Heritage Action Artefact Erosion Counter

A running total of the number of recordable archaeological artefacts removed from the fields of England and Wales by metal detectorists (mostly without being reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme).

Since what happens in the fields is a secret known only to each individual, no-one can claim any particular total of the number of artefacts removed by artefact hunters engaged in metal detecting is right or wrong and this has left the issue wide open to unsupported claims and the public open to misinformation. There is one certainly only: the depletion is on a very large scale and we constructed the Counter simply to demonstrate this general truth to the public.

In order to emphasise that the seriousness of the issue was beyond reasonable denial we deliberately pitched it at a conservative level. It operates on a fundamental assumption (which it shares with the Portable Antiquities Scheme) that there are only 8,000 active detectorists in England and Wales - despite every other estimate being far higher. Similarly, the rate at which the Counter shows artefacts being found is far lower than all available pointers including a number of well- documented detecting events and detectorists', archaeologists' and official estimates and surveys.

The Counter may or may not be a precise reflection of the rate of depletion (and in our view it is almost certainly a very considerable under-estimate) but the broad picture it paints - of millions of artefacts being needlessly taken and society being wantonly deprived of most of the associated knowledge of its past - appears to be perfectly accurate and is at odds with the current "official" account.


Why some say it "has" to be wrong

Detectorists say it is "ludicrous", the Head of PAS says it "lacks credibility"; a detector retailer told Britarch it is "based on nothing but presumptions and inaccuracies" and the NCMD General Secretary says it "should be viewed with contempt". But none of them says what they think the true figures are - not surprising, as who can know what is found by an individual detectorist out in a field, still less thousands of them? No-one can claim the Counter is right (which we never have) or wrong (which it's critics constantly do). All we've done is to look at the indicators in order to paint what appears to us from those to be the most likely picture of what is happening in our fields.

Two simple algorithms generate numbers (very slowly at night and faster during the day) such that the cumulative totals over any specified period correspond with that "most likely" scenario reflected in evidence we have gathered from research and observation over some years. Naturally (else we wouldn't have adopted it) it was very fully and inarguably supported by the only two studies then available - the 2005 English Heritage/CBA Report and the detectorists' own 2005 "Kevmar" survey carried out on a metal detecting forum but which subsequently mysteriously disappeared from the internet after the Counter was published. Later, in 2008, when the Counter had been running for some time, a third study was undertaken by archaeologist David Connolly and presented to the Portable Antiquities Conference - with the intention, as he had prior-announced to his detecting forum respondents, "to show that all current statistics are flawed" - but in the event it too supported the Counter's figures very fully by revealing finds rates that exceeded it.

Despite the constant claims of those that find it uncomfortable, the Counter hasn't been exaggerated. On the contrary, in anticipation of the hostility and nay saying that has greeted it we deliberately pitched it low relative to all indicators (as can be very easily shown). Thus, the figure of 8.000 assumed for the likely number of active detectorists in England and Wales is far lower than almost every one of the scores of estimates that have been made (e.g. 15,000, 20,000 (NCMD 1996), 23,000 (Norman Smith), 30,000 (Dobinson/Denison 1995), 60,000, 100,000, 180,000 (1980) and 250,000 (Simmonds, 2005 and Bill Wyman 2007) and so far as we know no-one has suggested such a low figure in 40 years - with the exception of Dr Bland of the PAS who agrees with it. Similarly, the "most likely" finds rate the Counter's algorithms use is far exceeded in all of the three surveys carried out - by a detectorist, an archaeologist and EH/CBA.

