affairs?
Please click the arrow while you ruminate….
Remember the Polish detecting rally? Last week Britain was taken for an even bigger ride, this time by XP, the French detector manufacturers. They held a 1,000 person “European Gold Rally” in the lush, archaeologically rich Cotswold landscape near Burford.
Detectorists from many countries were invited and XP took the liberty of providing a link on their posters to the Historic England database showing “History in a 5 km radius of our search area”. Also helpful was the attendance of several FLOs and 3 coin dealers. Those so inclined could dig up, get valued and sell finds in minutes, even things brought from elsewhere (and who’ll dare pretend that facility isn’t known about and appreciated Europe-wide?)
So a uniquely British spectacle. Hundreds of foreign detectorists (300 French, 30 German, many more from Italy, Ireland, Austria, Portugal, Holland, USA, Belgium and Australia) detecting in the Cotswolds instead of at home. Why? Because they know that Britain is uniquely careless about protecting its buried heritage, that’s why!
A French promotional video for the event. The Cotswold scenery is beguiling, the music is lyrical and the commentary begins “Ah, L’Angleterre….” Quite right. So why not just visit, like normal respectful people?
Detectorists claim we want detecting banned. No. We just want them compelled to behave. That would benefit 65 million people. They ought to support us as the French have just benefited their whole population in a way British detectorists would hate. They’ve decreed that finds from land which has changed hands since 7 July now belong to the state! That makes Britain’s strategy of endless pleading for voluntary good behaviour look pretty foolish.
Clever, the French. They’re saying so you’re only in it for the history. Fine. Please keep your passion for history. But not the finds. They’re ours. British detectorists are desperately spinning that as a bad thing for France. See this from the European Council for Metal Detecting:`“Overall, this is quite clearly bad news for the metal detectorists in France, as this new law will severely restrict their ability to participate in the cultural life of the French society and prevent them from contributing to the discovery and protection of archaeological heritage”.
So they’ve made it very clear, they’ll only be giving something to society if they’re allowed to pocket the finds. How that’s “in it for the love of history” is a question the British Establishment seems unable to answer or even address. This very week Paris launched an 1,800 strong uniformed “incivility brigade” to reduce uncouth behaviour on the streets. Yet the only measure the British take to tackle uncouth and culture-harming behaviour in our fields is to pay 45 people to beg detectorists to behave, that’s all. Imagine! A civilised country with no statutory constraints upon mass culture-damaging. Who’d vote for that?
Paul Barford has exposed the plain truth behind the European Council for Metal Detecting’s “complaint”: “Well, of course the new law is not there to encourage a “will to search for artefacts”. The aim of heritage preservation is to reduce the (merely) Collection Driven Exploitation of the Archaeological Resource for private benefit and direct it to public benefit. Private heritage pocketing is detrimental to the interests of French (and European) society.”
Brexit has already ensured that the ECMD, because it was a British invention, is highly unlikely to be listened to in Europe and this latest demonstration of bad faith towards French heritage will hopefully ensure that’s the case. Blatant dishonesty doesn’t work at all.
PAS is staging yet another conference praising metal detecting. (Why, when they were set up to cope with it not promote it? A biscuit to anyone who knows!) It’s titled “Can Detectorists be Archaeologists?” The answer is simple: NO, for the nature of the activity precludes its participants from adhering to the archaeological practices, aims and ethics developed to maximise knowledge and minimise cultural loss which real archaeologists have to! Why would you need to stage a whole expensive conference to explain that, unless you were trying to pretend short changing the community is acceptable?
The title of the conference is all the more perplexing because the BM specifically told us recently that they’d endeavour to ensure “misinterpretation cannot be inferred from our use of language in the future” and for our part we highlighted Rule 1.4 of the Institute for Archaeology: “A member shall not undertake archaeological work for which he or she is not adequately qualified”. No, metal detecting can never be Archaeology for a multitude of reasons. It’s endlessly claimed by both metal detectorists and PAS that archaeologists shouldn’t be elitist. They’re right. But Archaeology should be.
If it’s not, and if it isn’t done right, it’s one of many inferior ways of interacting with the past of which metal detecting is merely one. By what right does our national museum, uniquely in the world, imply otherwise? The whole bloody farce reminds us of 2011 when Diana Friendship-Taylor, chair of Rescue, wrote witheringly of a previous similar attempt:“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.”
It’s exactly a year since PAS got the begging bowl out. They probably wish they hadn’t for only 22 people have contributed and the total is only £901. Not all of the contributors were detectorists (there’s us for a start!) and we reckon probably just 18 detectorists out of 10,000 have given anything at all.
Since the very existence of PAS is an acknowledgment that metal detecting does damage the archaeological record, the figures seem to be a particularly spectacular failure of an attempt to apply the “polluter pays” principle. Particularly so given that every detectorists at every farm gate declares their undying support for the PAS whereas 70% of them fail to report all their finds to PAS and 99.5% of their clubs don’t make reporting to PAS compulsory.
Actually, it’s not just unacceptable, it’s a scandal. On Thursday Simon Jenkins in the Guardian called for the restoration of war damaged monuments in Syria, saying “we can redress the murder of memories”. In Britain the murder of memories caused by the mass failure to report metal detecting finds is utterly impossible to redress. Instead, ten thousand British detectorists have deigned to mitigate it at a rate of only about 8p each per year.