Friday, October 7, 2011

But Don't They Recover Wonderful Objects ?

One of the arguments often brought out in favour of the PAS is that it has a huge "database" with lots of wonderful objects that members of the public can look at and study without having to get out of their armchair and go to a museum.

Maybe it does. But then, so does a private database set up by metal detectorists without any PAS help (UKDFD). If we just want to "look at old things" on the Internet, what is the difference? The main one is that one of the databases cost everyone thirteen million pounds to compile, the other - with more than enough artefacts to fill an evening or two ogling artefacts - cost everybody not a penny.

There is also a huge mass of artefacts found by "metal detectorists" available online for free. it's called ebay. The exhibited items are constantly changing, imaginatively or mysteriously described, and moreover all for sale. You too can not only look at "a piece of history" on the internet, for only a few pounds you can "hold it in your hand" at home.

The problem is that no matter how "responsibly" an artefact hunter reported the finds seen on these online collections, their removal from the original patterning which they formed in the ground without proper informed and methodological recording of that patterning destroys information. In any other country this would be called "looting" and condemned. The English try to make a virtue of the piecemeal destruction of the archaeological record.

The English say it's all the other countries that are "getting it wrong" - over on the continent they call "metal detecting", "the English disease" and the database full of objects hoiked from archaeological contexts is the most visible symptom of the scale this disease is eroding the tissue of Britain's archaeological record.

Archaeology is only the search for glittering single artefacts in Indiana Jones films. Maybe the supporters of the PAS among English archaeologists see themselves this way. The truth is that world archaeology has come a long way from the Raiders of the Lost Ark, and if England is dragging behind in the intellectual mires of artefactual fetishism, they need no longer drag Welsh archaeology along with them down the same dead-end path.

A Roman leopard cup discovered in Monmouthshire and reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) in 2003. Image: PAS

Vignette: The Abergavenny Leopard cup (Image is the copyright of the National Museums and Galleries of Wales, Museum Journal)

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