The result is that, for instance, whereas in the English Heritage/CBA survey (Table 1V) 69 detectorists revealed they found 3556 recordable finds in a year, i.e. an average of about 0.99 of an artefact each per week, the Counter shows a finds rate of only 0.69 of an artefact each per week. Any claim that the EH/CBA sample was too small or unrepresentative lacks substance in view of the fact both the Kevmar and Connolly surveys suggested much the same thing, that the Counter was too low (despite them both being perfectly open about the fact they were out to show it was too high - there is no stronger support than that of two hostile witnesses!). So on the basis of the evidence we might be justified in asking what or who is "ludicrous" and "lacking credibility" and "should be viewed with contempt"? Is it English Heritage or the CBA? Or maybe PAS that has announced, as if they feel the public should feel satisfied with such a revelation, that the annual total of items recorded with them by detectorists amounts to 0.19 of an artefact each per week. It is certainly a puzzle how the Head of the PAS can comment "How impressive to be so certain on so little evidence". The evidence seems from "little" and we have never claimed we were certain, only that we endeavoured to portray the "most likely" scenario on the basis of the "evidence". It certainly doesn't seem right for a senior official to be dismissing the work of concerned amateurs in that way. In any event, anyone moved to continue to attack the Counter should perhaps turn their attention first to EH or CBA or Kevmar or David Connolly.

It seems obvious that PAS of all organisations ought to be looking at this question rather than dismissing our attempts. We share Paul Barford's view: "I would like to hear Roger Bland's own best estimate on the number of 'recordable' artefacts that are being taken by artefact hunters (let us say just those using metal detectors) in England and Wales year by year and on what basis he arrives at his estimate. Is it possible to learn that after a decade or more and eight million quid's worth of liaison by the PAS? After not one but three separate 'independent reviews' of the Scheme's operation? It seems a pretty fundamental question to me". Not just "a" fundamental question, perhaps "the" fundamental question a taxpayer funded recording scheme ought to be seeking in order to reveal its own progress to its paymasters? The lack of efforts to determine how many 'recordable' artefacts are being taken (despite no such hesitation about estimating how many detectorists there are) prompts the speculation that it may be felt any further study would simply show what the Counter and the surveys appear to do, i.e. that progress after 13 years of "liaison and persuasion" is rather less than claimed.

Why it can't be wrong

It is clear that since an answer is not being looked for, debate of the "its true / no it isn't" ilk is entirely barren. More instructive and constructive therefore would be to consider the question about the Counter recently posed by Dr David Gill (Volume 20 of the Papers of the Institute of Archaeology) "how far out would this estimate [the Heritage Action Erosion Counter] need to be before it became a matter of marginal concern?" The answer of course is an awful lot - and it is the sheer scale of that "awful lot" that gives the Counter its significance for it doesn't seem possible for it to be sufficiently incorrect for the numbers not to be of "overwhelming" concern. After all, despite many years of hearing that PAS has pretty much got the problem down to a manageable scale the brutal truth is that right or wrong the Counter is saying something both shocking and easy to believe: that it is most likely that (let's do it in months this time) eight thousand active English and Welsh detectorists find a statistical average of 3 artefacts per month each (compared with an average of 4.3 artefacts a month each by the 69 respondents in the EH/ CBA 1995 Survey) whereas, according to PAS's statistics, they record on average only 0.82 of an artefact per month each, suggesting a massive under-reporting rate and loss of information.

Yet the only reaction, effectively, is that the Counter is "wrong" and that it is a product of a hostile agenda. Trevor Austin, General Secretary of the NCMD thinks that: "Heritage action is merely a vehicle for expounding singularly extremist vitriolic viewpoints. Both its so-called erosion counter and its statements have no basis in fact or practical knowledge of metal detecting." But in fact we have better things to do than concoct false figures or indeed defend ones that speak loudly for themselves. The Counter is our genuine opinion (except that it is deliberately conservative relative to the indications) of the most likely situation after undertaking work that others haven't. It might not be CCTV but nor is it hearsay, biased, fanciful or ludicrous and it is certainly doesn't lack corroboration or credibility - and it is suggesting, very calmly and plainly on the basis of all the indicators we have been able to find, that it is most likely that something over 70% and perhaps far over 70% of recordable metal detecting finds are not being recorded - still, after all these years of expense, persuasion, education and liaison. It's an accusation that would be better discussed than dismissed.

