Monday, 31 March 2014

Never say never: Will most looted antiquities always be undetectable?

Adverbs conveying an infinite length of time, such as "forever", "always" and "never", are perhaps among the most abused words in the English language. Although the words occasionally have a literal application, they are very often used merely rhetorically or without any real thought about their actual meaning.

The concept of "never" can also be an unwise assumption. Many owners of antiquities take comfort in the belief that even if their items were looted, unless those items appear in incriminating evidence (such as the Medici or Becchina archives, or other documented sources), their illicit origins will never be detected.

But the word "never" here takes no account of the rapid pace of advances in technology and methodology, and their application in fields such as archaeology, anthropology and forensic science. Scientific dating methods, for instance, progressed immensely in the 20th century; since dendrochronology was developed during the first half of that century, the technique of radiocarbon dating was added to the arsenal in the 1940s and procedures such as thermoluminescence (TL) dating, archaeomagnetic dating and racemisation dating joined it during the 1960s. With the continuing development of dating methods and their alliance with further headway in fields such as geophysics and soil science, it is far from unrealistic to foresee a time in the future when it may be possible to determine not only in what region an artefact was buried but also how long it has been UNburied, i.e. the length of time that has elapsed since it was released from an environment compositionally different to that of the atmosphere (a typical soil, for example, is relatively low in oxygen and high in carbon dioxide).

In that event, scientists would be able to establish with some degree of probability in a lot of cases both where an artefact was excavated and when it was excavated. And thus the illicit origins of many looted antiquities would indeed be detected, regardless of whether the looting was documented in incriminating evidence or not.

It's all hypothetical at present of course - but the thought may spur buyers of antiquities to be less complacent about acquiring items that may have been looted. As Gandhi once said, "The future depends on what we do in the present".

Friday, 28 March 2014

Nazi War Diggers - entertainment?

National Geographic Channels International (NGCI) has ordered a four-part series thoughtfully called "Nazi War Diggers", which follows a group of amateur detectorists as they hastily dig up bodies of soldiers who died on the Eastern Front. Many people (just one example) have expressed their horror at both the unprofessional way the bodies are treated and the tasteless exploitation of the activity for entertainment.

Feeling a bit sorry for the besieged NGCI, I've quickly knocked up a draft flyer (shown above) to help their publicity campaign. Please feel free to share.

Crimean Quandary

What do you do when you need to return a loan back to the place you borrowed it from only to find you're no longer quite sure who owns it? According to The Art Newspaper, the objects in a “The Crimea - Gold and Secrets of the Black Sea” exhibition at the Allard Pierson Museum in Amsterdam are on loan from five Ukrainian museums, including four in the Crimean peninsula. But after the recent transfer of power in Crimea from Ukraine to Russia, the Dutch museum is not entirely clear which authority the ancient jewellery and armour should be returned to when the exhibition ends in August.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Opinions and Qualifications - Update

Peter Tompa has left this reply to my post ...

David, thank you for your comment, but the question is not whether metal detectorists do some damage, but rather is it is serious damage, and, if s, whether that is outweighed by all the information they have recovered. I have no doubt archaeologists under contract with countries like Greece and Italy will spout the views of their cultural bureaucracies or that there may be some British naysayers, but even archaeologists of great stature like Lord Renfrew have recognized the merits of PAS and the Treasure Act. 
As for Mr. Barford's credentials, the issue is whether he is a real archaeologist or not. Perhaps he can post his CV which will show how active he really is in the field. It's my understanding that he works largely as a translator for UNESCO and the like..

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Peter, the point is that the degree of damage caused by metal detecting is unclear; some British archaeologists believe it is enormous while others believe it is limited. All agree that damage is caused; whether that is "outweighed by all the information they have recovered" is a moot point. A great deal of information has also undoubtedly been forever lost. Many archaeologists concur with the CBA view that it is often simply "better to leave the evidence [in the ground] for future generations to investigate with better techniques and with better-informed questions to ask". We've only reached the 21st Century so far; hopefully we have loads of centuries ahead. Apart from situations where land is threatened by immediate development (the danger posed by chemical fertilisers is largely an urban myth), why the frantic rush?

