Three weeks ago I took my Portable Antiquities Collecting and Heritage Issues temporarily offline as a result of threats to my family by a "metal detectorist" and a subsequent incident which the police are now investigating which coincided with a planned mass action by UK "metal detectorists" to try and get Google to close the blogger's account. The person responsible for these threats is a member of the forum "Detecting Wales" where three weeks ago he announced gleefully (http://www.detectingwales.com/index.php?topic=12007.0):
I would just like to announce tonight I have put an end to Paul Barford and his anti detecting blogs. [...] I think I'll change my name to 'Steve The Barford Slayer'This, and thus by extension the methods used to achieve this "feat" achieved full approval of the Welsh "metal detectorists" (artefact hunters and collectors) gathered on that forum, such as expressed in remarks like the following:
Good for you Steve - people like that get what they deserve in the end eh
aurevoir Pauly boy
well done, Steve. [...] Barking Barford Beaten!
I've always thought that if you're prepared to wait you will have the last laugh, so to speak. Last one I thought that about had a heart attack and dropped down dead age 39.
Steve, You know how I feel about the person in question - so well done [...] I am going to lock the thread now mate just to ensure there are no repercussions.That last one is from the list's moderator. The "repercussions" to which he refers presumably include any attempt to consider just what it is the Welsh "metal detectorists" have to hide from a blog that considers the wider context of artefact hunting and collecting activities in the context of "Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues". More to the point just what it is that gives them such a feeling of entitlement that for them the only right and proper reaction to an attempt at public debate is to try and force the polemicist offline by aggression and outright threats to him and his family of dire consequences if he does not stop.
In most countries of the world, people who use tools such as metal detectors to remove collectable and saleable artefacts from archaeological sites are condemned and prosecuted if caught. Most countries of the world recognise that the archaeological record is a finite, fragile and precious resource, not to be lightly squandered for personal gain and this is reflected in the legislation. Not so the United Kingdom, whose antiquities "preservation" laws have not advanced much beyond their pioneering Victorian form from 1882.
When "metal detecting" (artefact hunting) became popular in the 1970s it was rightly met in Britain with opprobrium. This changed with the setting up of the Portable Antiquities Scheme in 1997, and since then artefact hunting has been getting nothing but positive press from the English archaeological community. The Scheme has done much to shield a whole range of issues connected with portable antiquity collecting in the British Isles (and England and Wales in particular) from deeper discussion and scrutiny. It is the public attitudes engendered by the Portable Antiquities Scheme and those that support it that are responsible for the confidence with which artefact hunters like the "Detecting Wales" members mentioned above that they are in no way accountable to the British public for what they do.
The Portable Antiquities Scheme empowers artefact hunters (as pointed out by David Barwell) and encourages them to warn anyone concerned about the effects of what they are doing on the archaeological record to "get off our case" (Austin 2010, also here too).
Interestingly recent changes in the organization of the PAS as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review have led to PAS is facing a 15% reduction by 2014-15. One of the most significant features is the impact of devolution. It has been proposed to reduce the current contribution made by the Scheme to PAS in Wales, on the basis that these costs should be borne by the Welsh Assembly Government, through Museums Archives and Libraries Wales CyMAL or the National Museum Wales. In the texts below I would like to argue the case for abandoning the flawed PAS concept altogether in favour of other approaches to dealing with archaeological finds made by members of the public and the metal detecting problem in particular. If the PAS prop was removed from the hobby, it would have to do much more to justify its continued existence or face the consequences if it cannot. It would mean the hobby (and people who support the PAS) actually addressing the questions and issues now being raised by individuals such as myself or professor David Gill, until recently based in Swansea University. It is notable that when the latter was invited to conduct a forum discussion on the role of the PAS in the preservation of the archaeological record at the end of last year, the PAS itself refused to take part.