Sunday, 18 February 2018


Metal detecting is a contentious issue within the heritage community. A man with a metal detector walks through a field of crops.

     There’s been reason for cheer in metal detecting circles, with the news this month that 2016 saw a record number of finds reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme

      This announcement has spawned numerous congratulatory reports – including in the Guardian – detailing the wonderful things found, the back-stories of the lucky finders, and the sometimes extraordinary sums of money their finds have fetched. The rise in finds is attributed to improved detector technology and an increase in the number of people taking up the hobby, encouraged by recent spectacular finds and the popularity of the BBC’s Detectorists series.

     Within the archaeological community the response has not been quite so cheerful. Several archaeologists have complained to me about the Guardian appearing to promote metal detecting as a harmless leisure pursuit, and online there’s been a distinct rumble of archaeological discontent. 

     So why are some archaeologists upset about the swelling ranks of detectorists and the flood of important finds they’re turning up? The explanation lies in the uneasy relationship between archaeology and metal detecting which stretches back over the last 50 years.
Metal detecting as a hobby first emerged in the post-war years, when relatively cheap, portable detectors developed for the army began to be made available to the public. The number of users remained small however, until more effective and affordable models gave the pastime its first flush of popularity in the 1960s and 70s. 

     The growing numbers of detectorists quickly came into conflict with the archaeological community. As well as fairly harmless activities, such as combing beaches, reports came in of metal detectorists increasingly impinging on archaeological sites, leaving damage and removing artefacts, many of which were finding their way to antiquities dealers or even leaving the country. Archaeologists were horrified. 

Objects from the Staffordshire hoard, discovered by detectorist Terry Herbert in 2009. Although lawfully reported, some archaeologists were unhappy to find that Herbert had dug for five days and recovered almost 250 artefacts before contacting the authorities.Objects from the Staffordshire hoard, discovered by detectorist Terry Herbert in 2009. Although lawfully reported, some archaeologists were unhappy to find that Herbert had dug for five days and recovered almost 250 artefacts before contacting the authorities.                         

     The problem lies in fundamentally conflicting aims. Archaeologists primarily value information about the past. Objects are important, but only within their archaeological context – their relationship to structures, deposits and the full range of finds – contributing to the wider understanding of a site or landscape. For metal detectorists, the primarily focus is the objects themselves, the collection of which by detectorists divorces an object from most of the information which makes it valuable to an archaeologist. 

     As detectorist numbers spiked in the late 1970s, the attitude of the professional archaeological community became increasingly hostile. Various forms of legal restrictions on detecting and the sale of artefacts were proposed, strongly opposed by a detectorist community which was rapidly becoming more organised. The conflict culminated in the STOP! (Stop Taking Our Past!) campaign, launched in 1979 and championed by the Council for British Archaeology, with the support of a wide range of societies, professional bodies and organisations. The campaign aimed to raise awareness of the damage unregulated metal detecting was doing to the archaeological record and pushed to outlaw metal detecting in the UK.

In response, the metal detecting community launched DIG (the Detector Information Group), with a name deliberately chosen to annoy the archaeologists. DIG lobbied to prevent the introduction of any restrictions on metal detection and was supported by detector retailers and manufacturers. Both sides engaged in a dirty war of misinformation about their opponents; the archaeologists tried to tar all detectorists with the same brush as the most irresponsible and criminal elements, wantonly damaging important sites and selling off the country’s heritage for private gain, while the detectorists painted the archaeological community as elitist, establishment figures, who wanted to restrict the study of the past to their ivory towers.
The result was a total breakdown in relations between the two increasingly polarised sides. Responsible detectorists who had previously reported finds to their local museums and kept good records withdrew their cooperation. Some even destroyed their records to prevent them benefitting their archaeological enemies. Many archaeologists would have nothing to do with metal detectorists, refusing to look at finds they recovered or do anything that might endorse or legitimise metal detecting.
In the end DIG prevailed over STOP! and the legacy of that victory is still felt today; the UK has the lightest regulation of metal detecting of any western European country – in most cases, only the permission of the land owner is required – but in other countries and other contexts, what is perfectly legal in the UK would be considered as looting. 

