Friday, 27 June 2014

In praise of metal detecting. 10. The big picture

The reconciliation of the Montagues and Capulets
over the dead bodies of Romeo and Juliet.
Lord Frederick Leighton, 1855

Where be these enemies? Capulet! Montague!
See, what a scourge is laid upon your hate,
That heaven finds means to kill your joys with love.
And I for winking at your discords too
Have lost a brace of kinsmen: all are punish'd.

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet,
Act 5, Scene 3 (the Prince)

Survivors of the New Archaeology of the seventies when Science was going save all, have clung to one of it's last tenets: contextual archaeology. It was a technique, untested and unscientific, that was supposed to deliver an objective "archaeological record", but many cracks started to appear in that model, not the least of which was the importance of the observer. Things were starting to change. In Thinking From Things, p. 6, Alison Wylie says:
"In some quarters practice-minded archaeologists declared a plague on all houses and withdrew from theoretical debate altogether. It held nothing for them and had manifestly failed to deliver clear-cut answers to their quandaries."
More cracks started to appear in the model and by the mid eighties it was understood by many that the archaeologist was just as an important factor in archaeological interpretation as anything found at a site. People started worrying about whether objectivity was even a possibility. In 1983, the American philosopher Richard J. Bernstein published Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis in which he resurrected and added to Charles Sanders Peirce's pragmatism, saying:
 "Peirce criticizes the picture of scientific reasoning that represents it as a linear movement from premises to conclusions or from individual facts to generalizations. In its place he emphasizes the multiple strands and diverse types of evidence, data, hunches, and arguments used to support a hypothesis or theory. Any one of these strands may be weak in itself and insufficient to support the proposed theory, but collectively they provide a stronger warrant for for rational belief than any single line of argument ― like a strong cable that is made up of multiple weak strands. This shift in characterizing scientific argumentation is one of the reasons Peirce so emphasized the community of inquirers ― for it is only in and through such a critical community that one can adequately test the collective strength of such multiple argumentation." (p. 69)
Shortly after this, I was applying Darwinian ideas to the chronology of Celtic coin dies, seeing their ongoing changes as evolutionary and was the first person to apply evolutionary cladistics to an archaeological subject. Moving on from that interdisciplinary action, I started to embrace transdisciplinarity where different realities can be connected by turning classical logic on its head ― substituting an included middle instead of an excluded middle. It had been seen that this action had resolved the wave/particle duality in quantum physics. For a long time, I had seen that there was something between opposing ideas, something that I could not put my finger on. I first noticed this at about the same time that I had just read Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game. I had thought that I had just made contact with the secret of the universe, but glimpsed it as if through a glass, darkly.

Goya, The sleep of reason
produces monsters
Meanwhile, aficionados of the New Archaeology, sensing their imminent demise as members of a viable theory, started to put their wagons in a circle in order to claim the subject. Some of them became very vocal. In part, this was because many of their bosses who were weaned on the New Archaeology were now in positions of importance. Gains made by Tony Gregory in uniting the interests of metal detecting and archaeology started to erode under their relentless proselytizing. What had started as a theory had turned into a cult  ― actually a very common occurrence wherever reason is replaced with dogma.

Many plants, sensing the end, set unusually large amounts of fruit in the hopes that some of their progeny will survive. This is why you do not overfertilize peppers, with enough nutrition, they are quite happy to make lots of new leaves and create more roots to use it. If you cut back the fertilizer, you get more peppers. Every time that a fisherman in the Sea of Japan hacks apart a large jellyfish and throws the remains back in the sea, each part of that jellyfish eventually makes yet more jellyfish to clog their nets.

So these proselytizing remnants of the New Archaeology apply a different sort of fertilizer to get more leaves on the plant and grow more roots: Harry G. Frankfurt, On Bullshit, p. 65ff, says:
"One response to this lack of confidence has been a retreat from the discipline required by dedication to the ideal of correctness to a quite different sort of discipline, which is imposed by pursuit of an alternative ideal of sincerity. Rather than seeking primarily to arrive at accurate representations of a common world, the individual turns toward trying to provide honest representations of himself. Convinced that reality has no inherent nature, which he might hope to identify as the truth about things, he devotes himself to being true to his own nature. ... Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial ― notoriously less able and less inherent than the natures of other things. And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit."
Their unwillingness to embrace the Zeitgeist, and to move archaeology onward, thus bears no fruit. But how can we all clearly see this Zeitgeist? I think that Google Books Ngrams give a good indicator about what people are talking about. I set the following Ngram to start at 1930 (around the time of the first commercial metal detectors. It ends in 2000 which is the default setting picked, I believe, because many more recent books have yet to be digitized. It is possible to set it as late as 2009, but I feel that the results might be misleading:

