Friday, October 7, 2011

The Common Greys in "Metal Detecting"

It is obvious that there can be no black-and-white. The Heritage Action Erosion Counter shows a shocking fact. the PAS are probably nowhere near the ideal target of mitigating archaeological information loss from the removal of archaeological material from sites all over the country by collectors. Quite apart from the all-too-frequent lack of detailed recorded observations of the exact context and interrelationships of the finds removed (without which they cease to be archaeological evidence and merely collectable geegaws), it is clear that the majority of recordable finds removed from the ground by "metal detectorists" in England and Wales do not make it to the PAS database. I made a while ago a graphic presentation of the shortfall in a post on my main blog (Thursday, 26 May 2011: From Cockspur Street to Coventry: What the British DCMS does not Want you to Think About
Let us consider [the number of finds recorded on the PAS database as represented by] the length of a chalk-line [...] along the Edgeware Road from Marble Arch. Let us say one centimetre represents one record on the PAS database. Our chalk line today would go from the foot of Marble Arch 443,085 cm to Kilburn Tube Station (Iverson Road, where co-incidentally I used to live for a while when a student). If we take the number of "objects" represented by those records, we come to somewhere like Cricklewood Road. So still in comfortable biking distance from Cockspur Street. Very impressive? Well its the combined work of many people over thirteen years and it has cost the Brits thirteen million quid in direct funding alone.

But... the Heritage Action Artefact Erosion Counter says the number of (records of) recordable finds removed from the archaeological record would be about 4,196,418 since the PAS started. How long a chalk line is that many centimetres? It is a line that starts at the foot of Marble Arch, runs up the Edgeware Road, past Watford, St Albans and ends somewhere on the south side of Luton, more or less at the distance between the end of the runway of Luton Airport and Marble Arch. That is one centimetre for every missing find. One centimetre for every recordable archaeological find deliberately removed for personal entertainment and profit from the archaeological record which is a common resource, and vanished without trace. A line from Cockspur Street to Luton Airport.

If it cost the Brits thirteen million pounds to get enough finds to get a line a little way up the Edgeware Road, how much would it really cost to get a scheme that would be coping with the rate of erosion to get a line as far as, say - St Albans, about three quarters of the way to Luton Airport?

Obviously, too much. So the answer most British archaeologists apparently adopt is to shrug their shoulders and say it's "better than nothing" and call it a "partnership". And the metal detectorists who've got all the stuff taken from between Cricklewood and Luton Airport are laughing.

Of course there are some who say the Heritage Action Artefact Erosion Counter gives a "false picture". They are right in two regards. The first is that it suggests we (so in other words, the PAS) actually know how many finds are taken, when - even after a thirteen-million-thirteen-year "partnership" with these takers of the past, the PAS simply does not. The Heritage Action Artefact Erosion Counter is a model, an estimate - but its the best we have. We have to ask by how much it would have to be "wrong" to make the figures acceptable. The second area where it is wrong however takes it the other way, because it takes the UK's population of active metal detectorists as a stable 10 000 (meaning slightly more than 8000 in the area covered by the PAS, which is the figure used in the Heritage Action Artefact Erosion Counter algorithm). I have been doing some thinking about that figure recently and while I feel it was correct (though a conservative estimate) for the period when the Counter was created, several pieces of evidence converge to suggest that the number of metal detector using artefact hunters in Britain has been growing at an annual rate of between 6 and 8% since that time. So the HAAEC should have been ticking away at quickening rate increasing by that amount each year, and it has not. The model is therefore an under-estimate of the number of finds now being lost annually through laissez-faire British policies concerning this activity.

Readers might be interested to know that the chalk line that represents the recordable finds lost to private collecting in England and Wales alone due to metal detecting from 1975 when the hobby really began to take off (one find: one centimetre) stretches from the north wall of Marble Arch to the outskirts of Coventry. But after throwing thirteen million quid at the problem, we only have a record of the ones as far as Kilburn tube station to show for this so-called "partnership".

The artefact hunters who do not show up on the radar as either "nighthawks" nor responsibly-co-operating at every step with the PAS (for example token reporters showing an odd item or two when confronted at a club meeting but with hundreds of unrecorded finds secreted away at home) are what I propose treating as the "grey" hobby, neither white nor black, but totally hidden from the public debate about the archaeological effects of artefact hunting in England and Wales. These are the "detectorists" that the supporters of the PAs really do not appreciate people talking about. They (and the scale of the phenomenon) are the weak link in the whole web of arguments that make up the portable antiquities scam.

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