The failure of STOP! in the 1980s triggered a gradual change in the approach of archaeologists towards detectorists. The period of peak hostilities had only worsened the problems of destructive detecting. Huge quantities of artefacts were disappearing unseen into private collections or overseas, Nighthawking – clandestine illegal detecting – at scheduled monuments had increased, leading to high profile episodes such as the extensive looting of the Romano-British temple at Wanborough in Surrey in the early 1980s and persistent attacks on the Roman town of Corbridge (which continue to this day).

After their failure to restrict metal detecting, archaeologists had no choice but to swallow their anger and try engagement. Responsible detectorists and well-run societies were to be encouraged, advised on how best to record their finds, and given a level of legitimacy. In turn, they would help to police their fellow hobbyists, encouraging responsible practices and casting out the bad apples who brought the activity into disrepute. For their part, archaeologists would gain access to the material found by detectorists though organised reporting.

Cooperation and engagement has now been the accepted position of the archaeological community towards metal detecting in the UK for over twenty years, paving the way for the 1996 Treasure Act and the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which records detector finds across the country and makes the data available to researchers. Many metal detecting clubs enjoy close and mutually beneficial relationships with their local archaeology units, sharing information and sometimes working together in the field. 

However, it would be a mistake to think that archaeologists now live in perfect harmony with detectorists; distrust on both sides still bubbles under the surface. Many parts of the metal detecting community remain wary of archaeologists, suspecting (probably rightly) that, if they could, archaeologists would place greater restrictions on metal detecting. On the other side, most archaeologists privately believe that even responsible detectorists to do more harm than good, and the more extreme among them see all metal detectorists as little more than legalised looters driven by personal greed. For many archaeologists cooperation is a form of damage limitation; the least worst solution. 

Metal detecting encompasses a wide range of individuals, from the responsible society members with a genuine interest in the past, to the criminal Nighthawks, and all the detectorists who occupy the large grey area in between. The innocent and honest majority, groups like the cuddly, nerdish club depicted in Detectorists, champion metal detecting as a citizen scientist movement, democratising knowledge and encouraging a love of heritage. 

The problem for archaeologists is that metal detecting is fundamentally acquisitive, competitive, and potentially lucrative. It encourages a monetised view of archaeological objects and the temptation to bend or break the rules is strong. A particularly awful recent example occurred this spring when policeman David Cockle was jailed for metal detector crime. Not only had he illegally sold a hoard of gold Saxon coins he’d found in Norfolk, he had tried to conceal his crime by misreporting the nature and location of his finds, feeding false data into the county records. The man had been a detectorist for thirty years.
My friends within the archaeological community have a wealth of similar stories and bad experiences. Many have worked on excavations where they’ve returned in the morning to find trenches damaged and objects stolen in the night by criminal detectorists. One discovered that the metal detectorist assisting on an excavation was only reporting worthless coins to the project and pocketing the valuable ones for himself.

In the context of past conflicts and the more recent uneasy truce, it’s not surprising that news of a growing and re-energised detectorist community wielding more effective equipment has been met, at least privately, with dismay from many UK archaeologists. So, if you’ve recently taken up metal detecting and meet your local archaeologists down the pub this Christmas, you shouldn’t necessarily expect them to buy you a drink.

     For the hardy few that read all the way to the end, and for those of you based in the UK in particular, you will have noticed that this originally appeared in The Guardian newspaper some weeks ago. At the time (and similar to the "John Collis" letter from a while back I ensured that this was made clear. Between preparing and posting I have been remiss, as has been pointed out (for which I thank that person), and am happy to correct and give credit. 

Wednesday, 27 December 2017


Ethics and empire: an open letter from Oxford scholars

A group of Oxford academics has written the below letter following the debate surrounding an article in The Times entitled “Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history” by Nigel Biggar, Regius Professor of moral and pastoral theology at the University of Oxford.

