Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Two wrongs make a right - apparently

On a metal detecting blog by Andy Baines, someone named "Steve" has made several comments (e,g. here and here) claiming that some modern archaeologists, constrained by extremely tight cost and time restrictions, typically strip off the topsoil and subsoil by mechanical excavator so that they can concentrate on earlier levels in the limited time available. He concludes that this method means that many "items relevant to the interpretation of the archaeological landscape [are] now lost to the record".

I agree broadly with his conclusion - but I'm not quite sure what point he is trying to make by posting those comments on a metal detecting blog. Excavation, as opposed to non-intrusive field surveys, is an intrinsically destructive process but circumstances vary widely, depending on such factors as the aim of the project, whether it is in an urban or rural environment, the type of landscape, whether the project is research or developer-led (rescue or salvage), and so on. It should also be borne in mind that excavation is only one facet of archaeology. The removal of topsoil in the very limited area of an excavation (one trench is typically only 20 square metres) on one site does not detract from the fact that the topsoil may be of vital importance at another location, the fact that noting features such as pottery scatters in the initial fieldwalking may have alerted archaeologists to the site in the first place, or the fact that field surveys are often highly significant without the need for any excavation at all.

Is "Steve" saying that because archaeologists are sometimes forced by cost and time restraints to pay less heed to unstratified loose finds (which may be irrelevant to the aim of the project anyway) in favour of concentrating resources on examining vital stratified evidence in certain excavations, all archaeologists should simply throw in the towel (or trowel so to speak) and encourage untrained metal detectorists to run rampant and dig up artefacts to their heart's content?

It seems a necessary "evil", the pragmatic solution in certain cases of at least conducting some archaeology rather than none at all within the constrained parameters, is being used to justify a far greater and unnecessary "evil", an unhindered and selective grabfest of metal items in the archaeological record elsewhere.

"Steve" has said nothing about responsibility and moderation, nor has he mentioned the drawback of the selective nature of a detector or its widespread abuse. Metal detecting may be of great value in the right circumstances but to promote it without any qualifier by using the bare information that topsoil is often removed in the very limited area of archaeological excavations is disingenuous and misleading.

3 comments:

detectorbloke said...

HiHi, I'm trying to look into responsibility and metal detecting over on my blog, have linked yours on mine. As to Steve perhaps its more a case of what both Archie's and Tekkies could do better as discussed on some of the more moderate forums.

As to what the comment is doing on a metal detecting site then maybe there is a gap in the market for an archeology and metal detecting combined blog as it seems they are either

Paul Barford said...

The problem is that "Steve" has not really got what the discussion is about. I really do not know why it is being presented as some great ('factual") discovery that excavations produce spoil heaps.

What is the (non-)issue is what the difference in research strategy and intended aims of an excavation and surface survey (or standing building survey). What we have here is a typical straw man argument advanced by people who've no real idea what they are talking about and no cognitive apparatus to analyse the one-sided claims advanced.

A "metal detector and combined archaeology blog", yes there was one once, run by the archaeological outreach organization, the Portable Antiquities Scheme. It did not really work, it only revealed that there was no common ground, so they scrapped it.

detectorbloke said...

'Either or' i meant :)

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