To some extent, the PAS is a pragmatic solution to the problem of metal detecting, a form of "damage limitation". In that respect, it has been moderately successful - a proportion of detectorists are truly responsible and aid archaeology - but it does not erase the fact that the problem exists. Nor does it alleviate the damage done by a large percentage of detectorists who do not bother to use the PAS at all. Only around 10% of metal detectorists who do use the PAS waive their rights to a reward for their finds, a statistic suggesting that many are really in it for financial gain rather than an altruistic contribution to archaeological knowledge.

Spare me the nonsense about "Mr. Barford's credentials". I addressed your odious but transparently absurd attempt at character assassination in my blog post.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Opinions and Qualifications

Peter Tompa, a lawyer lobbying on behalf of American coin dealers, has made the barbed statement that "Real archaeologists without an agenda have acknowledged for some time that amateur metal detectorists do little real damage to the archaeological record". Paul Barford, the object of his scorn, has pointed out that in fact "real archaeologists" in many countries have claimed the precise opposite. Nor are they alone. In Britain too, no less a personage than Dr Mike Heyworth, Director of the Council for British Archaeology, has expressed concern at the "huge amount of damage" sometimes caused by metal detecting.

Indeed, on the CBA website, Dr Heyworth advises those who want to buy a metal detector and seek treasure that "there are reasons why you should think again". The text echoes Barford's frequent observations that rather than digging objects out, it is often "better to leave the evidence [in the ground] for future generations to investigate with better techniques and with better-informed questions to ask" and that in "some parts of the country [...] top-soils are thin, and archaeological remains may be close to the surface. Even objects apparently adrift in plough-soil have an archaeological setting".

Having massively failed in his attempt to imply that Barford is alone in his opinions, Tompa then goes on to question Barford's "qualifications" to state them (a persistent tactic in his mission to undermine those who express opinions opposed to his own).

Paul Barford is a published archaeologist who has specialised in the study of looting for over twenty years, has written a forthcoming book on the subject, has studiously kept abreast of every new development in the topic, and is clearly very well informed. Whether you or I agree with every opinion he states, his "qualifications" to state them are not in any doubt. To turn the specious tactic back on the accuser, I have to wonder what exactly are Tompa's own "qualifications" to give an "expert" opinion.

Me? I'm just an interested bystander with a passion for history - but I have opinions too. Tompa has said that my response to one of his statements was "rude". Well, I'll make a deal. If he stops posting silly statements that insult everyone's intelligence, I'll stop ridiculing them.

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Update here.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Two wrongs make a right - apparently

On a metal detecting blog by Andy Baines, someone named "Steve" has made several comments (e,g. here and here) claiming that some modern archaeologists, constrained by extremely tight cost and time restrictions, typically strip off the topsoil and subsoil by mechanical excavator so that they can concentrate on earlier levels in the limited time available. He concludes that this method means that many "items relevant to the interpretation of the archaeological landscape [are] now lost to the record".

I agree broadly with his conclusion - but I'm not quite sure what point he is trying to make by posting those comments on a metal detecting blog. Excavation, as opposed to non-intrusive field surveys, is an intrinsically destructive process but circumstances vary widely, depending on such factors as the aim of the project, whether it is in an urban or rural environment, the type of landscape, whether the project is research or developer-led (rescue or salvage), and so on. It should also be borne in mind that excavation is only one facet of archaeology. The removal of topsoil in the very limited area of an excavation (one trench is typically only 20 square metres) on one site does not detract from the fact that the topsoil may be of vital importance at another location, the fact that noting features such as pottery scatters in the initial fieldwalking may have alerted archaeologists to the site in the first place, or the fact that field surveys are often highly significant without the need for any excavation at all.