     We are scholars who work on histories of empire and colonialism and their after-effects, broadly understood. We teach our students to think seriously and critically about those histories and their contemporary legacies. We write to express our opposition to the public stance recently taken on these questions by Nigel Biggar, also an academic at Oxford, and the agenda pursued in his recently announced project entitled “Ethics and Empire”.

     Professor Biggar has every right to hold and to express whatever views he chooses or finds compelling, and to conduct whatever research he chooses in the way he feels appropriate. But his views on this question, which have been widely publicised at the Oxford Union, as well as in national newspapers, risk being misconstrued as representative of Oxford scholarship. For many of us, and more importantly for our students, they also reinforce a pervasive sense that contemporary inequalities in access to and experience at our university are underpinned by a complacent, even celebratory, attitude towards its imperial past. We therefore feel obliged to express our firm rejection of them.

     Biggar’s media interventions have been spurred in defence of a discredited polemical opinion piece by American political scientist Bruce Gilley. This advocated a “recolonisation” of parts of the world by Western powers as a solution to misgovernment in the global south. His own call for British “pride to temper shame” in the assessment of empire is similarly intended to fortify support for overseas military interventions today. Such prescriptions not only rest on very bad history, they are breathtakingly politically naive.
We do believe that historical scholarship should inform public debate and contemporary politics. But it cannot do so through simple-minded equations between “pride” and swaggering global confidence, or between “shame” and meek withdrawal. 

     Nor can it pretend to offer serious history when it proposes such arguments as that the British empire’s abolition of the slave trade stands simply as a positive entry in a balance-book against (for example) the Amritsar massacre or the Tasmanian genocide. Abolition does not somehow erase the British empire’s own practice of slavery and the benefits it continued to reap from the slave trade long after it ended – such as railway investments in the UK or cotton imports from the US South. Nor can historians accept the simple claim that imperialism “brought order” without examining what that actually meant for those subject to it. AimΓ© CΓ©saire’s morally powerful Discours sur le colonialisme dispatched such absurd “balance-sheet” arguments as long ago as 1950. It’s disappointing, to say the least, that they should be resurrected for a history of ethics in 2017.

     To state his argument for this history, Biggar sets up a caricature in place of an antagonist: an allegedly prevailing orthodoxy that “imperialism is wicked”. His project’s declared aim is to uncover a more complex reality, whose “positive aspects” dispassionate scholarship can reveal. This is nonsense. No historian (or, as far as we know, any cultural critic or postcolonial theorist) argues simply that imperialism was “wicked”.
Mugabe’s misrule doesn’t retrospectively justify British colonialism. PA Archive

     Good and evil may be meaningful terms of analysis for theologians. They are useless to historians. Nor are historians much moved by arguments that because Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe was a despot, British imperialism or white supremacy under UDI in Rhodesia must surely look better in comparison. That is not a meaningful comparison. Biggar’s argument fails even its own test in the case of Iraq, where in the aftermath of invasion, occupation, civil war and the terror of Daesh that came in their wake, there is no lack of nostalgia for the “order” and “security” of Saddam Hussein.

     The “Ethics and Empire” project asks the wrong questions, using the wrong terms, and for the wrong purposes. However seriously intended, far from offering greater nuance and complexity, Biggar’s approach is too polemical and simplistic to be taken seriously. There is doubtless much to be said about the ethical regimes that have historically been used to justify or critique imperial rule (a story at least as old as Tacitus). But there is no sense in which neutral “historical data”, from any historical context, can simply be used to “measure” the ethical appropriateness of either critiques of or apologia for empire, let alone sustain an “ethic of empire” for today’s world.

     Neither we, nor Oxford’s students in modern history will be engaging with the “Ethics and Empire” programme, since it consists of closed, invitation-only seminars. Instead, we want students and the wider public to know that the ideas and aims of that project are not those of most scholars working on these subjects in Oxford, whether in the history faculty or elsewhere. We welcome continued, open, critical engagement in the ongoing reassessment of the histories of empire and their legacies both in Britain and elsewhere in the world. We have never believed it is sufficient to dismiss imperialism as simply “wicked”. Nor do we believe it can or should be rehabilitated because some of it was “good”.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017


    More often than not I try to write these short articles as something of a "stand alone" interest. Basically something of a series rather than a serial so that each has it's own merits..or not depending on your point of view. The opposite of Game of Thrones if you will... I did watch one episode once (the first of the new series). It was projected onto a white house wall in the middle of a village in Portugal. I hadn't a clue what was going on, a feeling I wouldn't want my readers (there are a few) to experience. This week, however, a slight change to the norm. A sort of "follow on" if you will, albeit a trifle belatedly.

