Sunday, October 9, 2011

The Archaeological Heritage Belongs to us All

The archaeological record is a record of the history of all who lived in a given area in the past and as such belongs to all of us. It is our story. It is also a finite and fragile resource which common sense indicates that if we value it, should be sustainably managed for the benefit of us all and also (perhaps primarily) future generations and should not therefore be squandered. The European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage (Revised)(Valetta, 16.I.1992) talks (Article 1) of the need to protect the archaeological heritage as a source of the European collective memory and as an instrument for historical and scientific study. It reqires states parties to "prevent any illicit excavation or removal of elements of the archaeological heritage", "ensure that archaeological excavations and prospecting are undertaken in a scientific manner" and "ensure that excavations and other potentially destructive techniques are carried out only by qualified, specially authorised persons". Obviously artefact hunting stripping sites of collectable items for entertainment and profit does not by any stretch of the imagination coincide with what the Convention has in mind. In particular the Convention makes specific mention of the need to make the use of metal detectors and any other detection equipment "subject to specific prior authorisation", whenever used for searching for archaeological material. This is in order to restrict "the transfer of elements of the archaeological heritage obtained from uncontrolled finds or illicit excavations".

The use of the camouflage term "metal detectorists" obscures the fact that they are artefact hunters whose aim is the selection of artefacts for their personal (ie private) collections. In removing them from sites they are destroying the contextual information used by the archaeologist, by ripping them out of the ground they are destroying the historic environment which is the heritage of us all, and by secreting both artefacts and finds away they are preventing them ever being used for the benefit of all through the proper methodological study of the sites and landscapes from which they came. This is information that can never be retrieved.

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