Is "Steve" saying that because archaeologists are sometimes forced by cost and time restraints to pay less heed to unstratified loose finds (which may be irrelevant to the aim of the project anyway) in favour of concentrating resources on examining vital stratified evidence in certain excavations, all archaeologists should simply throw in the towel (or trowel so to speak) and encourage untrained metal detectorists to run rampant and dig up artefacts to their heart's content?

It seems a necessary "evil", the pragmatic solution in certain cases of at least conducting some archaeology rather than none at all within the constrained parameters, is being used to justify a far greater and unnecessary "evil", an unhindered and selective grabfest of metal items in the archaeological record elsewhere.

"Steve" has said nothing about responsibility and moderation, nor has he mentioned the drawback of the selective nature of a detector or its widespread abuse. Metal detecting may be of great value in the right circumstances but to promote it without any qualifier by using the bare information that topsoil is often removed in the very limited area of archaeological excavations is disingenuous and misleading.

Looting at Pompeii - just a tiny tip of a vast iceberg

David Gill, Professor of Archaeological Heritage at University Campus Suffolk, has noted "reports in the Italian news media that a fresco of Apollo and Artemis has been damaged and [the section depicting] Artemis removed from ... the House of Neptune ... at Pompeii".

Hopefully, this fragment stolen from such a famous and well-documented site will soon be recovered but the incident is a stark reminder of the brazen looting that occurs on archaeological sites throughout the world on a daily basis. Since many of those sites are far less famous or unknown - and the fragments stolen long before the sites had a chance to be documented - the likelihood of the recovery of those fragments is next to nil and we have all been denied a rare opportunity to analyse the contextual evidence of history.

It is of course a vicious circle: the more buyers are happy to purchase artefacts without a properly recorded provenance, the more looters are encouraged to steal and the damage will continue unabated. The looting at Pompeii is merely a tiny, starkly visible tip of a vast, largely invisible iceberg.

Monday, 17 March 2014

D'oh, how do you solve the problem of undocumented artefacts?

Peter Tompa, a lawyer lobbying on behalf of American coin dealers, bewails that proposed emergency restrictions on importing Egyptian antiquities into the United States may encourage US Customs "to seize undocumented Egyptian artifacts". He then plaintively asks:

"But what will the trade and the many collectors of ancient Egyptian artifacts do about it?"

D'oh! Er ... how about simply documenting them? Then ... er ... they wouldn't be "UNdocumented" would they? Even for Homer Simpson, that logic wouldn't be rocket science.

Of course, it might be a tad late to do that now. The proposed restrictions are a reaction to the enormous looting of archaeological sites, museums and storerooms that took place during and after the Egyptian Revolution, which began in January 2011. Perhaps the "trade and the many collectors" that Peter Tompa exhorts to take action by protesting should instead have got their act together and actually documented their artefacts a bit sooner.

After all, I and many others have been rattling on for literally years about the importance of keeping proper records of antiquities. Hey, I even came up with a very viable scheme to make it easy way back in 2009: International Antiquities Registry (IAR).

Ideally, Egyptian antiquities should be documented before 1970 (the date of the relevant UNESCO Convention) or 1983 (the year of the Egyptian Law on the Protection of Antiquities) but any record dating before 2011 would at least prove the artefact had no connection with the events prompting the proposed emergency restrictions.

US Customs may insist on records predating 1983. Or, in the case of most run-of-the-mill "minor" artefacts at least, they may be satisfied with a much shorter record of collecting history. Tompa's answer to that uncertainty is to just moan about the situation and to continue to ignore the wisdom (and ethicality) of keeping any records at all.

D'oh. Pass me another donut.

Meanwhile, a telling comparison has been made between that attitude to the proposed restrictions and that of another American lawyer.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Buyers still not worried about lack of pre-1970s provenance?