15,000 scientists give catastrophic warning about the fate of the world in new ‘letter to humanity’

A new, dire "warning to humanity" about the dangers to all of us has been written by 15,000 scientists from around the world.

     The message updates an original warning sent from the Union of Concerned Scientists that was backed by 1,700 signatures 25 years ago. But the experts say the picture is far, far worse than it was in 1992, and that almost all of the problems identified then have simply been exacerbated.

     Mankind is still facing the existential threat of runaway consumption of limited resources by a rapidly growing population, they warn. And "scientists, media influencers and lay citizens" aren't doing enough to fight against it, according to the letter. If the world doesn't act soon, there be catastrophic biodiversity loss and untold amounts of human misery, they warn. Only the hole in the ozone layer has improved since the first letter was written, and the letter urges humanity to use that as an example of what can happen when it acts decisively. But every single other threat has just got worse, they write, and there is not long left before those changes can never be reversed.

     There are some causes for hope, the letter suggests. But humanity isn't doing nearly enough to make the most of them and soon won't be able to reverse its fate. "Soon it will be too late to shift course away from our failing trajectory, and time is running out," the letter warns. "We must recognize, in our day-to-day lives and in our governing institutions, that Earth with all its life is our only home."
     A host of environmental calamities are highlighted in the warning notice, including catastrophic climate change, deforestation, mass species extinction, ocean "dead zones", and lack of access to fresh water.

     Writing in the online international journal BioScience, the scientists led by top US ecologist Professor William Ripple, from Oregon State University, said: "Humanity is now being given a second notice ... We are jeopardising our future by not reining in our intense but geographically and demographically uneven material consumption and by not perceiving continued rapid population growth as a primary driver behind many ecological and even societal threats.
Climate change might be worse than thought after scientists find major mistake in water temperature readings
"By failing to adequately limit population growth, reassess the role of an economy rooted in growth, reduce greenhouse gases, incentivise renewable energy, protect habitat, restore ecosystems, curb pollution, halt defaunation, and constrain invasive alien species, humanity is not taking the urgent steps needed to safeguard our imperilled biosphere."

     In their original warning, scientists including most of the world's Nobel Laureates argued that human impacts on the natural world were likely to lead to "vast human misery".
      The new notice, written as an open-letter "viewpoint" article, won the support of 15,364 scientists from 184 countries who agreed to offer their names as signatories.

     The authors drew on data from government agencies, non-profit organisations and individual researchers to set out their case that environmental impacts were likely to inflict "substantial and irreversible harm" to the Earth.

     Prof Ripple said: "Those who signed this second warning aren't just raising a false alarm. They are acknowledging the obvious signs that we are heading down an unsustainable path. "We are hoping that our paper will ignite a widespread public debate about the global environment and climate."
Scientists warn of 'ecological Armageddon' after study shows flying insect numbers plummeting 75 per cent. Progress had been made in some areas - such as cutting ozone-depleting chemicals, and increasing energy generated from renewable sources - but this was far outweighed by the damaging trends, said the scientists.
They pointed out that in the past 25 years:
  • The amount of fresh water available per head of population worldwide has reduced by 26%.
  • The number of ocean "dead zones" - places where little can live because of pollution and oxygen starvation - has increased by 75%.
  • Nearly 300 million acres of forest have been lost, mostly to make way for agricultural land.
  • Global carbon emissions and average temperatures have shown continued significant increases.
  • Human population has risen by 35%.
  • Collectively the number of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and fish in the world has fallen by 29%.
     Prof Ripple and his colleagues have formed a new independent organisation called the Alliance of World Scientists to voice concerns about environmental sustainability and the fate of humanity.

