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.

Conservation vs. Metal Detecting - Part Three

Never say never. I did conclude my last post on this topic by saying that was all I had to say on it. However, I should try to clarify any confusion caused by the final paragraph in my last post and I added this comment to Andy Baines's blog post ...

Sorry for my poor formatting. That last paragraph in my comment was not specifically aimed at you (perhaps I should have used 'they' as a pronoun instead of 'you') but at a huge proportion of metal detectorists in general, particularly those who like to portray the hobby unconditionally as a 'saving history' movement. It is THAT attitude that I think is misguided and I do feel many of the arguments used unreservedly to depict metal detectorists as magnanimous crusaders who selflessly toil away to help the public are largely 'bullshit'. Unless they have taken the trouble to learn and fully understand the effects of what they are doing within the discipline of archaeology and undertake detecting responsibly, preferably in coordination with trained professionals, they pursue their hobby purely for their own pleasure and, very often, in the hope of personal profit. And while there may be 'occasional exceptions' (some finds have been extremely beneficial in advancing our knowledge of the past), I suspect that overall the unaffiliated and unrestrained conduct of the hobby does far more harm than good. 
Yet again, you did not read my previous comments. No, I would not like to see a total ban on metal detecting - I'm inherently wary of too many government prohibitions and they very often backfire anyway - but I would like to see a change in the way metal detecting is portrayed in the media and elsewhere, a more realistic acknowledgement of the danger it poses to true archaeology and the principle of conservation instead of the current unqualified gushing over every find. 
And, since so many detectorists don't appear to have the common sense to recognise that danger themselves or simply don't care, I would like to see the hobby limited or regulated in some way. I gather some of the more responsible members of the hobby would like to see that too. 
One of my greatest concerns is the sheer scale of the hobby and the lack of restraint. As I said earlier, "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 supposing detectorists were never tempted to dig deeper, there needs to be a recognition that merely because artefacts are in topsoil or ploughed layers is not a carte blanche excuse to grab every single one of them - and there needs to be far fewer people doing that if the finite archaeological record is going to stand any chance of being more meaningfully interpreted in the future.  
I recently read one detectorist naively saying that future generations will thank them for digging up all the artefacts. No, they will curse them for it. A few items here and there are no big deal - and some finds undoubtedly point archaeologists and historians in the right direction - but a future in which museums are stacked with bits and bobs ripped from their context while almost nothing is still left intact where it could have meant so much more is not one I would relish. Those bits and bobs will just be bitter reminders of lost opportunities wrecked by the misguided generation of today.
After composing my comment yesterday, I was gobsmacked to read about another detectorist reinforcing the point I made in the first paragraph of my transcribed comment above. Defending his pastime, he stated, "My work is important to me ...". WORK? What, like collecting stamps or spotting trains? Get real, dude. It's a hobby.
(Since my original post, I have revised the first paragraph of my comment to clarify that truly responsible members of the hobby are excluded from my generalisations. 25/9/2014)

Wednesday 10 September 2014

Conservation vs. Metal Detecting - Part Two

Continuing on from my previous blog post about a debate on conservation, here is a copy of my latest comment sent to Andy Baines's blog ...

*NOW ANSWERED*? No, Andy. As I said, Paul Barford "answered your question in his very first reply" - 54 minutes after you asked it. It's just that you failed to realise it. A more accurate correction to your post title should read *INSTANTLY ANSWERED - NOW ACKNOWLEDGED*.

You found my reply "personal", "condescending", "derogatory"? It seems your ego is easily offended. While I simply shrugged off the withering sarcasm in your own pointed questions, you get upset at my accurate description of your points, not you, as "shallow and utterly unconvincing" without even a hint of sarcasm. I have no wish to offend you but please try to distinguish between criticism of your arguments and criticism of you.

"I am talking about detecting on areas which are not known sites of archaeological interest ..." 
There are many "areas which are not known sites of archaeological interest". The argument for conservation is that we do not know which places may turn out to be sites of archaeological interest in the future. As I said, why the frantic rush to dig up every bit of metal evidence that may have helped to interpret them? And, quite apart from potential excavations, why the frantic rush to destroy the traces used in surface surveys?

"... all my finds including non metalic finds are recorded, grid referenced, photographed, the landowner is then informed/shown and the items are then handed over to the relevant authorities be it my local museum or in most cases to the TTU in Edinburgh." 
That is commendable - but it is still the opposite of conservation. However you may try to justify your actions; ultimately, you are digging things up for your own pleasure. I am not convinced that society needs yet more hundreds of crudely dug-up and largely decontextualised Anglo-Saxon brooches and Roman buckles cluttering up museum display cases or shoved away in storage; those of us who genuinely appreciate history would much rather have a few sites with enough evidence left intact to allow a more meaningful, more intellectual interpretation.

