The Detectorist Connection
Focus on Metal Detecting: More on "Truthiness" and Debate - Bull or Sheep?http://paul-barford.blogspot.com/2013/10/focus-on-metal-detecting-more-on.html
by Paul Barford
It is interesting to note that among the ten most popular posts in the sidebar on the left there are quite a number today referring to the concept of the "truthiness" of what artefact collectors in general (and metal detectorists and ancient coin dealers in particular) are saying (currently here, here, here, here (anyone who does not believe is mentally illl), here (false identity), here and so on). I assume that among those readers will be those who consider that what we are told by the official media about metal detecting is the Whole Truth, and those who are more sceptical and who are following this debate with a more critical eye and are keeping an eye on the deceits perpetrated by collectors, dealers and their supporters.
Mr. Barford, so this observer has been told by several contacts in the UK metal detecting community, has been engaged in confrontational disputes with detectorists since the days of his UK field officer service prior to his flight to Poland in 1986.
Mr. Barford's irrational antagonism toward the ancient coin collecting community appears to be significantly motivated by an assumption that collectors of ancient coins and the dealers who supply them, are primarily (or at least in large part) trading in coins unearthed recently by "diggers" in antiquities source states using metal detectors. That is an unfounded and unproven assumption.
While Mr. Barford is perhaps the most vocal and intensely critical proponent of this assumption, it is also shared by many others in the more radical wing of the archaeological community who tend to believe that "collectors are the real looters" -- the gist of Elia's and Renfrew's perspective (although apparently neither ever used that exact wording).
Thus the ancient coin collecting community and the trade that supplies it are inextricably linked with metal detecting, in the view of those archaeologists and cultural ministry officials who oppose any sort of metal detecting that is not strictly controlled and monitored by the authorities, as it is in most European nations which do not absolutely prohibit private use of metal detectors.
Those involved in the ancient coin trade know from observing characteristics of the coins and the behavior of the market that the great majority of coins presently being acquired by collectors must have come from past collections, and that the flood of "new to the market" material which began to surface in the 1990s had not actually all been dug up in the last few years (as Mr. Barford and like thinkers believe), but had instead been discovered over a period of many decades by individuals in Communist nations, who did not elect to disclose their discoveries to the authorities and then took advantage of the collapse of Communism to sell their accumulations.
That flood is now a thing of the past and the ancient coin market has more or less returned to the state that prevailed prior to 1990. Prices have been rising since 2005 after years of being depressed by oversupply.
In reality, ancient coin collectors and the trade that supplies them have never significantly affected the motives and actions of detectorists -- whether licit as in Britain, or illicit in nations such as Bulgaria. Most individual unearthed coins are not in collectible condition, and have little or no market value. Great numbers of these are melted down each year in nations such as Turkey, whose farmers uncover them while plowing their fields. Bronze is a valuable commodity.
There are a few discoveries each year of significant coin hoards, which were intentionally buried in a container that survived long enough for its contents to form a concretion mass. While coins on the outside of this mass are normally corroded and not collectible, those inside have been protected and in many cases are in relatively pristine condition after professional conservation. These are the fine specimens that collectors seek, but such hoards are few and far between.
Detectorists instead look for anything buried that is made of metal. In most cases found objects are considerably larger and easier to detect than individual coins, with surface details that are not nearly as small scale.
Such objects are more tolerant of corrosion in retaining value to collectors. Some found objects will be collectible coins and detectorists will collect or trade them, however these are incidental finds rather than the discovery expectations that motivate the metal detecting hobby.
While neither coin collectors nor detectorists ever desired to become interlinked in this manner it is clear that they are, and that the present situation is actually a complex interplay between collectors and detectorists, united only by a common enemy -- and their enemy, the radical wing of the archaeological community who hold that "collectors are the real looters" because they are guilty of providing a market, and that metal detectorists are in reality looters whose activities should be prohibited or strictly regulated.
A fourth participant in this overly complex interplay is cultural ministry officials and in particular, the U.S. State Department. On the whole, this sector of officialdom tends to be supportive of the radical wing of the archaeological community, although there have been some notable exceptions. There has also in many cases been a hona fide effort made to be fair and impartial, which is sometimes difficult to reconcile with the perspective of the radical wing of the archaeological community.
At this point it is not at all clear how the coin collecting and detectorist communities should conduct their affairs to coordinate and energize their opposition to the radical archaeological community. An effective approach would no doubt be seized upon to "prove" that this coordinated opposition was conspiracy and collusion to "loot," "smuggle," and otherwise profit from "ripping out of the ground" archaeological objects, thereby irrevocably destroying their sacred context. A dialogue is needed.