Why it ought to be discussed

In our view dismissing it without proper reason is akin to looking the other way as it ought to engender alarm not apathy since it points to the likelihood that the level of non-reporting may be vastly more than is being suggested. As if that was not sufficient reason to take heed of it, here are some more:

First, things may well be a lot worse than it shows because:

  1. As explained, we have deliberately erred on the conservative side but there is actually no real reason we can think of to suppose the actual finds figures aren't much higher than the Counter, like the general evidence and all three surveys suggest. (Would detectorists really find it worthwhile to keep going out (many of them for three or four decades) if all they are finding on average is three collectable and recordable artefacts a month? The EH/CBA rate of 4.3 per month / 0.99 a week sounds more tempting if you're going to keep interested long term - and would better explain how most detectorists seem to boast collections running into hundreds or thousands (a single collection of twenty thousand was offered on EBay recently).
  2. In any case, the figure of 8,000 detectorists the Counter uses excludes a large (and largely uncountable) numbers of foreign detectorists attracted here by our liberal laws. European detectorists attend British detecting rallies and many American detectorists come here on organised "detecting holidays". It also excludes all detecting in Scotland.
  3. The activity appears to be in a phase of expansion with machines "selling like hot cakes" we are told following recent massive Treasure rewards. How large and how permanent this will be is not known but the activity certainly has the potential to suddenly get much larger. (It was thought to be larger than it is now as recently as 1995 and "five to ten times" larger still back in 1980. A major re-expansion may already have happened and our and PAS's joint opinion that there are about 8,000 English and Welsh active detectorists may already be out of date, in which case PAS's 1630 recorded artefacts per week would now stand worse comparison with what a larger body of detectorists are finding. Has anyone checked? They should, urgently (see below).

Second, without a perception of the most likely amount of non-reporting there is nothing against which to judge PAS's inroads over all these years into the non-reporting community. This is dangerous because anyone that wishes can say PAS is an unconditional success without needing to hold a yardstick up to it and the taxpayer and stakeholder can thus gain an erroneous impression. Hence Gabriel Moshenska of the UCL Institute of Archaeology can write: "metal detecting without reporting finds is nearly as reprehensible and harmful to heritage as excavating without publishing. Fortunately the Portable Antiquities Scheme and its hard-earned relationship with the metal detecting community offers a practical, pragmatic and proven solution to this problem"

Does it? How can we tell?

Poor public. Poor taxpayers. Poor stakeholders. From the moment it was created PAS has been widely hailed first by itself, then by politicians and then by almost everyone as a success, not least through its countless press releases saying so, even though Baroness Blackstone said in 1992 that the aim of the Scheme was "to change public attitudes to recording finds so that it becomes normal practice for finders to report them." That's what comes of no yardstick and no serious examination of non-reporting rates - people, even including many archaeologists and academics (so what chance does the general public and the Treasury have?) appear to have been convinced that post-PAS the recording of finds is normal practice. They (archaeologists, the public and the Treasury) are unlikely to think otherwise so long as many thousands of detectorists, thousands of PAS-inspired press reports and PAS itself are saying so and many thousands of detectorists and PAS are rubbishing the Counter and (by clear implication), the surveys of Kevmar, David Connolly and PAS's two sister organisations).

The words of both Dr Moshenska and Mr Austin illustrate the need for a debate that doesn't start from an unquestioning perception that PAS is a success irrespective of the amount of information being lost or destroyed. That defies logic. Yet somehow that is exactly the situation that has arisen. The number of recordable artefacts that are being taken by artefact hunters is the essential information required before PAS and the whole of Britain's portable antiquities strategy can be sensibly evaluated. An entirely unsupported and highly dubious account of that number seems to have been put about. But then, artefact hunters and collectors can be perfectly adequately characterised as at war with archaeological guardians over the disposition of part of the buried archaeological resource and everyone knows what is the first casualty in war particularly if, mid-battle, some of the cavalry forget which side they are on. The Counter should be treated seriously. The depletion and information loss due to legal artefact hunting appears to be on a far grander scale than the public is being told.