     I have siad it before, but if you have a spare few minutes google Naomi Oreskes and her short "fictual or factional" book..The collapse of Western Civilisation; A view from the future. Thought provoking.

Sunday, 12 November 2017


     You may have noticed the lack of original material over the last couple of weeks. There is a very good reason for this - quite simply I haven't written any. Until now that is. And then not much.

     I recently said a final farewell to a man given less thean three weeks to live nearly 30 years ago. Uncle, mentor and spiritual godfather he never did anything by the book and so, out of belligerence I think, he confounded modern medecine for a way too long. Finally fatigue caught up with him and, strong in his faith, he accepted his fate and passed away peacefully. The surprise is the impact that his death has had on me and my work. 

     David, for that was his name, was an accomplished biblical scholar and well versed in the vagaries of historic translations and ancient languages. It is something I had hoped to discuss at length with him upon completion of my studies. An opportunity missed. Again. 

      At the same time a close friend, and my academic wing.......mmmm.......let me think...........person......(maybe)...... has been taken seriously ill and has to take a years sabbatical. Uni life, even for an ancient student like myself, is beginning to feel rather lonely......the remainder of my contemporaries completing a years placement.

     And yet the penny is beginning to drop. My project is progressing rather well and, with the help of a very able supervisor, I am attaining some clarity of thought. Though that may not seem so evident on these pages. Much has happened in archaeology over the past few weeks. 

     Voids "discovered" in the Great Pyrmaid of Giza. Reconstructions of past human faces....cleanly shaved by gillette! CiFA discussions in the UK...with online debate about "Chartered" status. Issues with the UK CITB CSCS health and safety card system. Questions raised, again, about hominin speciations...and the declaration of a new species of higher primate ( a known orang utan now given species status). I could go on forever and yet not scratch the surface. 

     So, for this week, and with a major presentation to finalise......for monday afternoon. I shall keep it simple. I am back writing. Hopefully the humour will return soon. In the meantime a little  light (😏😏😏😏😏😏😘) reading.....

      I  leave you with an article published recently in The Guardian newspaper here in the UK. You might agree with little, some, or all of what Campbell suggests. But I ask this one question.

     When did the "Anthropocene"  epoch get agreement within the discipline of archaeology? Last I heard there was a working party, largely geologically based, but that the issue (if indeeed issue there is) remains "under discussion". I may well be corrected on this one, but doubt it somehow.
     "The United States government recently published the Climate Science Special Report authored by 13 federal agencies, which states unequivocally that climate change is occurring and it is caused by human actions. The report follows several months of uncommonly strong hurricanes caused by warmer-than-typical ocean temperatures. The Trump Administration responded to the report by stating: “The climate has changed and is always changing.”
     Climate change is part of life on planet Earth; however, context is needed to understand past change and the current situation. Archaeology can explain how temperature change of just a few degrees cause extreme weather events, affect crops, and impact human lives. It also shows how the current changes are different from those in the past.

     Looking deep into time, anatomically modern humans lived during three epochs: Pleistocene, Holocene, and now Anthropocene. Earth during the Pleistocene was very different from today; the epoch was characterized by a harsh climate, strong winds and storms, and large ice sheets. Climate was highly variable and humans survived in small nomadic groups for around 190,000 years through this period.