Larry Rothfield, Associate Professor at the University of Chicago, suggests ("Why Christie's Thinks It Can Find Buyers for Antiquities Lacking Pre-1970s Provenance") that some antiquities collectors will continue to buy items lacking a pre-1970s provenance (collecting history) for two reasons:

"First, not all buyers care whether museums are some day going to be willing to accept donations of their artifacts. They are happy enough to acquire for themselves such beautiful objects, and perhaps eventually even display them in private museums; or they anticipate that eventually some solution to the problem of so-called "orphan" antiquities will be found and the very caring foster-parents who purchased these "orphans" will then be permitted to donate them.  
"Second, the risk of having a repatriation claim brought is a calculated one for any buyer, and depends on several factors that may reduce it substantially: where the object's country of origin is difficult to establish that risk drops substantially, for instance, and the resources available to the country of origin are likely to be scarce, requiring them to focus on the highest-end objects and on repatriating items owned by countries, museums, or universities where leverage can be exerted in the form of threats to ban archaeological digs or exchanges."

I suspect that Rothfield is perfectly correct. We should also bear in mind that some buyers come from countries which are less concerned about discouraging looting than the US or others.

I have always considered that strictly adhering to a pre-1970s provenance is unrealistic for "minor" antiquities (reasons discussed here). But we do need to establish a system that will allow collectors to clearly distinguish between artefacts that have been circulating for years and those that have been freshly dug up. Merely ignoring the pre-1970s provenance requirement is not good enough; there needs to be a pragmatic compromise rather than nothing at all.

Friday, 14 March 2014

I say, chaps! What century are we in?

John Howland, a metal detectorist who I am sure is only interested in "saving history" yet who curiously blogs on a page displaying a Metal Prices feed, has attacked Paul Barford, an archaeologist, in a recent post ("On the Subject of (Rancid) Blogs …") and quoted a post by Barford. But Howland has bowdlerised the quotation thus ...

“Prof Giuliani observes that one of the sexual positions depicted is  copied from an Arretine depiction of [explicit deleted] copulation, but the artist applied it anatomically incorrectly to [explicit deleted] copulation, thus (it is suggested) giving the forgery  away. (This logic is surely only watertight if one assumes that an ancient artist depicting a homoerotic scene had actually practised [explicit deleted] him/herself.)”

The three "[explicit deleted]" bits replace the words "vaginal", "anal" and "anal sex" in Barford's original text.

Not sure if I had woken up in another century, I had to pinch myself. I rushed to check the calendar. Yup, we are in the 21st century - but I have no idea what century Howland is stuck in. Is he trapped in some puritanical 1920s time-warp?

In Howland's Billy Bunter time-capsule, words like "vaginal", "anal" and "sex" are explicit. Oh crikey! Oh crumbs! That young Barford chappy has been using naughty words! Oh dear, will Barford be put in detention, made to stand in the corner and wash his mouth out with soap, caned, expelled?

Meanwhile, those of us in the modern grown-up world know that adult authors (such as art historians and other academics) have been using adult vocabulary to describe acts and anatomy for a very long time - presumably since they assume that their readers are also mature adults rather than a pack of giggling prepubescents. I'm surprised that Howland, as a saviour of historical artefacts - doubtless with a vast library of academic books to back his cause, is still in a state of innocent shock.

In addition, even everyday language has moved on considerably since the days of Billy Bunter. Real expletives such as "fuck" are now commonplace. Language has never been static; it is a fluid medium that changes and evolves with each new generation.

But dash it all, old chums! Perhaps an outdated attitude to language goes a long way to explain why some people also have a similarly outdated attitude to conserving heritage. Is it time to join the 21st century?

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Iraqi Jewish Archive - ethics are seldom easy

Campaigns to renegotiate an earlier agreement reached with the Iraqi government by the United States to return a large collection of items seized from Iraq’s Jewish community are steadily building. Examples of coverage are here and here. There are some who applaud the rethink and some who feel the original agreement must be honoured no matter what.

I see a problem. But the problem is not so much whether the property should be returned unconditionally to a virulently anti-semitic nation that stole it. It shouldn't. The problem is that an agreement to return it unconditionally should never have been arranged in the first place.

