Monday, 10 September 2007

Portable Antiquities Scheme

Do you remember what you were doing on the day that the Iraq war started?

I was at a meeting of the Welsh Antiquaries in the National Museums and Galleries of Wales in Cardiff. As part of the day we were shown the archaeological material recovered in Wales as part of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. And I was deeply impressed with the range of material which had been found, recorded and preserved.

What is the Portable Antiquities Scheme?

"The Portable Antiquities Scheme is the largest community archaeology project this country has ever seen. It was established in 1997 to encourage the voluntary recording of archaeological objects found by the public in England and Wales."

Full details are available from the PAS website.

The scale is massive: "Since the 1st January 2007, we have recorded 56969 objects within 37398 records." And no doubt by the time I publish these comments the number will have grown.

The aims of PAS are excellent. They include:

"To encourage all those who find archaeological objects to make them available for recording and to promote best practice by finders."

But notice that the scheme is about chance finds.

Surface finds often can and do indicate unknown, unrecorded and unexcavated archaeological sites. So lobby groups in America should be cautious about citing PAS as the cure for looting (see comments by Peter Tompa and Dave Welsh): PAS is encouraging dialogue and I feel optimistic.

What finds continue to go unrecorded? How many archaeological sites continue to be destroyed though deliberate looting?


Peter Tompa said...

David- Thanks for your post about the PAS. It's nice to see such programs that encourage dialogue between archaeologists and the general public to get noticed. As one of the "lobbyists" promoting this program (along with the Treasure Act), I also thank you for providing a link to a write up about Dr. Bland's presentation in Washington, DC.

As I mentioned in a summary of that talk,

Most of the finds come from metal detectorists working cultivated land. This is significant. The archaeological context has already been disturbed and removing the artifacts helps save them from damage from deep plowing and/or chemicals used in food production.

I suspect the same would also be the case in countries ike Cyprus, but, of course, we will never know as their confiscatory laws do little to encourage the public to report their finds.

On another point, you are also correct in that sometimes surface finds point to unnoticed archaeological sites. It is my understanding that in the UK, if this happens the site is scheduled and metal detecting then becomes illegal. Again, archaeologists in countries like Cyprus are missing out when this happens because such sites will remain undisclosed.

Interestingly, a representative of the Cypriot embassy was at Dr. Bland's talk. Hopefully, he will take back information about the UK program to Cyprus and that country will consider reintroducing such a system. (I understand that Cyprus under under British rule followed the UK Treasure trove law.)


Peter Tompa

David Gill said...

Dear Peter

There is a difference between searching for archaeological material that has been disturbed by agricultural activity, and deliberately searching for remains which are undisturbed.

Archaeological field-survey uses the first (though by careful observation of surface remains and finds). For example the site of the Late Bronze Age sanctuary on the Methana peninsula in Greece had been indicated by surface finds including a fragmentary terracotta figure.

Deliberate searching of sites does take place. See the case of the Icklingham Bronzes from Suffolk (England).

PAS encourages the reporting of finds - and it is a step in the right direction.

Best wishes

Paul Barford said...

Peter Tompka writes:
"The archaeological context has already been disturbed and removing the artifacts helps save them from damage from deep plowing and/or chemicals used in food production."
Comments like this are taking a rather superficial approach, and seem politically motivated. The PAS derives from the specifically British situation, and I think it’s a mistake to try and apply data deriving from it to other countries.

The detailed plotting of distributions of artefacts in ploughsoil has for many decades been recognised in many regions of the world as a valid manner of research of archaeological sites and finds scatters under the plough and has a huge literature devoted to it. There are a number of studies (including those linking metal detector surveys with eyes-only fieldwalking)which show the value and detail that can be obtained about by such means about archaeological sites preserved in situ under land in normal use. The bottom line is that in investigation of sites of this type, the distribution of material of this type within the plough soil is in itself accepted by the majority of archaeologists as a valid form of archaeological information.

This information is therefore lost information if finds are taken away with no record being made (which is what most frequently happens, even in the UK the majority of British artefact hunters have never reported anything to the PAS), or where the findspot of individual finds in relation to each other and other finds is only recorded very roughly (for example by a six-figure national Grid Reference, only 29% of finds recorded on the PAS have anything better). Even in Britain, archaeological information is being destroyed on a daily basis through inadequate recording even in the minority of cases reaching the PAS.

The argument about the agricultural chemicals is often used by British artefact hunters and collectors as “justification” for them taking what they want when they want for their own collections or sale. As yet there are few studies which show this problem to be of the scale metal detectorists suggest would justify their depredations. This is just a variant of the "good home" argument of collectors. Even if this effect was proven to be of the universality (on all soil types and under all farming regimes) that is claimed, would hoiking them out to put in scattered ephemeral and unregistered personal collections and sold off (as many British finds are) on eBay be a valid heritage management policy to adopt in response?

In any case, this argument fails to note that for a number of years in Britain increasing areas of farmland have been taken into "DEFRA" Countryside Stewardship Schemes with subsidies for employing farming regimes (including organic ones) on sensitive sites. The metal detector using artefact hunters are up in arms about this as one of the conservation methodologies used are calls to restrict artefact hunting there which deplete the artefactual content of sites being protected.

Mr Tompka writes:” It is my understanding that in the UK, if this happens the site is scheduled and metal detecting then becomes illegal.” This understanding is incorrect. Very few sites have been scheduled in Britain in the past decade or so as a result of metal detector discoveries. Many sites which are scheduled however are being illegally exploited as a source of collectables by metal detector users.

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