     18,000 years ago, the ice caps began to melt and approximately 11,000 years ago we entered a period of unusually stable climate called the Holocene. Everything we know and recognize as human civilization dates to this epoch: agriculture, cities, and complex societies. Any person’s name you can think of comes from this period; most of the objects from the past that we identify with (architecture, farming, the wheel, and writing) are Holocene innovations. These hallmarks of civilization originate from a period of relative climatic stability that is less than 6% of our time on Earth. Our species has been fortunate, perhaps more than we realise. The stability of the Holocene climate allowed our species to thrive.
     Mixed into this relative stability were periods of climatic interruption. These were brief, several centuries, of warmer or cooler temperatures in certain regions. Though these changes hardly compare to the great variability of the Pleistocene, they had a significant impact on societies. These regional climatic changes include the Late Antique Little Ice Age from 536-660 AD (2C cooler), Early Medieval Warm Period from 950-1200 AD (1.2-1.4C warmer), and the Little Ice Age from 1300-1700 AD (0.6C cooler).
     Though these were temperature changes of less than 2 degrees, we know these periods for their social upheaval. The climate change in Europe around the 6th-7th century AD led to the large-scale migrations that contributed to the decline of the Western Roman Empire. Change in Mesoamerica caused a decline in rainfall and droughts that led to collapse of Mayan cities during the Terminal Classic Period. The effects of climate change begin quite subtly, but lead to tipping points. A small change in temperature or precipitation can cause droughts or floods, which in turn prompt civil unrest and migrations. In the past, these periods of climatic interruption affected rainfall, caused extreme weather events and changes in crop yields, diseases, and eventually cities.
Diver Susan Bird working at Hoyo Negro, an underwater cave on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, on the remains of a 12,000- to 13,000-year-old teenage girl who died when global sea levels were much lower.
dDDDiver Susan Bird working at Hoyo Negro, an underwater cave on Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, on the remains of a 12,000 to 13,000-year-old girl who died when global sea levels were much lower. Photograph: Paul Nicklen/REUTERS
Europe during the Little Ice Age experienced increased flooding along its major rivers. This period had a relatively small temperature change, but it caused increased precipitation and extreme weather events. Rome, built on the Tiber River, saw dramatic flooding. This affected life in the city and increased the rates of diseases among the population. Disease included St Anthony’s Fire, which caused the body’s limbs to swell and fall off before the patient succumbed to death.
     When discussing climate change, scientists are referring to global climate. Humans have not previously impacted global climate; however, archaeology shows that our ancestors did make global impacts in other forms. For instance, the amount of atmospheric lead found in Greenland ice cores demonstrates that lead manufacturing from the 6th century BC through the 4th century AD affected the global atmosphere, peaking during the Roman Period. Additionally, many civilisations caused environmental change within their geographic region that significantly impacted their ability to survive. Archaeology does not show previous anthropogenic climate change, but it does demonstrate that humans can have a global impact and there are numerous examples of large-scale environment degradation affecting societies. In many cases, the archaeological record shows that human societies do not react well to change.

     Social change due to climate does not mean we will return to the Stone Age or experience a post-apocalyptic society as depicted in Hollywood films. In the past, a change of a degree has led to gradual but persistent change. A tipping point was reached and climate change contributed to the restructuring of people’s lives. What would this look like today? A lot like Syria, where decreased crop yields led to migration to cities, causing unemployment to increase and eventually civil unrest when people could not find food, shelter, or security. In 2009 – 2 years prior to the Arab Spring – the International Institute for Sustainable Development warned that rising temperatures due to climate change could impact crop yields and increase violent conflict in the Middle East.

     Currently, we have already experienced an increase of 1C, a change that is greater than the Little Ice Age and on par with the Early Medieval Warm Period, and it will be 2C by 2050, which will exceed Holocene temperature changes. The social upheaval and migrations seen in Syria may become more prevalent as we enter this new epoch, the Anthropocene, characterised by human impact on the planet. Archaeology has the benefit of the long view and findings demonstrate something very clearly: climate change is a fact of our dynamic planet and societies do not handle change well. The current change is something new – caused by humans – and potentially greater in magnitude.

     We have built our lives and societies for a Holocene Earth. However, this climate is now changing. Political factions have entrenched themselves over whether it is human-induced change or not, despite a preponderance of scientific evidence in support that it is. Perhaps it is time to take action rather than engage in partisan debates. Past civilizations have not fared well when faced with climate change; however, this time science says we have the ability to do something about it."

     I make no apology for using this article as many of my readers do not have access to The Guardian newspaper. However a, brief, word to the wise. I have mentioned before, but will do so again, the freedom of the press in the UK means that the written media (and others to be fair) often have their own agenda and support differing political factions. The Guardian is generally regarding as being left-wing liberal and a strong supporter of "Green Politics".