Tuesday, 11 May 2021

metal detectorists

Metal detectors snouting and snuffling

I was very impressed by the story of the Staffordshire Hoard (of Mercian goldwork) being found by a metal detectorist, and archaeologists subsequently saying that they should co-operate more with detectorists and give them more credit. I saw a magazine for detectorists in WH Smith’s. OK, I thought, this should be interesting. They have limited education, they didn’t get free education at university, they work for a living, maybe they should be accepted as part of a wider intellectual community interested in the past.
Then, I saw a copy of this magazine on-line, on a site I subscribe to which has lots of books uploaded by people. 60 million documents, according to their write-up. So it’s like You-tube, only for books and papers. Anyway, I downloaded this issue of “Treasure Hunting”. I was expecting it to be full of articles about archaeology, and I was interested to see what questions they asked which made it different from a mainstream archaeology magazine. WH Smith has 3 of those, so you can buy those just by walking into Smith’s. But, I was amazed by what I found. The detectorist magazine has no interest in archaeology. The articles are about the first-person experiences of people who use metal detectors, and have no discussion of the meaning of the finds. It is completely about finding treasures, that is where the interest stops. So you would expect reviews of books and exhibitions ...but they don’t run any of those at all. This implies that their readership don’t want to read books, or even visit museums showing large numbers of “treasures”. No, they are too busy walking up and down muddy fields. It follows that the magazine has no actual archaeologists speaking in its pages at all – not even as book reviewers. One corollary is that the hobbyists are not attracted by how much professional archaeologists know, and they don’t. They don’t have to feel themselves as a sub-cultural minority, defined by ignorance. Another one is that there is no trickle of academic ideas into this anti-academic world – they are not even reading reviews of the books, let alone the books. But they don’t feel inferior to the academics. Their focus is incredibly egocentric – they aren't much interested in objects which other people own, because the focus is unswervingly on objects which they own.
It is important to read Paul Barford’s blog with its critical view of detectorists and other looters: http://paul-barford.blogspot.com

Barford refers several times to “object-centred archaeology”, which sadly exhausts itself detailing the history of objects rather than the history of a past society. This is also a way of thinking about the people who read ‘Treasure Hunting’ – they can focus on objects but their interest vanishes when you address any other topic, because they have no interest in abstractions at all. Barford is interested in using physical evidence to think about symbolic behaviour. A potsherd is part of a pattern. So, if someone asked “we have the very first coins in Britain, made for kings of south-eastern tribes and following Gaulish models, what does this tell us about social changes, moving from a society which doesn't need coins to one which needs thousands of them?” – but they wouldn’t be able to pose a question like that and wouldn’t understand the answer if someone pronounced it. As a consequence, they don’t feel that a Renfrew or a Hodder is superior to them. They aren’t interested in the things which intellectual archaeologists can do. They are playing a game in which developing ideas doesn’t count as winning – but finding Tudor coins certainly does. Detecting and collecting isn't even archaeology, it is several levels below “object-centred archaeology”. A coin is primarily a symbolic object, you would think. Or is it primarily a shiny thing?

OK, some of the people who buy “Treasure Hunting” might also buy “British Archaeology”, so their limits are not the same as those of the magazine.
The detectorist set seem to dislike abstraction. They are really happy talking about the details of their ground scanners, and like the objects they dig up – while becoming uncomfortable whenever the discussion moves away from solid objects. It is not simply distrust of the people who own abstract ideas, it is actual discomfort in dealing with ideas at all. So they don’t overlap with the ley-line gang, who have limited interest in physical evidence but are in love with imaginary ideas, and the spirituality of past ages. So they are both against “official archaeology”, but they possibly don’t overlap at all – they just don’t have the same interests. There must be a difference between people who believe everything, no matter how untrue, and people who don’t believe any abstract ideas at all, even if they are true. I couldn't find even one mention of an archaeologist – but there was a photo of a table where someone sat to identify finds, obviously an archaeologist but not named, he was there only to act as scorer, recording that a detectorist had won, and their find was really old.
I was impressed by a photo of finds. They included a broken part of a “Celtic” (Iron Age?) terret ring, in La Tène style – something incredibly beautiful even if it was only an inch across. The patterns just aren't ones you would find today. And there were several pages of photos from an antiques auctioneer, so paid for as ads but still worth looking at. I don’t know why the same ads don’t appear in British Archaeology, maybe their readers don’t want to own artefacts. So there was a photo of a La Tène sword – crunched into a sort of Z shape, but a real one, you could have it for about £5000. Amazing.

This looks to me like two completely different ways of consuming information. The cognitive practices which let someone process a largely abstract story, or data pattern, and enjoy it, are communicated by education, and there is a large pool of non-educated people who don’t share those practices, who regard them as effortful and unrewarding. They become pleasurable because you are fluent in them, you have a smooth experience with few stumbles. This is the “take away” for thinking about poetry – there are many different ways in which people consume information, and modern poetry is divided into factions based on the preferred cognitive patterns. If you don’t wish to own ancient artefacts, maybe you are parting company with a large number of other people. And maybe they can’t enjoy modern archaeology.

I have been reading about the early history of the Mormons, in particular Joseph Smith’s early career as a treasure finder. He had a kind of lens or mirror which would look through all the layers of the earth and find treasure hidden beneath them. So – an early model metal detector. His device came from German folk culture, the so-called “Erdspiegel” which was allegedly used by “Venetians” coming to South Germany to look for ores (or treasures?). Treasure hunting is actually older than archaeology.

The label here may breach rules about how to label. I have labelled this as "exclusion", because it belongs to a theme of which other parts deal with cultural exclusion. But the area involves also people who don't participate in culture because they dislike reading books and don't want to acquire abstract knowledge. The issue for poetry is "willing non-participants", isn't it, less than "failed participants". Even if low-prestige poetry has a physical existence and is easier to write about. I am interested by the distinction between "people who believe irrational ideas about the Past" and "people who don't read books or go to museums". I am not writing "a history of cognitive practices" but I can see that you can't write the history of poetic taste without getting into that area, big time.

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