When I hear detectorists talking about “Saving History” these days I can’t help but form the follow up questions in my head.
- Saving for whom?
- Saving from what?
- What do you think history is?
- Who will access what you’ve saved so that it’s useful?
- How will you ensure the “history” you’ve saved is available after you’re gone?
Are we being honest with ourselves, or just trying to avoid a bit of work? Are we missing important training that would let us continue our hobby but preserve the past? Or are we missing some critical infrastructure that would let us improve our collection activity so that we capture and share provenance?
Pitfalls of Private Collections
Private collectors are proud of their collections. They’re presented in many elaborate ways and often shared on social media for admirers to offer their likes and commentary. This is quite rewarding – often the only reward – for the hours of sweat and work often associated with such a collection. But often the collector is the only person who knows where the items came from, and every person’s memory is fallible over time. They hold the key to our collective understanding of what those items represented and what more could be learned – which is best captured at the time of the find itself in a standardized way. Most will probably take the anecdotal information about their collection to the grave, after which all you then have are artifacts in a case.
“I take notes.” is an occasional response, and it’s a definite step in the right direction. But are these notes with the collection? How are they recorded? Are these notes shared with others passionate about history in case something happens to you? I’ve learned not to fool myself into thinking that a notebook, photos and box in my living room is proper documentation of any site. Useful conclusions, theories, maps, and especially connections with other research to weave together a narrative of the big picture simply do not happen in most private collections. There must be sharing and access of this information before it’s really “saving history.”
To those thinking I am wanting people to “hand over” their collections, you’ve not heard the whole story. My ideas are to document these collections and make the data available and to make sure the data has integrity over time.
Saving History Means Access
Recently, at an archaeology conference, one of the presenters was displaying a private collector’s finds to support some of the research they were doing. Obviously they had nurtured a relationship with the collector who leant them these items for photography and study… and then returned them. But it seemed they could only document the provenance to a region – imagine if those hundreds of items had been plotted on a map. To the experienced academic, that map very probably could have helped define an area for future investigation – more history saved. Most property owners are fine with this kind of documentation with the right precautions for privacy and a clear understanding of intent.
The Information in Your Collection
Dusty Boxes in Basements – The Curation Backlog
The frustration that a site may never be covered by an Archaeology project (e.g. funding) and the worry that your hard-earned finds will end up in dusty boxes in a basement is a valid concern! the history may have been saved, but nobody is appreciating it! All of this is true, but it does not but this does not change the fact that public access means public access, even if that access doesn’t happen in the collector’s lifetime.
Credit Where Credit’s Due
Leaving a Legacy
Improvements Are Possible
There are ways to both have a nice collection and also connect it with scholars, and I think that this will involve some form of technology and networking. I imagine tools like the PAS has, or even simple smartphone apps such as what cities are using to let citizens report potholes. Armed with GPS, camera and a checklist, I think we can bring many collectors onboard with building confidential datasets. They have to be assured they won’t be raided for their items or lose access to their hunting grounds. Property owners will need to be given assurances of privacy to reduce the chances of trespassing and theft.