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An Often Indefensible Assertion: “We’re Saving History.”

Working on a Public Archaeology Project.

Author working on a Public Archaeology Project with Archaeologist Nicolas Laracuente.

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.

What about publishing it online?   Privacy is an obvious concern, but there are ways of doing this.  For an example of how things can be successfully displayed online, see that The Portable Antiquities Scheme collection on the web.  Scholars (with appropriate credentials) can access precise contextual information about the objects while the general public can appreciate it generally. The collectors who have adhered to the scheme’s standards get credit for their efforts and sometimes – if the crown acquires the item – monetary gain.   This is rare, however…key to this is that the majority of these items are returned to the finder after documentation.   Scholars are able to use the data from these finds as part of their investigations.

The Information in Your Collection

It’s really not that hard to gather information and organize it into the archival standards of a trusted public institution (e.g. a university museum, usually)  which will make the collection available to loan-out and research with your permission or after you’re gone.   Anyway, the problem right now in public institutions is one of funding and backlog – public institutions (in the USA) are strapped for resources, another reason most professional Archaeologists would rather collectors just leave things in the ground.   But collectors collect, and there needs to be an efficient way of capturing  the data – even if the collection remains in private hands.

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

I believe that anytime a curated collection or artifact is used or cited, the person(s) who found the items or did the documentation should get a notification.  If the finder wishes, the scholars should keep the finder’s name connected with the object in any bibliography or published paper.  Kudos for use of the collection in education, research and more should be freely given – and a given detectorist could earn a reputation for truly “saving history.”  Gamification and social media might also be employable as a method for getting participations involved.

Leaving a Legacy

2016-04-25 14_05_53-Scott Clark (@metaldetecting) • Instagram photos and videosMy current projects involve many artifacts I’m documenting to established standards for preservation and curation along with the property owner.  I am consulting Archaeologists as I try to improve my skills in this regard.   It feels good to know I’m making something available to future generations.  Even if I’m not keeping the items, the data is helping to rewrite stories.   This will be part of my 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.

No More Pretending

I’ve been a digger for over 30 years and am proud to consider many of you friends I’d be privileged to metal detect, creek walk or field walk with.  I’m not “in the pocket” of the Archaeologists, but I find myself in between two sets of beliefs hoping to build some bridges.  
The field skills I have developed are far from perfect, but I am refining  them.  Large chunks of my digging are now in line for curation – and I’m learning what to do in the field, after a hunt and back at home in order to prepare things.  I’m learning how to talk to property owners about their land, artifacts and the role the found items could play for future investigators.   My hobby has been much enriched by this.
For me, the knowledge that I’m actually saving history rather than just pretending I am makes every hunt and recovery far more rewarding.
If you have interest in this, please connect with me I am in regular discussion with solutions that work for both professionals and diggers. I attend and present at Archaeology conferences, and this topic has been coming up more often.
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