Regardless of how the present custodians came to be in possession of the property and regardless of any ill-advised agreement to return it unconditionally to Iraq, the property rightfully belongs to the Iraqi Jewish community. That factor trumps anything else. There are only two ethical options:


  1. Return the property to the Iraqi Jewish community. Since literally only half a dozen or so members are still precariously living in Iraq and the main cultural centres of the exiled community are now based in Israel or the US, the property should go to one of those centres.


  2. Return the property to the Iraqi government under certain conditions. It would need to be appropriately and securely curated, perhaps in a dedicated memorial candidly explaining its origin, with the provision of unhindered access to anyone (including those people living in Israel or the US) with a right to see it. That provision would of course entail a complete renouncement and reversal of the current anti-semitic attitude prevailing in Iraq, including a clampdown on all racist actions and propaganda - not unlike the policies in Germany after the Holocaust. 


There are no other ethical options. Both options are fraught with difficulties and potential repercussions but that is often the nature of acting ethically. To take the easy course and simply go along with the original agreement no matter what is not only irresponsible, it is abetting the racist oppression of a cultural minority.

(To pre-empt any silly semantics: I think we all know that Iraqi Arabs are ethnically Semitic too. The word "anti-semitic" here is used in its traditional sense, referring specifically to Jews.)

Monday, 10 March 2014

Gaza Apollo - a patchy history

On the Conflict Antiquities blog, there has been some discussion recently over where an image of a detail of the Gaza Apollo statue would be located on the figure. The image (illustrating BBC News Arabic, February 2014) shows a distinctive area of corrosion and a rectangular depression over a cavity in the bronze surface (where a rectangular patch had been fitted in antiquity - or faked to look as if a patch had been fitted in antiquity).

The discussion has been rather intense ...

"As the photos show, it isn’t the inner right forearm, the outer right forearm, the front upper right arm, or the front upper left arm; and based on its shape and space (away from the body), it isn’t the inner left forearm, the outer left forearm or the back upper left arm. But it could be the back upper right arm."

Whoa, dude! I'm not sure if the scholars have now resolved the issue but the location was immediately very obvious to me the second I saw the pictures (perhaps it's from years of doing all those "Spot the Difference" cartoons as a kid!). The area of the figure shown in the detail image is on the front of the left leg, just below the knee (outlined on the eBay image of the whole statue, left). My own composite of both images is at the head of this post.

I studied the corrosion of ancient bronze in some depth a few years ago (yeah, I've learned to embrace my inner geek rather than fight it) and the surface of the statue looks reasonably convincing in the newest images but we really need to examine the whole statue physically to know if it actually is ancient.

Wild weekend!

I went pubbing and clubbing with a few mates on Saturday night and got totally wasted. Good times! Feeling more than a bit fuzzy on Sunday but my girlfriend and I did manage - after several coffees and a decent breakfast - to take advantage of the glorious sunny weather and go for a long ramble in the Hampshire countryside. In a misguided attempt to reach what we thought was a road, we took a wrong turning on a country path and got caught up in an epic battle with brambles at one point (the brambles won and we decided on a strategic retreat). But it was an awesome day.

However, I have to wonder if I have a serious personality defect. I love the British countryside - both the natural environment itself and the omnipresent feeling of being surrounded by the remains of human history (there is an amazing Roman fort nearby and countless other remnants of the past all around the area) - but at no point did I sense an overwhelming urge to buy a metal detector and share the compunction apparently felt by some of my fellow citizens to start wantonly digging bits of it up. Curiously, I respect the evidence of our past so much that I feel it should be investigated properly and carefully in an organised manner under the sensitive supervision of trained and knowledgeable people.

There are also the remains of a Roman palace not too far away - even the garden has been restored based on traces of original planting in the soil - and I dread to think what would have happened to that evidence if the field had been found by a group of untrained people digging for treasure willy-nilly without realising the significance of their finds, stopping and reporting them immediately before hundreds more holes were made in the soil. Metal detectors - no matter how sophisticated - are not likely to recognise traces of plant remains.

