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Metal Detectorists – What Does “Saving History” Mean to You?

Working on a Public Archaeology Project.

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

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 with.  I’m not “in the pocket” of the Archaeologists, but I have learned a lot about it in the past 5 years or so and find myself in between two sets of beliefs hoping to build some bridges.  For me, the knowledge that I’m reliably helping to fill in gaps to a story, even after I’m long gone, makes every hunt and recovery far more rewarding than earlier in my hobby.  I take away a real sense of satisfaction far beyond any (unlikely) monetary value and beyond any need to have the object in my own box at home.  I know that the items and provenance I donate to public institutions will have a long term opportunity to teach and help weave together understanding only rigorous work can provide, but that process is imperfect and risky in some cases.  When I see detectorists talking about “Saving History” these days, my dual experience nags at me.  Saving for whom?  For what future purposes, say 30-50 years from now?  What arrangements are made to be sure that the objects and their provenance are cared for over decades or centuries?

Are Private Collections “Saving History?”

I’ve learned not to fool myself into thinking that a private notebook,  private photos and box in my living room is proper documentation of any site. Why? Because a major component of preservation is *ACCESS* (by the public, researchers, teachers, historians, authors, etc.) and this doesn’t happen privately very often.    Relic shows displays and living room curio cabinets just don’t count, and tend to remain secretive.   They are fun, and there are lots of great knowledge passed back and forth, but it all has a finite lifespan.   But 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.  They may get shared with a few friends*, but they fade – and will rarely last a generation.

Recently, at an archaeology conference, one of the presenters was displaying finds in their research from a private collection.  Obviously they had nurtured a relationship with someone who then trusted them to do research and return the items once finished.  For that one piece of research, that worked fine… but what about the next 50 years?  100 years?

Property owners have to be the ultimate arbiters of access.  I have, from the start, always told property owners of their right to refuse any curation or public disclosure (e.g. publishing a research paper at a conference about the project.)  Not all owners will be interested in this, and it’s a tough problem because one thing you definitely need for provenance is location!  But I’ve recently met at least a dozen property owners who were very interested in having the site on their property documented.  As far as I know, no illegitimate trespassing has happened as a result.

*For me, currently my collection/finds are seen as photos on the Internet 99% anyway!   The conversation that occurs on social networks makes the hobby that much more fun.   But none of that is dependent on me keeping those finds in my personal collection.

Public Institutions – For Public Access

I’ve come to believe that a private collection needs rigorous provenance to the published archival standards of a trusted public institution (e.g. a university museum, usually) with the right kinds of “input” services, which will make the collection available to loan-out and research – and hopefully soon, have the whole collection online so you can Google it all – and show your friends by searching your name in the University database.   In any case, a collection needs to be easy to access, search, and borrow for education and research before you can say you’re “saving history.” For an example of how things can be successfully displayed online, see that The Portable Antiquities Scheme collection on the web.
Dusty Boxes in Basements 

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!  It’s very real problem – namely because of limited funding.  All of this is true, but it does not but this does not change the fact that public access means public access.  The question is how to make things better – and lots of smart people are thinking about this!

Credit Where Credit’s Due – And Earning Your Way to More Opportunities

 I believe that anytime a curated collection is used or cited, the person(s) who found the items or did the documentation should get a notification that someone needs an object. And if the finder wishes, they should keep their name attached and requests for access to precision location of an object would be routed through the property owner anonymously for permission.  Kudos for use of the collection in education, research and more should be freely given – and a given detectorist could earn a reputation (perhaps even with certifications) that would help them gain access to other projects, possibly with Archaeologists, as trusted pros or even access to other sites off limits to most hobbyists?

Team Involvement Enriches The Hobby For Me

2016-04-25 14_05_53-Scott Clark (@metaldetecting) • Instagram photos and videosMy current projects involve many artifacts I’m painstakingly documenting to museum standards for preservation and curation along with the property owner.  I am consulting Archaeologists to help me get my field techniques and documentation improved.   And it feels damn good to know I’m making something available to future generations – I am having far, far more fun at this than I ever did as a solo hobbyist.  It’s a big change from the artifact-centered approaches of 99.9% of detectorists, and I’m only one guy, with one perspective.  Many of you, as well as many of my Archaeology friends, have their own ideas and I’m always open to them!   (* yes, once this site is curated to the museum, and I publish the results, the location of the site may become more publicly known – something I’ve discussed at length with the property owners.  I have always offered them the right to refusal to any curation or publication, as should be the case for any site.) 
 
In the institutional solution available now, the property owner is donating everything you’ve sweated for to the public, entrusting a public institution with safety and management.  That makes some diggers cringe, I am sure (I’ve been turning over finds for a long time and my enjoyment of the hobby goes up every hunt anyway.)   But it is impossible to both own something and for it to be public.  I propose there needs to be connections made between the persons involved in building the collection and the public institutions collections that don’t currently exist.
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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