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Citizen research or irreversible harm?

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Undiscovered archeaological sites are constantly being destroyed by climate change and modern agriculture. Activity of non-professional metal detectorists may be the only chance for us to find some of these places. However, academics raise concerns that where no effort is made to record data in a scientific manner, hobbyist exploration means an inevitable loss of information about the past. How should professionals treat hobbyist researchers? I am glad to present an interview with Suzie Thomas, one of the coordinating editors of Open Archaeology’s Topical Issue on Aspects of non-professional metal detecting in Europe.

The topical issue of Open Archaeology was not your first involvement in the topic of non-professional metal detecting. Could you tell me about you previous activities in this topic?

I actually did my PhD (at Newcastle University, UK) on the relationships between archaeologists and metal detectorists in England and Wales, so I have spent quite some time studying this theme in depth. Due to that research, I co-edited what I think is probably the first book to really discuss archaeology and non-professional metal detecting at an international level, and I have of course written pieces and participated in the debates. Most recently, since moving to Finland, I have also been researching the phenomenon within this country – for example with my colleagues Anna Wessman and Leena Koivisto (see our article in this topical issue), as well as participating in discussions and groups in Europe and North America.

What are the attitudes of academic archaeologists toward non-professional metal detecting?

The attitudes vary, as both this collection and previous literature from academic archaeologists demonstrate. It may appear from the development of finds databases and other infrastructures in some countries that the academic community is becoming more accepting of metal detecting (or at least that they have accepted that the hobby will not be disappearing any time soon, and that in fact in some cases it seems to be growing in popularity). Yet elsewhere, the connection to criminality and the illicit trade in antiquities – domestically and internationally – mean that many academics have tremendous difficulty accepting the arguments of metal detectorists who claim to carry out their activity from a hobbyist perspective, driven by an interest in history and archaeology. There still also exists interest in and debate about the archaeological impact of metal detecting, and the legal responses to it. That said, we increasingly look at the heterogeneous worldviews that exist outside of our academic bubble.

What are the biggest problems connected to non-professional metal detecting from the perspective of academic archaeology?

There are the practical challenges for archaeologists working on particular archaeological sites or periods, that any disturbance at archaeological sites – especially where no effort is made to record data in a scientific manner – means an inevitable loss of information which could prove to be crucial in our ability to interpret past events, places and societies. As Natasha Ferguson has pointed out in her article in this topical issue, even when detectorists believe they are being helpful in their work, different understandings of the reality of archaeological research may mean that even the best intentions of detectorists may present serious challenges to the archaeologists.

From my own perspective – as someone interested in the drivers and motivations of non-professional metal detectorists – a key challenge will always be accessing the detectorists themselves: how can we find out how many metal detectorists there actually are? How do we get them to tell us their own stories (rather than, for example, the stories they think archaeologists would like to hear them tell)?

Can non-professional metal detecting have a positive influence on academic archaeology?

I think it can. One thing to remember is the practicality of trying to preserve all archaeological sites for all time (or until archaeologists are ready to study them). Aside from metal detecting, there are numerous, often enormous phenomena that threaten and actively obliterate both known and unknown places of archaeological significance – from modern agricultural techniques through to urban planning and climate change. Sadly too, military conflict is still in the world, and we are seeing the disastrous consequences for cultural heritage in places such as Syria right now. Some will argue that – in light of these perhaps unavoidable threats – we should not tolerate those damaging activities that can be prevented, such as metal detecting. However, this stance is unlikely to be achievable in practice – and several of the papers in this topical issue show that even in countries where metal detecting is not legally permitted, it still persists. Therefore, the approach of other countries – for example in Flanders where metal detecting’s legal status was recently changed, has been rather than trying to remove metal detecting all together, to encourage hobbyists to adopt an approach that actually helps archaeological research. That is, to make precise records of their discoveries (including find spot details and particulars of the object itself), and to report these to an appropriate authority. We are already seeing that this kind of data has real use for archaeological research. An obvious example of this is the many projects and PhD theses that have utilized the Finds Database developed by the Portable Antiquities Scheme in England and Wales (also see Michael Lewis’ article in the topical issue).

Can non-professional metal detecting be considered “citizen research”?

I think that opens up into the wider discussion – still evolving – concerning what “citizen research” and “citizen science” really means. There is clearly the scope, and even the reality of it already happening in some parts of Europe, for metal detectorists to contribute data from their activities to archaeology in different way (most notably through recording their finds with relevant organizations). I am sure others will continue to be critical of this approach, arguing that the “science”, and quality of information offered by metal-detected finds will always be inferior to the data retrieved through more thorough scientific methods. Others will continue to question how we can be sure that the data being offered by detectorists is accurate and has not been altered – for example to mask evidence of illegal trespassing. That said, in many cases metal detectorists search in areas unlikely ever to be investigated archaeologically, and in contexts that have already been disturbed (such as ploughed fields – although even here contextual and locational data is vital), or that are under threat from destruction by other means (such as agricultural techniques). Therefore their discoveries may be the only opportunity that we have to learn about artefacts from these places, and some archaeologists – including my co-editor on this topical issue Pieterjan Deckers – have shown that previously entirely unknown typologies of artefacts may come to light solely due to the data submitted by metal detectorists.

In order for metal detecting to be effective citizen research, it is still important that they make responsible decisions about where they search (avoiding digging up protected or otherwise clearly archaeologically important sites for example), how they record their data, and their ability to make decisions concerning when to contact the professionals. Natasha Ferguson recounts an example in her article in this topical issue of a group of metal detectorists being swept up in the excitement and continuing to dig a site when they would have been better advised to stop and call in professional archaeologists. While at least some of the detectorists realized afterwards that they had acted rashly and despite their enthusiasm had caused damage to the site and impaired the data that could be gleaned from it, they were still unable to rein in their actions in the heat of the moment.

Can you provide some examples of good practices in cooperation between non-professional metal detectorists and academic researchers?

There are a number of projects either in the process of developing or already in operation, particularly in parts of Northern and Western Europe, that aim to digitize metal-detected finds data in a way that makes it accessible for both specialist researchers and the wider public. Several of these projects – for example from Denmark, Flanders, and England and Wales – are discussed in articles in this topical issue. Beyond this, we also see examples in many places of archaeologists working directly with metal detectorists as part of the wider team of investigators on an archaeological site. This has been the case of course for several decades already in the sub-field of conflict archaeology, as the pioneering work of Douglas Scott and others in the USA demonstrates. Even in countries where metal detecting is more restricted, we see reports of collaborative partnerships, for example in Poland as Agnieszka Makowska, Agnieszka Oniszczuk and Marcin Sabaciński explain in their paper in this topical issue.

In your opinion, what would be a good result of the debate on non-professional metal-detecting?

I think the key issue, as always, is to open dialogue and encourage understanding on all sides of the debate. We’re seeing right now in world politics the dangers of closing down dialogues and taking polar opposite stances, without taking the time to understand the same issues and their associated grievances from different perspectives. This means that sometimes an ideal solution will not be found, or that alternative – perhaps unexpected – approaches may be necessary. However, respecting different viewpoints and understanding how those views came about is essential, in my opinion.

Image: Copyright William Starkey and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic, cropped, with some filters added.

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