When archaeologists rattle on about the archaeological record being "fragile", they mean it. It ain't just hyperbole.

Just a few thoughts. But in the meantime, whatever my personality defect is, I think I can manage to continue to enjoy the countryside without gratuitously digging bits of it up.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Are you now or have you ever been...?

Peter Tompa, a lawyer representing American coin dealers and their lobbying agenda, has attempted to deflect criticism that much of what he writes on his blog is likely to be financially motivated by challenging Paul Barford, an archaeologist, to reveal if he has a similar motivation ...

[...] in the interests of transparency please explain to your readers if you have ever received any payments from UNESCO or some other cultural heritage organization for any work.

(Paul replied: "I have indeed at various times been paid by UNESCO and other heritage organizations for quite a lot of hard work.  It's ... what I do.")

Please confirm you have not received any payments in any fashion for working on your blog. ... Also, if you receive any payments for the work on your blog, please indicate from whom.

(Paul replied: "I am not getting any payment for this blog, I am not a paid lobbyist.")


Peter, many thanks for your wicked McCarthy impersonation. All rubbish of course since there is a massive difference between a blog raising issues directly related to paid lobbying by the blogger's clients and a blog raising issues only tangentially related to the blogger's profession. I think we know which one is likely to be financially motivated (regardless of whether the blogger is literally paid for the blog itself). But thanks for the chuckle.

Image: An American lawyer notorious for intense questioning.

Friday, 7 March 2014

PART ONE: More thoughts on saving history

Steven Broom, an ethical metal detectorist, recently challenged my view that "History is a cerebral concept. You cannot hold it in your hands." ...

And metal detectorist don't do this...??? Historical finds (either made through metal detecting or "tedious" and "lengthy" excavations) can be the trigger that fires up a society's interest in the past. History is not simply cerebral. I had no interest in history at school because I could not touch it or feel it. However, I can remember every single detail about the first roman coin that I was lucky enough to recover. The feel of it, the investigation work that I had to do to discover who the ruler was and where it was minted and then providing the information to the PAS to assist with any possible further investigation of the site. This is how I "feel" and "engage" with history and as long as what I do does not destroy or obliterate the chances of adding to the future knowledge of history, then I cant see how this can be an annoyance. The study, inquiry and investigation of any site can and should include evidence provided by detectorists.


Steven posed that "History is not simply cerebral." (I have replied to other points in my post below.)

History is a narrative of the past. It may be based on such things as written sources, oral tales, personal experiences or the archaeological record - including artefacts or objects within that record. But the objects themselves are not history. Even an enormous object (monument) like Westminster Abbey is not in itself history; its history is the story we can derive from it in conjunction with other sources. 

Some years ago, I wrote several articles and books on English vernacular furniture, the largest of which was illustrated with literally hundreds of items of furniture. Many of those items were very attractive but not one of them was "history". The history was the narrative derived from interpreting those items - together with contexts provided by such things as regional environments, buildings, local idiosyncracies, period decor, spatial arrangements, contemporary images, knowledge of workshop practices, timber availability, dendrochronology, hardware and construction development, oral traditions or written sources (such as wills, inventories, trade manuals, design books, journals, etc.).


One of the items I illustrated was a painted four-poster bedstead (shown here) inscribed with initials and the date 1724. Divorced from its context it would have been described in a London showroom as "Probably Continental" and sold as a pretty "decorator's piece". But it was found in its original context, a cottage in Kirkbride, together with related items, and research gave us the precise details of its history. It is a rare testimonial of a tradition of painted vernacular furniture in Cumbria and the complete history illuminates a regional lifestyle. 

Another of the items I illustrated was a plain pine chest with canted sides and traces of rope handles. Divorced from its context it wouldn't have even made it to a London showroom but woould have ended up as firewood. But it was found in its original context, a cabin on the Mary Rose. Since it was found together with over forty other chests and countless other artefacts on that ship (plus the ship itself), we have the tools to help us interpret the past. We not only have a much clearer idea of vernacular furniture of the Tudor period but are blessed with a whole microcosm of that era. 

