Friday, 19 September 2014

A few thoughts on the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS)

As an addendum to my previous post outlining a few changes that I would like to see in the way metal detecting is approached, I would urge the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), as a government organisation in the front line of the situation, to do a better job at getting the conservation message across. They rightly state: "Context is vital in archaeology in order to be able [to] understand past human activity. Archaeology is not simply about studying isolated objects. How these came to be where they were found, their relationship to other objects and stratigraphy (position in the ground), among other factors help build up a picture of the past as a whole."

Fine - but that statement is hidden in a small font among a lot of densely packed, badly presented and carelessly formatted text on a lesser page, and makes no detailed mention of the significance of artefacts in surface surveys. I would like to see that message displayed far more prominently - together with several of the points raised by the CBA on their page covering the topic.

There seems to be a common misconception that the mission of the PAS is to encourage and foster metal detecting for its own sake. It is not. The 'Aims and Objectives' of the PAS make it plain that the Scheme is intended as a 'partnership' "between finders and museums/archaeologists". In other words, the PAS offers a means whereby any members of the public who find objects of archaeological interest can contribute to a shared resource. Those who deliberately search for such objects as a dedicated hobby are only part of that and, in this case, the PAS is attempting to limit the potentially erosive impact of an amateur pastime by promoting best practice and harnessing any positive aspect the hobby may have in advancing "our understanding of the past".

I think the word 'partnership' is an unfortunate choice of vocabulary. I suspect the PAS meant the word to convey merely taking part in something but a large number of detectorists apparently interpret it as meaning far more: that they are equal to the trained professionals.

Sadly, what those professionals actually do seems to be utterly lost on the more braindead members of the hobby, many of whom are under the impression that 'archaeology' is just about digging up objects, that 'context' is just a matter of noting roughly where the objects were found, and that 'saving history' is just a race to shove the objects into museums as fast as possible. Labouring under that severe cerebral limitation, they easily jump to the conclusion that 'hey, archaeology is easy!' and may even resent those 'toffee-nosed academics' being paid to do it. It is then only a tiny step for them to regard their hobby not as something that may occasionally aid archaeology but as something that is in competition with it and, since detectorists may find more objects and shove them into museums faster, even superior to it. Thus, we witness the abysmal stupidity of claims such as that made by James Warr.

There are undoubtedly highly perceptive, thoughtful and archaeologically-aware detectorists out there but it is clear that a large proportion of them are anything but. As I said in my previous post, I would like to see the hobby limited or regulated in some way. Perhaps among the regulations should be a minimal requirement that anyone wishing to use a metal detector passes a basic test proving their understanding of what archaeology actually is exceeds that of a lobotomised baboon. In the meantime, the PAS faces an uphill struggle - and I would like to see them spend more time on explaining the pitfalls of the hobby and less time on condoning its sensationalisation.

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