Saturday, December 25, 2010

The Questions They Ask!

Some metal detecting bloke called P.A. Hewitt sent some comments to Candice Jarman's blog which the blog owner regards as "pertinent" (to what?) and "important", so Candice repeats them, in a post called: 'How about answering some questions Mr Barford!' (for somebody who claims to be a secretary in a legal firm, Mr Jarman's lack of a firm grasp on the punctuation of written English is puzzling). The fourth question is a renewed call for personal details, and querying the right of an observer to question or comment on what he sees happening. The other three questions are as follows:
1. Most finds by detectorists (and fieldwalkers) are made in soil disturbed by ploughing and are therefore NOT in archaeological context other than in very broad area. Indeed, many items found are probably isolated losses, dropped long ago, with no archaeological context anyway. So how are the finds 'decontextualised'?
Many finds made by artefact hunters are coming from them searching 'productive sites', the location of which they guard jealously (there would be no reason NOT to release findspot details of genuine isolated chance finds, searching the spot would find no others, yet detectorists guard ALL findspot information of all of their finds). The precise distribution of finds in ploughsoil is often the subject of archaeological study the bibliography of the works in English on the 'archaeology of the ploughsoil' which discusses this and which I put on the PAS Forum a while back seems not to have made much of an impact in the world of metal detecting. I hereby give the PAS permission to put this up as a standalone page or incorporated into a broader resource on the topic on their website. The finds are decontextualised by being taken from these complex patterns without the information on the distribution of other components of the pattern not fully documented because the finds are not "collectables" in the commercial sense. This is what makes the difference between what an artefact hunter does and the work of a true amateur archaeologist (some of the works in the above-cited bibliography were written for the latter).

2. How would Mr Barford propose to prevent the items within the ploughsoil from being further damaged by modern machinery and chemicals? I am told that coins found long ago were generally in much better condition than those found now, due to widespread use of fertiliser.
First of all, mere anecdote is not enough to "prove" that this effect is either general or significant. I question whether the evidence has been properly marshalled to achieve this - in the forthcoming book there is a whole chapter discussing the evidence for and against this based on published studies. It is concluded that this is a myth, but the reader will have to await the full presentation in the book. What I would "propose" doing in cases where a threat is recognised and there is no means (for example through the conservation-bases Stewardship Schemes) to prevent it, is to conduct the work in accordance with the procedure laid down in the English Heritage document "Our Portable Past". It is notable with regard these conservation schemes that there is discussion on metal detecting forums (for example the thread "No-Till farming methods") where these schemes themselves are presented as a threat to metal detecting. No ploughing means no artefacts brought to the surface from the erosion of buried archaeological sites! (let us recall too the recent discussions about the "depth advantage"). So it seems the "concerns" expressed about plough damage by metal detectorists is really just a front to allow them to continue hoiking stuff out of sites as they want.

3. When does Mr Barford propose that the archaeological fraternity will be able to bring into the national heritage the equivalent number of finds currently being recorded with the PAS (and the subsequent information it provides for research)?
Mr Barford proposes that getting decontextualised finds out of the ground is not the aim of (my part of) "the archaeological fraternity". It is not clear what Hewitt and Jarman understand by "research". Despite being 'recorded' in the PAS database, there are huge gaps for example in the documentation of the Crosby Garrett helmet which do not allow much detailed "research" to take place on it. The majority of the 800 or so "Treasure" finds dug up annually by Treasure hunters and now "brought into the national heritage", where are the full publications of the results of that "research", all the coin hoards with full inventories and die link details? The truth is that such research is NOT going on, except perhaps for individual select cases. Neither is there anywhere for it to be published in any detail. "Numbers" of course is not really the most important quality where data are concerned, reliability is a more important characteristic. How "reliable" are the data reported to the PAS by artefact hunters when we know that this can considerably increase their saleability?
It's hard to escape the opinion that Mr Barford would prefer artefacts to lie in the ground and never to be found! Further, where would the funding come from for archaeologists to excavate all these objects, write them up and conserve them etc?
Where is the money coming from NOW to get the finds found in uncontrolled digging by artefact hunters to be written up and conserved (how many metal detected finds from Britain in private hands are ever submitted to a trained conservator to stabilise, and under what conditions are they curated?). The whole point of conservation of a finite and fragile resource is exactly that, refrain from exploiting it away for short-term gain in favour of sustainable management and preventive conservation. According to the principle “Primum non nocere” yes, we would like the archaeological heritage left where it is when it is otherwise unthreatened, for future generations to deal with as they see fit, and not leave them an archaeological full of holes and wheelbarrow-loads of by-then totally decontextualised artefacts in the antiquities market.

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