Sunday, May 4, 2014

Sixty Three Thousand Euros ... or Twelve and a Half pence in old money

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Sixty Three Thousand Euros ... or Twelve and a Half pence in old money

Stuart Rathbone

Godwin's law asserts that "as an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1". Although this isn't strictly correct it does neatly highlight how quickly internet discussions can become bad tempered, irrational and vitriolic. Any follower of online archaeological discussion groups will know that one subject that almost always goes off the deep end at an alarming speed is the topic of metal detection. After partaking in several such discussions recently my good friend Robert invited me to tackle some aspects of the subject on his popular blog. I am slightly suspicious that this is the editorial equivalent of shoving somebody into the path of an oncoming car, but Bob you'd never do something like that to me, would you?

As most people reading this piece will no doubt be aware it is not illegal to Metal Detect in Ireland. However, any use of a Metal Detector must be done under Licenses issued by the National Monuments Service in conjunction with the National Museum of Ireland (see also: here). Your average man on the street is not going to be issued with such licenses so in effect there is no legal hobby of Metal Detection in Ireland. A succinct summary of the situation was provided during a recent on line discussion by the 9th level Geophysical Ninja James Bonsall:

"The use of a detection device in Ireland is illegal, unless you are in possession of a Ministerial Consent commonly known as a 'Detection Licence'. Detection devices include any device capable of detecting archaeological objects, deposits or caves and include terrestrial geophysical instruments (magnetometers, earth resistance meters, GPR, etc and metal detectors, as well marine geophysical instruments (side-scan sonar, towfish magnetometers and marine metal detectors). As a geophysicist, I have to submit a Detection Licence application and Method Statement to the National Monuments Service for each survey that I carry out. I have been carrying out geophysical surveys in Ireland for 12 years and I have applied for and received many Detection Licences. I cannot dig for any of the anomalies, deposits or objects that I find. If I wish to dig then I need another Ministerial Consent, commonly known as an Excavation Licence. I'm not entitled to an Excavation Licence because, despite 2 archaeological degrees, I don't have anywhere near the necessary experience to pass the Licence Exam. This is not a complaint - I'm merely illustrating that the excavation of archaeological objects or deposits must be carried out by professionals with appropriate experience and understanding of the law. So the hobby of metal detecting actually breaks two laws under Irish Legislation: to use a detection device without a Detection Licence and excavating an archaeological object without an Excavation Licence."

Metal Detectors and Me
Now Metal Detection is not really one of the standard methods used in Irish Archaeology but, as luck would have, it I am one of what I assume to be a reasonably small number of License Eligible Archaeologists that has undertaken substantial amounts of Metal Detection within the Republic. How this came to be is a rather random story that's just about worth quickly telling. When the methodology for the M3 Motorway project was being finalised one of the suggestions made by the National Museum of Ireland in their advisory role was that topsoil assessments should be under taken over all of the archaeological sites that had been identified during the testing phase of that scheme. The suggestion was incorporated into the National Roads Authorities project design and after specialist input from Dr Conor Brady a methodology was devised for comprehensive topsoil assessments consisting of large area Metal Detection and limited sample screening of topsoil within the boundaries of all of the previously identified archaeological sites. I had previously undertaken several spectacularly unsuccessful attempts at metal detecting battlefield sites in Northern Ireland and so sometime in 2005 my boss walked up to me and said "Stuart, you know how to Metal Detect, I have a job for you..." Being a near exemplary employee I of course immediately agreed to undertake the work with my usual grace and docility and never, not even once, bitched or moaned about it.

Throughout much of 2005 I spent a great deal of time whizzing up and down the route of the M3 with a team of 6 assistants, following little beeps down through the topsoil and sieving our way through a seemingly endless number of test pits. We found an awful lot of pieces of tractor and handfuls of 19th and early 20th century coins as well as the odd musket ball. At some of the post medieval sites we did find artefacts that could be directly related to the underlying archaeology, but in most cases the finds from the topsoil seemed to be quite detached from the interesting archaeology that lay beneath it. Only at Dunboyne 2 was our methodology really found wanting when after 800 hits in a small portion of the site the endeavor was abandoned. I still firmly believe this site was once the home of a nail bomb testing facility, even if this interpretation failed to gain official sanction. Towards the end of 2005 I was taken off the topsoil assessment and went off to work on the excavations at Dowdstown 2 with Lydia Cagney, and the mighty warrior Derek Gallagher took over the project until its completion sometime in 2006. The most exciting find I can remember my team recovering was a Silver Florin from Dowdstown 2, but Derek had more luck later on, finding a nice Medieval Ring Brooch at Boyerstown 1 and two Medieval coins, a book clasp and an important decorated prick spur at Lismullen. The site at Boyerstown 1 was subsequently subjected to much more intensive topsoil screening and metal detecting, a process that eventually led to the recovery of over 7000 topsoil artefacts associated with the underlying Medieval farmstead.