Neither the bedstead nor the chest are "history"; it is a study of them combined with their context and other sources that provides the evidence on which history can be based.



PART TWO: Can we have some moderation please!

I will reply separately to Steven Broom's comment (quoted in the post above) that he enjoys finding artefacts and cannot see the harm as long as he acts responsibly.

"Historical finds [...] can be the trigger that fires up a society's interest in the past."

Absolutely true! Actually handling an ancient object - rather than merely viewing it in a museum case or in an illustration - sends a chill down my spine. It is a thrilling experience that makes the past seem almost tangible.

The thrill of actually finding the artefact yourself is even more exciting - and I don't think anyone in their right mind could object to you coming across the odd Roman coin or Anglo-Saxon brooch. But the keywords here are "acting responsibly".

You have commendably stressed that you act responsibly in recording and reporting your finds. But that facet of acting responsibly was only part of what I was getting at in my criticism of the attitude of many metal detectorists. Personally, I am convinced that one of the most vital facets of acting responsibly in any pursuit that may threaten a fragile resource (whether it's bird eggs, wildlife or ancient artefacts) can be summed up in a single word: moderation.

I understand there are literally thousands of metal detectorists armed with extremely sophisticated machines, many of whom go searching for ancient artefacts every chance they get and often even on large rallies - typically in the misguided notion that they are "saving history". They have their own magazines, clubs, blogs and forums, and are frequently featured in the news (which encourages thousands more to join them). That is not my idea of moderation.

I genuinely applaud your own ethical attitude, Steven, but it is the scale of metal detecting that I find worrying and many are nowhere near as ethical as you. Even if every item really was recorded and reported, the prospect of thousands of untrained amateurs sprawled over England and Wales selectively digging up thousands of ancient metal artefacts as fast as they can grab them is more than a little disconcerting to those of us who value the evidence of history. And no, ploughsoil is not a carte blanche.

I understand the thrill of finding things but let's scale it down a bit, can we?

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Saving history?

Someone named James Warr has made a frighteningly uninformed comparison of Archaeology vs. Metal Detecting on his sadly-named TonyRobinsonsPants blog. After stressing the tedious and lengthy procedure of archaeological excavations, he trumpets metal detecting as the winner since it is simply a matter of "Find history. Dig out history. Save history."

He then comes to the equally simple conclusion that "This, is why the brats [archaeologists] have a problem with detectorists" (followed by a link to a recent criticism by archaeologists of the way some detectorists obliterated the context of a find).

No, James Warr; the reason the "brats" (and indeed anyone with more than a single brain cell) have a problem with some detectorists is that so many of them share your total incomprehension of what history really is and are actively engaged in destroying it.

Contrary to that emotive Hollywood soundbite, when you hold an ancient coin, buckle or whatever in your hand, you are not literally "holding history". You are holding a tiny component of an assemblage that may have the potential to reveal history if the whole assemblage is meticulously recorded and investigated within its wider context - and in the modern day that involves a team of trained people.

An object in itself is not "history". And "history" is certainly not an insane grabfest of finding, digging out and "saving" as many objects as you can get your hands on, sticking them in museum cabinets and then drooling over how pretty they are.

"History" is briefly defined as "the study of the past" and the word stems from the Greek historia, meaning "inquiry, knowledge acquired by investigation". Note the words "study", "inquiry" and "investigation". History is a cerebral concept. Apart from a book or document recording that concept, you cannot hold it in your hands. You can find, dig out and "save" ancient objects until the cows come home and stuff them into museums up to the rafters but unless the sites where those objects lie are properly excavated (and yeah, that can be tedious and lengthy), you are typically destroying and obliterating any chance of seriously adding to our knowledge of history. And that tends to annoy any person with the intellect to appreciate what history really is, not just a few archaeologists (or "brats").

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