Friday, 2 June 2017

A Different Interest in the Past: Artefact Hunting


On a recent trip to Cambridge, England I filled my car boot up with books and one of the ones I bought back was the third edition of Clive Gamble's 'Archaeology the Basics' which in general I liked. Apart, that is, from pages  48-9, where the index told me I'd find the bit on 'metal detecting'. This is part of chapter two (pp 25-56), 'how many archaeologies are there?' This is a totally valid question and compactly, informatively and competently answered. Well, almost. What on earth is the problem with British archaeologists that they really cannot get their heads round a simple issue like artefact hunting?

Part of the problem is how we define archaeology. Gamble on page 2 gives his own one ("archaeology is the study of the past through materials and material remains. It is about objects, landscapes and what we make of them"). Well, obviously (given the question posed by Chapter two), no one definition can cover everything, so I'm not going to quibble (wot about standing buildings though?)  suffice to say in my own definition, I'd have somewhere 'by archaeological methods'. That begs the question just what that means of course, but what is clear is that (for example) the 'looks like, so must be' method of Chariots of the Gods/Von Daniken (missing from the index) manner of inference is not an archaeological method that I would find acceptable. In the same way, it is my opinion (and one that I am prepared to argue on the basis of familiarity with what collectors do) that antiquitism (artefact fondling/collecting) is not archaeology.

So anyway, Gamble disagrees it seems. Here's what he wrote on page 48:
and here's the end on page 49:

I would question to what extent collection driven exploitation of the archaeological record can be considered 'community archaeology'. Is it when it takes place in Isin in Iraq as well as Islip? I really do not see why there is tyhis disconnect between what is happening in other countries (which we call 'looting') and the same stripping out of collectable items when it happens in England. Is it OK because the laws in England are crap? Collecting of coins and brooches stripped out of a site is no more archaeology than collecting costume barbie dolls is ethnography./Please anyone who disagrees, show me where I am wrong.

Secondly the evidence for the relationship between artefact hunters/collectors and archaeologists still 'growing'  is simply not there. In fact, by the admission of the PAS itself (now) there is still minimal recording of non-Treasure artefacts. The majority are pocketed and sold off on eBay with no record at all being made. I do not see this as any 'growing relationship', much less any kind of 'partnership'.  I think we are all being taken for a ride.

 Thirdly, it is just false to say that the reason for the looting problem anywhere is 'the lack of a modern Treasure law'. I'd like to see Professor Gamble argue that creating 'modern Treasure laws' in Egypt, Guatemala, Bulgaria, Crimea, Italy, Greece, Syria, Iraq or any other country where collection-driven exploitation is destroying sites like Archar, Apamea and Dura Europos. Sorry, but that is just nuts. What we need (and right now) are modern laws regulating the flow of artefacts onto and through the antiquities market, not laws that liberalise looting - making the problem worse. Also the British Treasure Act is (I think we can all agree) absolutely useless as a means of regulating the exploitation of the archaeological record for collectables and I really do not see the archaeologist's motivation for pretending it is otherwise.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme was not set up to 'provide archaeological support for [artefact collecting]'. That is what it does of course, and again, I fail to see whatyany archaeologist should be complacent about the distortion of the original mission, which was to instil 'best practice' - something it has consistently failed to for for twenty years. The PAS was set up to support archaeology, but has instead joined the Dark Side by declaring a 'partnership' with collectors (and no, professor Gamble if you looked at a few metal detecting forums, you'd see that it is far from the truth that 'the two sides can work together' - and what kind of 'work' is building up a personal artefact collection?).

Fifthly, and this one really takes the biscuit. The professor of archaeology in a top British university says that through working with the PAS and its Finds Liaison Officers, 'detectorists who reported (sic) their finds were (sic) rewarded for their discoveries at full market value'. Eh?  That a US law professor or a simple-minded US lobbyist or dealer can confuse the PAS with the Treasure Act is bad enough, but that an archaeology professor gets it so wrong... unbelievable. And this, folks, is the book's third edition, it was first published in 2001 with exactly the same text.  As a point of fact, Treasure rewards (ransoms) are not paid for discovering the find, they are paid for handing them over, They are a purchase - otherwise the find returns to the finder and landowner to sell off on the market (or whatever).  The British public is forced by this rubbish law to buy back its own common heritage.

Sixthly, Gustav Kossinna assiduously produced distribution maps. Most other archaeologies have gone on beyond those simplistic tools. Not so the object-centred PAS-retro-archeologie. That is because PAS does not produce real archaeological data, and mapping findspots of specific types of emblemic artefacts is about the limit of what one can in fact do with these 'data'.

Treasure cases are reported by their finders not because artefact hunters 'see a benefit' in doing so, but because that is what they are legally obliged to do (rather like if they run somebody down in their car on their way to go metal detecting). If the number of Treasure cases reported is rising it is clearly because on the watch of the PAS, despite all the nonsense about instilling best practice, the number of people taking up artefact hunting and collection is steeply increasing in the UK. Professor Gamble sees this as a good thing and an example of 'community archaeology' and 'engagement'. It instead represents a totally avoidable deliberate trashing of increasingly big areas of the archaeological record with pathetically little effective mitigation by proper recording. It is an archaeological  heritage crisis on a scale no less tragic than what is happening in Syria under ISIL (except in Britain the archaeologists watch it happening with folded arms and smiles on their faces). Professor Gamble sees it as 'agreeing about Treasure'. I am afraid I cannot see it like that, and I do not think there should be any 'agreement' (from the archaeological community and a properly informed public) to this sort of thing.

An eighth point is that with regard the closing sentence of that brief presentation, I would have liked to see Professor Gamble paying more attention to what the differences in 'interests in the past' actually are between the archaeologist and the collector of geegaws. The answer to that question is fundamental to whether the collector exploiting the archaeological record as a source of nice things to grab for himself can in fact pass on information which is of real archaeological use (apart from atavistic dot-distribution maps).


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