The results from all of this work are included in the appendices of the M3 reports that have been published online. It remains to be seen how well this data will be integrated into the final publications from this project. I have often thought about going through the results and trying to assess the value of the work, and if it hasn't been done already I'm certainly not above taking this opportunity to highlight to any passing NRA types that my services can still be secured at perfectly reasonable rates!

Irish heritage being stolen one piece at a time. This procedure is compliant with  the Code of Conduct of the Amateur Metal Detecting Association of Ireland ... but it certainly isn't legal. (Source)
Initially, I was quite skeptical of the benefits of the assessment compared to the considerable expenditure involved in a team of 7 archaeologists working in the field for over a year along with the associated post excavation costs. Over time my feelings have changed and it is now quite clear to me that a small percentage of sites, such as Boyerstown 1 or the important early Medieval/Viking settlement at Woodstown 6 in County Waterford, require a full examination of the topsoil overlying the site. Seeing as the only real way of determining whether or not such a procedure is necessary is to undertake an initial topsoil assessment then such work should really become a standard part of our methodology on all commercial archaeological projects.

The other big discovery I made during my work on that project is that Metal Detecting really isn't for me. I found it utterly tedious and demoralising and I will certainly never be taking it up as a hobby. It's actually quite hard for me to imagine a less appealing way of spending my own free time … perhaps something in the order of being locked up for a weekend in a police cell with nothing to read but a copy of a Richard Littlejohn book called "I'm not a racist but..."

Metal Detectors in Ireland; the forbidden hobby
A rather shocking video recently appeared on YouTube that claims to be a film of 'Ireland's first metal detecting rally’, which appears to have taken place sometime earlier this year (2014) somewhere in County Wicklow. The narrator claims 15 people attended this rally and certainly 11 different metal detectors are visible at one point in the video (4min 30sec ff.). The viewer is shown a series of early modern coins that were found during the day and mention is made of a gold ring. When this ring is finally revealed it thankfully seems to be more 'Discount at Argos' than 'Treasure of the Ancient Celts', but there can be no doubt that what is shown is a video of an organised crime. This video came to the attention of several archaeological discussion groups and there was much outrage and some enjoyable Scooby Doo style amateur sleuthing. Various people made sure that both the National Museum of Ireland and the National Monuments Service were aware of the video.

The 'Argosware' ring found in County Wicklow. Viewing the various videos posted by Wicklow 1966 it's clear that there is little interest in the historical value of the artefacts, everything is about the monetary value. In one video he spends an evening searching the seafront at Bray for lost change. (Source)
In the archaeological forums the consensus seemed to be that the people involved were not just criminals, but particularly thick ones, not only because they advertised their crime so publicly, but because clues in the video let some of our sharp eyed colleagues determine the identity of at least one of the participants. I was not so sure about that. The brazenness of the post and the attitudes of those involved suggested to me that this was perhaps part of a deliberate campaign to challenge the legal status of Metal Detecting as a hobby in Ireland. A look at some of the other videos posted by the petty criminal mastermind known as 'Wicklow 1966' proved my hunch correct. In some way he is linked to an organisation called "The Amateur Metal Detecting Association of Ireland," a group actively promoting the view that the laws regarding Metal Detection should be reassessed. They run a website that supplies "metal detectors and photo ID to legally use a metal detector in the Republic of Ireland" but of course no such ID badge exists and selling devices with the aim of retrieving archaeological artefacts without an appropriate Licence is a crime in and of itself. Should you choose to become a member you will be expected to "agree and adhere to a strict code of conduct," but it does seem odd that they would set up their own such code whilst deliberately ignoring the codes of conduct clearly laid out in Irish Legislation. Looking through a selection of videos by 'Wicklow 1966' it becomes obvious that he is well aware of the law in Ireland regarding Metal Detection but sees it as right that is being illegitimately denied to him. It is also clear that whilst he talks about 'doing no harm' and working on 'ploughed fields' he is quite happy to work within what are blatantly obvious archaeological sites, as can be seen during the opening section of his video "Our right our hobby Detecting the Republic of Ireland" (e.g. 0min 40sec). In that video he makes a series of other concerning comments whilst poking through a haul of finds from a day of illegal detecting. Regarding a series of Early Modern coins he says:

""I don't even bother cleaning these, it’s just scrap bucket more or less." (9min 50sec)
Then whilst looking at a tacky silver pendent, also fortunately Argosware, he says
"I just gave it a quick rub in baking powder … do the aluminium spitting trick after" (11min 11sec)

I've no idea what the aluminium spitting trick is but it is clear from this section he isn't properly recording or caring for the objects he finds. More importantly, it seems he is quite happy to undertake conservation and cleaning of artefacts without acquiring a 'License to alter' archaeological objects, another criminal act.

Like many archaeologists, I would like to see the full weight of the law thrown at this guy, not just for the crimes he is clearly frequently committing, but also as a deterrent to others. The laws are very clear and the penalty offences relating to Metal Detectors include fines of up to €63,486 and/or up to 3 months imprisonment. There is no point throwing the book at people if it turns out to have all the weight and substance of a Domino’s Pizza leaflet. I would suggest something with the mass and solidity of the National Museum of Ireland's own recent two volume corpus on excavated burials, Breaking Ground, Finding Graves, would be more suitable. That ought to loosen some teeth and fracture a jaw. Metaphorically speaking, of course. I can only hope that more serious cases are being prepared against known, persistent offenders by the National Museum of Ireland and the Gardaí (the Irish police force), and that we will see more punitive measures taken in the future.

A selection of the Metal Detectors in use during the County Wicklow rally. In this shot 11 separate detectors are seen leaning up against the gate, although if 15 people attended there were presumably a few more devices around. (Source)
Could a case be made for the Metal Detection to become a legitimate hobby in Ireland? The obvious issue is the inability of your average person to acquire the necessary licenses. But let's say a group of would be Detectorists realised they couldn't do any detection without a pair of Licenses and, as they couldn't get these Licenses themselves, they would have to hire an archaeologist. They would, no doubt, find that the services of a License Eligible archaeologist could currently be secured at a perfectly reasonable rate. The archaeologist would surely point out that they would also need to fund the provision of proper supplies, i.e. museum approved packaging and labelling materials, finds boxes, conservation materials, and fund the costs of producing a suitably detailed report on the work undertaken. It's just possible that the Detectorists might decide ok, they would finance all of this. Under those circumstances, it is feasible that a License Eligible archaeologist could be talked into submitting the appropriate License applications.

But would it be approved? I'm really not sure. It would presumably be judged at least partially on the merits of its project design. If the archaeological research design was done properly, all the questions about the involvement of the Detectorists were answered, and the availability of appropriate funding was assured, then I can't see any particular reason why it shouldn't be. It is possible that the Licensing section of the National Monuments Service and the staff at the National Museum of Ireland would refuse it simply because they didn't want to encourage Metal Detection as a hobby activity even in a way that would be compliant with the law. I have not heard of any such proposal being sent in for assessment so it is hard to say what the attitude would be.

This idea brings up two obvious issues. As described above the Detectorists would have to gather the funds to pay for the archaeologist’s time and to cover all of the associated costs. This burden of costs is quite in keeping with other hobbies that may have a dangerous or damaging affect. For example amateur motorbike and rally road racers have to cover substantial costs for their dangerous hobbies to be permitted by the State. But fund raising, sponsorship and grants are often part of a hobby and it seems quite acceptable to transfer this cost onto those undertaking the activity. This burden of costs would also be in complete agreement with the EU wide principal of 'Polluter Pays' under which so much archaeological work is already undertaken. Perhaps an organised Metal Detection Club could come up with the funds to undertake a useful study that would satisfy their desire to find buried artefacts whilst simultaneously satisfying the requirements to provide useful archaeological data regarding a particular area. The topsoil studies undertaken in the Boyne Valley could be used as a model for the sort of project I am thinking about here. Such a project would work well with recent efforts to increase public participation in archaeological fieldwork, something that has been rather lacking in Ireland in comparison to the UK for example where there is a long standing tradition of 'Amateur Archaeology'. The lack of active rather than passive public participation in Irish Archaeology is too big an area to discuss here, but suffice to say that with the exception of a small handful of recent projects and a few of the more adventurous Archaeological Societies archaeology in Ireland would meet almost every criteria of an elitist activity.