You can see that some public interest in amateur archaeology has been taken up by metal detecting. We also know that, currently, professional archaeology is facing an uncertain economic future. More mainstream archaeology is starting to look at what metal detectorists have to say. It was good timing that as I was talking about metal detecting from the conservation perspective (which I was informed about by some detectorists), a Ph.D opportunity was being promoted by Huddersfield University to study the effects of modern farming practices on archaeological evidence. If you are a detectorist, you might even contact them about what you have observed, show them the evidence from certain fields, perhaps even let them study those fields to compare the ground conditions on ploughed land with those of nearby grazing or heath land where there has been less impact. While this might be a pioneering project for archaeology, the effects of fertilizers and pesticides has already been studied for things like underground copper piping etc. If you have the prerequisites, or can convince them that experience can account for the lack, thereof, you might even go for that degree yourself.

This is the last episode of this series, I hope you have enjoyed it and my apologies for including some of the more esoteric stuff. I wanted all of my ideas about the subject to be represented. I'll be back on Monday with something else (if I can think of a subject!). Have a great weekend.


  1. Well done...I have read the entire series and have been quite taken with the way you have put forth one of the (maybe ONLY) defense of the hobby and passion of metal detecting and the folks that do it. I have been putting the "coil to soil" for many years, having started when I was about 14 in 1966 with a home built machine, cobbled together from the remains of an AM radio, a broomstick and birdhouse (a long story) to now, using a computerized Minelab E-Trac digital metal detector. Back then, the hobby had not drawn the accrued animosity of tunnel-visioned archaeologists and inflated politicos that we have to contend with today, especially here in the decomposing remains of personal freedom in what was once the United States. Your series hit the nail on the head and I am handing printed copies out to the metal detecting clubs here in central Florida. We rarely have the words, let alone the means, to halt the pompous clowning of certain archaeological groups. This is not to say that we, as a group, despise or dislike archaeologists or the work they attempt to do...far from it. There have been many instances of archaeologists and detectorists working together toward a common goal with excellent results, and indeed, many metal detecting hobbyists have entered the hobby through the love of history, with an abiding interest in the work of archaeologists in general. Our club members regularly make artifacts available to our local museums and Historical Societies along with records of when and where it was found. We have had several cases where a local historical society will ask us to see if we can locate certain artifacts from certain areas for the museum. One such request was to see if we could locate century-old brass baggage tags with the name of the town's only railroad ever built. Our club and associated members have returned thousands, upon thousands of dollars worth of lost jewelry to their rightful owners, help solve crimes for the local police departments (solved a murder by finding brass shell casings the police had not been able to find in a week of searching) and believe we are providing areal community service through our efforts. We discover coins and artifacts during road excavations that are turned over to museum curators that tell the history and use of roads that were not known before we examined it, with no archaeologist even slightly interested in examining some of these historic byways. One thing that metal detectorists are getting better at is research...and there is at least one case where that research has helped an archaeologist find something they were looking for where the detectorist provided the information they were seeking. The ridiculous myth that only a scholar with a PhD is qualified to find and evaluate historical artifacts has probably lost us more chances to examine historical remains when they become available, than all the grave diggers and looters in history. The current feelings among such groups is "If we can't have it, nobody can have it..." and time and time again, they would literally rather that these resources be lost for all time, "...conserved in situ." I believe is the term for letting it slowly disintegrate away, primarily because a small minority will never find the time or financial means to retrieve, examine or catalog it. Thanks for the great 10-part series John...we all enjoyed it immensely.

  2. Thank you James, I am deeply touched -- and humbled, by what you say. My utterances are nothing compared with the work -- on the ground, of such people as Tony Gregory and Henry Mossop in the UK.

    What you are doing, in the US, is just as important, but you have an even more difficult task ahead of you than people like Gregory because you face more opposition. However, even as a Canadian, I have great faith in the know-how of the American people -- A bit less for your government though ;-). Still, what is democracy if it is not the people?

    Detractors of metal-detecting are giving archaeology a bad name, and they do not seem to realize this. Working together produces results far in excess of what can be achieved by either, alone as it brings together very different people -- people with different viewpoints, experiences and skills. I have known metal detectorists who have had a far greater knowledge of the history of their region than any "ivory tower" academic in the same region. Even the field archaeologist rarely has the opportunity to see so much of the land and see the big picture.

    And like you say, there is more to it than just archaeology -- you guys are helping grandma find her lost ring, inspiring people to appreciate their histories and even helping to put criminals in jail. I'm just a writer, but if I can inspire people such as yourself even more, then my life has a real and practical value too. So I thank you for this. Great to meet a "pioneer" too!

    With gratitude and admiration,