Metal Detecting & Archaeology

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This is a book that reflects the uncomfortable truce that has been reached between pragmatism and ideology within the archaeological community in regard to metal detecting. Papers on metal detector use in Poland and South Africa describe regimes wherein freelance metal detecting is banned; detectors may only be used under licence within a controlled research framework, and all cultural artefacts dug out of the ground are state property. Except, as the authors admit, this doesn’t work. Looting is rife and while the authors call for ‘strict observation of the law’, we know that no government will ever devote a fraction of the resources needed to police and enforce such an ideal position.
So pragmatism dictates some form of compromise, and many of the remaining papers in this volume serve as case studies of what can be achieved if archaeologists drop their hostility to ‘recreational’ detector use. As Peter Addyman writes, describing the background to the formation of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, ‘though failing to answer the fundamental objection of archaeologists to metal detecting — the loss of contextual information — [the PAS] has nevertheless produced for the nation so rich a harvest of information about artefacts … that its work must be regarded as worthwhile … [achieving] … better results than those obtained through the clever and high-minded legislation of our European neighbours’. Undoubtedly this is true, but many archaeologists have lingering concerns, including the extent to which metal detecting is now being promoted as an alternative form of archaeology. Politicians at various PAS events in recent years have described detectoring as ‘the archaeology of ordinary people’. Writing with evangelical zeal, some of the contributors to this volume celebrate the noble detectorist for his or her dedication and skill and accuse academics and intellectuals of trying to control ‘access to the past’ for wanting archaeology to be conducted only on ‘professional’ terms.
Most professional archaeologists would plead guilty to the last accusation and argue that you don’t let private untrained individuals practice surgery or even drive a car, and that metal detecting is like a JCB: useful on an archeological site if controlled but highly destructive if not. So pragmatism and compromise are necessary, but missing from this book is the sense that detector users have moved as far in their thinking as archaeologists.
On the contrary, Trevor Austin (in a paper ironically called Building Bridges) shows just how uncompromising some detectorists can be when he says ‘we will not tolerate meddling in the hobby’, argues that attempts to ‘inflict archaeological control’ simply ‘prevents serious cooperation’, tells archaeological organisations to ‘get off our case’, declares that ‘the future is ours’ and urges sceptical archaeologists to ‘catch up, give up or join the “dark side”’.

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