One of the 15 participants at the Wicklow rally busily committin heritage crime. Apparently the participants donated 150 Euro's to a local charity after the event. Hopefully they will soon be making far larger 'donations' considering the maximum penalty for illegal Metal Detecting is a €63,486 fine (Source)
One example where such a study could be a useful undertaking would be in identifying the locations of small scale Early Medieval metal working sites in the Irish Midlands, which have been excavated in some number along the course of roads such as the Kinnegad-Ennfield-Kilcock Motorway. Well structured Metal Detector surveys would surely pick up signals of these activities and such an approach could provide a much more comprehensive map of such sites than can be gained through linear developments like road schemes, and would have the advantage of being both relatively cheap and relatively un-intrusive.
The second issue is probably more difficult to dismiss and I strongly suspect it would stop such a project from ever getting off the drawing board. According to the current legislation the Irish State is the owner of all archaeological artefacts that have been found since the enactment of the constitution. This claim to ownership also extends to artefacts that have yet to be found and, therefore, there could never be a financial gain for any Detectorists involved in a legitimate research project. The Detectorists would also not be allowed to keep any artefacts in their possession, they would all have to be handed over to the National Museum of Ireland. Whilst the National Museum of Ireland is permitted to award a gratuity payment to members of the public who hand in valuable archaeological finds this is very much dependent on the circumstances of discovery and the speed at which the artefact was handed over. I doubt very much for instance that any such payment was made to the family in Roscommon who had been 'looking after' a gold lunala since the 1950's and who 'graciously donated' it to the National Museum after it had been stolen by thieves and subsequently recovered by the Gardaí. The idea that the Irish State owns all archaeological artefacts is a fundamental part of the legislation that protects Irish Heritage and it is, in my opinion, a rather wonderful piece of law that makes the situation incredibly simple. However, such a law rather would seem to remove one of the principle appeals of Metal Detecting; finding buried treasure and getting rich from selling it. How would this effect our hypothetical Metal Detecting club?  The club members would be permitted the joy of the discovery but not the benefit of the sale. Would they still be interested? And here is where the real crux of the issue lies. How much is metal detection as a hobby motivated by a thirst for knowledge and how much is it about making money? Because removed of the chance to make thousands of Euro's in a single beep the hobby would seem to becomes rather hopelessly monotonous and dull, and could lead to seriously hampered finances for those involved... a bit like the reality of a career in commercial archaeology!

In England many Metal Detectorists make great play over their interest in history and the great knowledge that is gained when they kindly elect to hand over their finds to the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Late last year Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture And Other Shite That Isn't The Top Job He Really Wanted, referred to 'Responsible Metal Detectorists'  as 'Heritage Heroes', a choice of words he no doubt regretted when he was deluged by irate responses from the UK's desperately poorly paid archaeologists (reaction: here). But would those heritage heroes really be out in the countryside giving up their free time detecting away for the good of their nation rather than the good of their own pockets? I suspect that if a similar law giving state possession to all artefacts was introduced in England, the number of active legitimate law abiding Metal Detectorists would be instantly reduced by several orders of magnitude. In Ireland with no financial reward from a successful outing, and with the burden of the costs resting with the Detectorists, it seems impossible to envisage a legitimate hobby ever developing.

I don't wish to be drawn too far into discussing Metal Detection in England but there are a couple of important points that I would like to highlight. Firstly Metal Detection is a fully legal hobby in England when undertaken away from certain protected sites and when the landowners consent has been granted. Ownership of artefacts generally rests with the landowner and some agreement is in place between the land owner and the Metal Detectorist regarding how any financial gains are to be divided. All finds of precious metal and prehistoric metal artefacts must be reported to the relevant authorities for assessment and it is encouraged that all finds are reported to the Finds Liaison Officers of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. It's very obvious that this does not always happen, but the PAS is set up in a way that attempts to provide every incentive for reporting to occur. The scale of Metal Detection in England varies by region but in certain areas known to be rich hunting grounds, for instance East Anglia, it takes place at rates that alarm many archaeologists.

