Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Conservation vs. Metal Detecting - Part One

When Paul Barford lamented the fate of the almost one million artefacts recorded by the PAS ("Where have Eleven Million Objects Gone?", 15 August 2014), Andy Baines, a metal detectorist, questioned where Barford would prefer the artefacts to be: "In the ground still or in a storage container? In a museum back office filling cabinet?" Barford replied by listing a few examples of conservation issues and pointedly asked, "in somebody's ephemeral collection, or still where they were before the poachers came along?"

I think the meaning in Barford's reply was mind-blowingly clear to most people but it flew over Baines's head and, thinking his question had not been answered, he created a post on his own blog ("The question that a conservationist cannot answer", 15 August 2014). Understandably somewhat exasperated, Barford then carefully explained his position in detail.

I also had a go myself at trying to explain Barford's reply to Andy Baines ...
Paul answered your question in his very first reply.  
Elephant tusks are best left on the elephant - where they form part of an endangered species - rather than brutally cut off and carted away into the ivory trade, leaving the elephant dead. Keep destroying elephants like that and you'll eventually run out of elephants. 
Wild bird eggs are best left in the nest - where they form part of an ecosystem - rather than picked out and carted away into a display box, leaving the birds without their offspring. Keep destroying eggs like that and you'll eventually run out of those birds. 
And so on ... 
Ancient artefacts are best left "in the ground" - where they form ONLY ONE PART of a WHOLE assemblage of assorted evidence - rather than selectively dug up and carted away into some unknown private collection, leaving the other evidence denuded. Keep destroying evidence like that and you'll eventually run out of sites that can be meaningfully interpreted.

"They are buried many inches underground at no benefit to anyone until they are discovered ..." 
The mere DISCOVERY of artefacts is only a tiny part of the process. They need to be examined in the stratigraphic context of the site as a whole, in relation to structural and other remains, other objects such as pottery shards, and many types of subtle evidence that require expertise to analyse. In most cases, the only "benefit to anyone" that you will achieve by just selectively ripping the metal bits out of the ground will be to have yet more decontextualised baubles to gawp at. The site itself will have been robbed of much of its evidence and the potential to add to our knowledge of history is likely to have gone forever. 
conserve (verb): Protect from harm or destruction.
Someone posting as "Anonymous" but signed as "KPVW" also commented on Baines's blog. I then replied to that comment ...

KPVW, 
I'm sure the points you raised were well-intentioned but even as a general member of the public, an historian rather than either an archaeologist or a detectorist, I find them shallow and utterly unconvincing. 
The old "topsoil/ploughed" carte blanche argument fails on at least two points. Firstly, it fails to recognise the importance of field surveys, etc. Secondly, no matter what archaeological practice is now or was in the past, it fails to acknowledge that techniques used by future generations are likely to be very different (and far more sophisticated). Do you really believe archaeology will remain exactly the same in fifty, a hundred or two hundred years time? I suspect future archaeologists will look back at the methods used today and shudder. 
One third of Pompeii and two thirds of Herculaneum are still unexcavated. The reason is not solely one of cost but, more importantly, a recognition that archaeological and conservational techniques are constantly improving, and the areas are best left buried in the meantime for future generations to explore with superior technology and methods.  
I don't think anyone is in favour of leaving everything in the UK undiscovered forever but my comment was phrased with a "rather than" qualifier. I believe that artefacts are indeed better left buried in the ground rather than only the metal bits selectively dug out and the archaeological record irretrievably eroded. I doubt that "every field in this country will be examined by a qualified archaeologist" any time soon but it would be nice if the fields that ARE examined still have a few scraps of evidence left.  
Apart from situations where land is genuinely threatened by immediate development or whatever (the danger posed by chemical fertilisers appears to be largely an urban myth [or conveniently somewhat exaggerated]), why the frantic rush to dig up every bit of metal that has already lain in the ground for hundreds of years? The alarmist excuses to do so sound like they derive from a selfish 'sod future generations, I want the goodies now' motive.

"... that is your assumption that not one find is ever recorded." 
Huh? I assume nothing of the kind. We're discussing finds in the PAS database; ALL the finds are recorded by definition. But do you seriously think that merely keeping a record of where something was dug up is always enough? What I am saying is that regardless of whether the findspot of the metal item has been recorded (even with coordinates), its precise relationship to OTHER evidence (including otherwise meaningless traces) is likely to have been lost. And we all know just how fragile that evidence can often be. The preservation of context is often vital to a proper understanding; my experience with projects such as the Mary Rose made that abundantly clear. 
I don't think anyone could object to chance surface finds - be they metallic, "worked flints, pottery or other non metalic items". Properly recorded, such finds can be of enormous value and the finders are to be applauded. But let's be honest, a huge proportion of the finds recorded in the PAS database were searched for deliberately by people using a metal detector - and it is those that cause concern.  
Hobbyist metal detecting is largely incompatible with the aims of archaeology. Limited in both its goal and methodology by its very nature, it is a targetted object-centric approach that typically ignores the integrity of the archaeological record as a whole. I understand the thrill of finding something and, under certain conditions, I am not against metal detecting if carried out responsibly - but I am convinced that one of the most vital facets of acting responsibly in any pursuit that may threaten a fragile resource (whether it's bird eggs, wildlife or the archaeological record) can be summed up in a single word: moderation. Even if every item really were recorded, the prospect of thousands of untrained and largely misguided amateurs sprawled over England and Wales selectively digging up thousands of ancient metal artefacts as fast as they can grab them is more than a little disconcerting to those of us who value the evidence of history. That is NOT conservation. Not by a long shot. It is the exact opposite.
Andy Baines responded that he now understood the views of a conservationist but did not agree with them. Fair enough. He added, "If amateur metal detecting was so bad and we were destroying so much archaeological history then surely there would be uproar ...". I pointed out that merely because metal detecting had not caused a public "uproar" did not mean it was harmless ...
Bear in mind that public "uproar" is not always an accurate barometer of what is right or wrong. Most people were perfectly happy with things like the ivory trade, egg collecting, uprooting bluebells and catching butterflies until they were eventually made aware of the downside to something that seemed innocent. Sometimes it takes a very long time for the general public to realise that things they take for granted are not always as simple and wholesome as they may seem.
I mentioned that I was off to a rock festival for a few days but, in the meantime, I did suggest that he might want to think about changing the title of his blog post. On my return, I found that he had added the words "*NOW ANSWERED*" to his title and that "KPVW" had added another comment. Since blogs by metal detectorists have a reputation for being somewhat ephemeral sometimes, I have posted my response on my own blog - in Part Two.

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