"Problem there is when is the right time if archaeological and conservational techniques are constantly improving at what stage do we say to ourselves this is the point to do it and not wait for say another year, ten years, or even a hundred years ..." 
But you are NOT "doing it", are you? Crudely and selectively digging up all the metal bits is largely destroying evidence that may have been vital if any archaeological exploration is eventually done.

"... in hindsight should for example the Mary Rose have been lifted, could it not have been protected on the sea bed at the time ..." 
No, the lifting of the Mary Rose came within what is described as an emergency 'rescue operation'. There were fears that that area of the Spithead seabed was about to be deep-dredged to create a new shipping channel into Portsmouth. There was also the threat of amateur divers destroying the integrity of the site while scavenging for bits of treasure and souvenirs. Some of those divers may have deluded themselves into thinking they were 'saving history' - sound familiar? 
Excellent explanations of why the old "topsoil/ploughed" carte blanche argument fails can be found on Paul Barford's blog (just one example of many).

" didnt mention PAS in your intial post." 
Why would I need to? The whole point of both Andy's post and the post he was responding to on Paul Barford's blog was about almost 1 million objects recorded by the PAS. I don't want to upset your ego again but it would help the credibility of your arguments if you took the trouble to find out what you are commenting on before you comment.

"Have a nice day at the rock festival, try and avoid the head banging Dave." 
Thanks. I did actually say "for a few days" - a minor point but again, please read what you are commenting on. The only head banging I'm doing seems to be against a brick wall trying to get you guys to read. :) 
Go ahead and do metal detecting to your heart's desire. I can't stop you. It's all perfectly legal in England and Wales under minimal conditions. But at least spare us all the bullshit and be honest about it: it's just a selfish treasure hunt you pursue for your own pleasure, whether you give your finds to museums or not. Please don't try to delude yourself or try to convince others that you are somehow altruistically 'saving history' for everyone else. You're not. There may be occasional exceptions but more often than not, you're wrecking much of the evidence of history just to satisfy your own need for entertainment. As I said, that is NOT conservation. 
David (not "Dave" - nor, for that matter, some cryptic four-letter acronym hiding my real identity)
That's really all I have to say on that topic. Now to move onto other things in my next post ...


UPDATE: Oops! Did I say "Now to move onto other things in my next post"? Scrub that! Here is Part Three.

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 ...

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.

Thursday 4 September 2014

British history revamped by London road works during the 1970s

Now a season of rock festivals and other general summer debauchery has abated, it's time to add a little to my blog ...

A couple of "Roman" lamps from "c.100 A.D." being sold on eBay caught my eye: (ending 4 September) (ending 6 September)

Both are described as "British found in London during 1970s road works". Since both lamps are actually types made in northern Syria during the 5th - 6th centuries AD, the finds could add a whole new exciting dimension to British history. Are they evidence of an early attempt to found a Syrian monastery in darkest Maida Vale?

Sadly, such musings are doomed by the harsh reality that lamps of this type are not found in Britain until brought back from the Levant as souvenirs in modern times, typically by either tourists or dealers rather than Byzantine monks. It is of course possible that workmen involved in the "1970s road works" inadvertently blasted through the basement stockroom of a London antiquities dealer in that era of black-outs and power cuts - oops! - but the reputation of the eBay seller suggests another reason for the sensational claim.

The seller is the infamous "Saxby's Coins". Even he seems to balk at trying to pass off ancient Greek, Egyptian and Chinese items as having come from an English meadow but he has no hesitation in describing almost everything else he sells as "British found". Despite the fact that much of his stock appears to derive from metal detecting on the European mainland, such as this "c.1450 A.D British Found Medieval Period Hammered Type European Silver Coin" (actually minted at Elbing in Poland and clearly dated 1632), the seller is apparently convinced that pretending it has all been discovered in the UK will enhance the price.

The stories weaved to launder 'high-end' antiquities are old news but these lamps demonstrate just how far some dealers are prepared to go in fabricating the provenance of even minor items. Not content with a mere "British found", it seems this seller has happily invented a place (London), a time (1970s) and an event (road works) to increase plausibility.

Just how much faith can we place on mere hearsay, whether it is a dealer's undocumented claim of provenance when selling an item or a person's undocumented claim of a findspot and circumstances when getting an item recorded in the PAS database?

There is much to be said in favour of Elizabeth Marlowe's contention (Shaky Ground: Context, Connoisseurship and the History of Roman Art. Bloomsbury Academic, 2013) that only 'grounded' (archaeologically documented) antiquities form a truly reliable basis for scholarship; those which are 'ungrounded' (lacking archaeological confirmation) can be risky and, if the stories attached to them are simply taken at face-value, may be thoroughly misleading.



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