A Line in the Plough-soil
One line that Metal Detectorists often claim is that the finds they uncover are in the plough-soil and so are not really in genuine archaeological contexts, and furthermore it is better that they recover as many such finds as possible before they are damaged or destroyed by further ploughing. This argument does have some merit although many archaeologists would see the entire landscape as a giant archaeological site and that even plough-soil as an archaeologically meaningful deposit. I would agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment. It is also clear that Metal Detectorists do not always stop at the base of the plough-soil in accordance with their own codes of practice but in some cases dig into intact archaeological contexts. This is where the argument for archaeological supervision really comes into play, it really isn't a great idea to let Metal Detectorists determine what and what isn't an archaeologically important deposit.

However, a major difference between England and Ireland is the degree to which the plough is in use. Approximately 44% of agricultural land in England is currently regularly ploughed and agricultural land accounts for around 72% of the total area. By my calculation that makes it roughly 32% of the entire area of England that is regularly ploughed. In Ireland as little as 10% of agricultural land is regularly ploughed and agricultural land accounts for around 60% of the total area. By closing my eyes tight and sticking my tongue out the corner of my mouth I calculated that just 6% of Ireland is regularly ploughed. This would suggest that the threat from ploughing is far less severe in Ireland which supports the idea of leaving artefacts alone until such time that they are directly threatened by development of the land.

Metal detection damage  at a National Monument in County Wicklow
recorded last year (2013) and currently under investigation.
Image courtesy of Ivor Kenny
When land in Ireland is converted from agricultural use into a building site of one kind or another it is subject to very intensive programs of archaeological work, recently highlighted by Martin Carver as being amongst the highest standards routinely practiced anywhere in the world. And yet the standard procedure during archaeological work is to scrape topsoil away with a massive tracked excavator and then pile it up at the side of the site without any further consideration. That is an approach entirely inconsistent with the idea that artefacts in the topsoil are subject to legal protection. In a sense the Licensing Authorities are saying is that Metal Detection of the topsoil cannot  occur because it is a precious resource that needs protecting but when a developer comes along with a project that involves the removal and relocation of all of the topsoil then typically it is offered no protection at all!

I'm not certain how many times topsoil assessments such as the one performed on the M3 Motorway have been used in Ireland. The extremely important Early Medieval and Viking settlement/trading site at Woodstown 6 in County Waterford has already been mentioned. At that site extensive topsoil screening was used to successfully recover many artefacts from the site which had indeed been extensively ploughed leaving many features badly truncated and filling the topsoil with artefacts. Other road projects where Metal Detection has been successfully used include the N2 Slane Bypass, the N7 Heath-Mayfield Road and the N52 Tullamore Bypass. It has also been used in relation to river dredging projects and on individual sites where deemed necessary, an early example being Una Cosgrave's 1988 excavations at Smithfield in Dublin. In a research contexts it has been used to examine at least two battlefields in Ireland, the Battle of the Boyne and the Battle of Kinsale. No doubt many additional examples could be found where Metal Detection and topsoil screening have been utilised.

As with so many aspects of the developing practices in pre-construction archaeology in Ireland the National Roads Authority have been leading the way and, perhaps, one day proper topsoil assessments will be a compulsory aspect of archaeological work. Certainly this is an area where we could learn from our American colleagues who routinely screen all soil removed from archaeological sites. The huge increase in finds retrieval when screening is used has been well known about since at least the 1970's and that includes archaeological deposits that are carefully troweled away, let alone ones that have been given a damn good mattocking. The increase in cost and effort involved in such undertakings must be properly considered. I would see a testing phase as used on the M3 Motorway as a vital procedure that should be used to determine how the rest of the excavation might best proceed. It is rather worrying to speculate about how many archaeological artefacts are now contained in the banks and verges that delimit the new housing estates and roads that were built during the great construction boom.

There is an awful lot more that could be said about this issue, and several related ones that have been but briefly mentioned here but as usual I fear I may have rambled on for far too long already. I don't suppose the staff at the National Monument Service and the National Museum of Ireland need or deserve any crap off the rest of the archaeological community. No doubt they are working on this issue as best they can given the limits of their budgets and presumably they have various strategies worked out that they hope will resolve the problem of illegal Metal Detecting. This does seem to be a problem that is on the rise and educating the public, the Gardaí and the Judges about the seriousness of the problem must be a priority. Should you feel like it perhaps this is an issue that really could be affected by a concerted letter writing campaign to local TD's. And giving crap to politicians is something I'm sure we all can agree really is a noble and worthwhile hobby.