Saturday, October 8, 2011

The White Side of "Metal Detecting"

The model that is propagated by the supporters of the PAS is that the awfully nice gentlemen with metal detectors are somehow doing archaeology a great benefit by taking artefacts out of the archaeological record with minimal attention to precise context so that they can be "recorded" by the Portable Antiquities Scheme "database" so everybody can look at pictures of them and read about them on their computers without getting off their backsides and going to a proper museum or reading any proper book about archaeology. The PAS is presented as a Scheme for recording artefacts, not protecting sites from being despoiled of collectable items.

Obviously it is in the interest of the PAS to persuade everyone - not least the public purse-string holders - that its doing a great job reaching all those "metal detectorists" willingly helping archaeology out by emptying archaeological sites all over the country of the more collectable items. They produce annual reports full of big numbers. The number of people that have visited their website, the number of children that have played the virtual metal-detecting game there. The number of "finders" that have brought finds for recording, the huge number of objects they have in their "database" as a result. What they do not say is what those people were doing on the website (looking for information to identify freshly dug up and unreported finds of their own which they want to sell on eBay maybe?). What they do not say is how many metal detectorists in the clubs, or at the commercial artefact hunting rallies they visited did not show their finds. What they have never studied is how large the collections of these people are and therefore what percentage of the finds they have removed in their years of artefact hunting are on record.

In the case of Wales, they have even incorporated into their database a separately-compiled database (of Iron Age and Roman Coins from Wales) ostensibly to make the "coverage fuller", but with the effect of making it look to those unaware of the source of these data as if many more "White detectorists" have been coming to the Scheme with their finds.

When supporters of the PAS bang on about the "benefits" of the "partnership" with artefact hunters, they have in mind these "white detectorists" and are assuming that what they can see emerging in and from the PAS database is by now the major part of what artefact hunters are removing from archaeological sites all over the country. Nothing, I would say after a number of years looking carefully at the evidence for this, could in fact be further from the truth.

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