Sunday, January 1, 2012

Jan 2012 - 1) Balance of 2011

Looking at the figures for PAS "success" reveals a disquieting problem. Statistical analysis of the database for Saturday 1st January 2011 until Sunday 1st January 2012 Total records from artefact hunting: 50,032 (66067 objects).

The Heritage Action Artefact Erosion counter indicated that at a minimum (because I now feel the number of active "detectorists" used in the algorithm is several thousand short) 265,350. I think there is every reason to accept that this is indeed a reasonably reliable indicator of the scale of the depletion of the archaeological record due to artefact hunting, indeed I feel for a number of reasons it is an even more conservative estimate than it was when the counter was set off ticking back in 2005.

That would mean that four in five instances of recordable objects discovered in England and Wales with a metal detector in 2011 were dug up, and disposed of one way or another with no public record being made to mitigate the erosion. If in the UK, the hospital system was able to treat only one in five cancer patients, the welfare authorities were able to save only one in five children in serious danger from abuse, only one in five young married couples could find a home of their own, one in five school leavers find a job, the conservation services and planning system save one in five grade one listed buildings from demolition, nobody in their right mind would be saying that British policies are a "success".

After coming up to fourteen years of liaison and partnership, the Portable Antiquities Scheme is still a pathetic temporary "better than nothing" knee-jerk, ad hoc reaction to a problem which it can increasingly clearly be seen needs resolving another way. How long can this go on?


  1. Paul, this article from Tom King's blog may be of interest to you.

    Highway to Hell: Worth Reading

    On the Highway to Hell: Thoughts on the Unintended Consequences for Portable Antiquities of § 11(1) Austrian Denkmalschultzgesetz. Raimund Karl, The Historic Environment Policy and Practice 2:2:111-133, 2011

    Particularly if you’re a government employee and think yourself involved in “heritage management,” or if you’re an archaeological, historic preservation, or environmental activist thinking to promote better laws to protect the cultural environment, you need to read this excellent article. It’s about Austria, but the lessons it embodies are relevant to any country.

    As Karl details, Austrian law includes a scheme under which people who find antiquities are required to report them to the National Heritage Agency Bundesdenkmalamt (BDA). The BDA is also responsible for licensing excavations for archaeological material, and under its current procedures (circa 1999) can issue licenses only to formally qualified archaeologists.

    Giving a little thought to the matter, one might predict that this policy would drive artifact collecting underground (as it were). Karl rather elegantly demonstrates that this has precisely been the result. Collectors do not stop digging or collecting; they simply stop reporting, because to do so would be to pre-emptively admit to breaking the law. Karl’s paper features a comparison of finds reporting statistics from Austria with equivalent data from England and Wales – where the much more liberal Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) is in effect, and from Scotland, whose policies are more like Austria’s. The results are impressive: reported finds have increased dramatically under the PAS, while they have remained flat or declined in Austria and Scotland; moreover the absolute number of reports in England and Wales, adjusted for land area and population – is vastly higher than in Austria since institution of that country’s restrictive policies. Karl also reports his research into the actual behavior and perceptions of metal detector-using collectors in Austria, which indicates that they are extremely active, have substantial collections, do not for the most part sell them, often keep excellent records, and would like to cooperate with archaeologists if they wouldn’t be thrown in the slammer for doing so. He also shows that most metal detectorists do not dig very deeply, instead collecting mostly from the plow zone – which is routinely scraped away by archaeologists as a first step in the conduct of controlled excavations! There seems to be a lot of room for cooperation between archaeologists and collectors in Austria, but as the law is currently construed, it can’t happen legally.

    I feel sure that Austria is in no way unique in this regard. Certainly my informal experience with collectors in the U.S. suggests a similar conclusion about the potential for cooperation and its suppression by restrictive regulation.

    His blog can be found at

  2. Hi Garry,
    the situation here is more complex than Raimund Karl presented it, I commented briefly on my main blog on the topic about a month ago, but can see I am going to have to put my more detailed comments down on paper.

    So, in the British case "four out of five" artefacts going unreported is not "collecting going underground"? That seems pretty poor showing to me, especially when it is at such cost.

    So, how does the PAS system "protect sites"?

    And yes, if the PAS is such a wonderful idea, why are collectors like yourself over there not marching in the streets to get one set up in the United States? Lead by example and not by telling everybody else what they "should" be doing when you do not do it yourselves. (What "restrictive legislation" do you have in the US?)

  3. Paul,

    I am not a collector but rather teach, at times, a cultural heritage law course as an adjunct at a law school. The blog I referred you to was written by Tom King, an archaeologist, who had previously worked as an archaeologist for the Advisory Council on Historc Preservation. He has also published numerous articles on historic preservation and Section 106 of NHPA. I believe, he currently works as a private consultant.

    In the US, we do have restrictive laws although such laws are not over-arching. State laws, in theory, would prevent so-called treasure hunters from indiscriminately digging on private lands and, at the same time, prevent them from digging on state lands. The problem in the US is not the laws themselves but rather the enforcement of the laws by local and state officials (The same would hold true, I believe, with respect to our federal laws.)

    I am hoping that PAS or PAS like approaches will not be adopted in the US because I fear that such schemes may result in wanton destruction of archaeological sites for the benefit of a few metal detectionists rather than the proper excavation of such sites by trained archaeologists.

  4. Sorry, the name was familiar, it was four in the morning and I got you mixed up with somebody else it seems. Now the coffee has done its work I see you are somebody else... Sorry.

  5. "I am hoping that PAS or PAS like approaches will not be adopted in the US because I fear that such schemes may result in wanton destruction of archaeological sites for the benefit of a few metal detectionists rather than the proper excavation of such sites by trained archaeologists".

    DO please shout that out loud and clear over there.

    There are tens (?) of thousands (?) of greedy coin collecting ruffians over there who say that they will not support anything OTHER (including US laws) than every nation that has coins in the ground they want hoiked out and into their own personal collections adopts a PAS-clone scheme. Though they are rather slow in supporting "collectors rights" in their own land by demanding the same for the US. Let us have some consistency here from the coineys, eh?

    And surely it is up to teachers like you, and outreachers like the PAS to point this out until it is crystal clear to these naysaying coin-peddling louts. Why is this not happening? Why (to bring this back to the specific subject of this blog) is the PAS in particular not clarifying this issue as part of its archaeological outreach? Another unanswered question.

  6. OK, I'll try and put up my response to Karl this weekend, it's long overdue, but the Christmas/New Year/ end of the year cash disposal season has been hectic. No time for anything.