An Unkind Response to my PAS Article (LATE UPDATE)

I have just noticed that Paul Barford has produced a very long response to my article on the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Initially I was pleased that my article had gained some notice. Imagine my dismay then when Barford accuses me of producing, ‘glib spin’, bad writing, claims I’m ignorant, and even hints that I’ve committed plagiarism. And he didn’t even do me the courtesy of sending an email.

I hope there might be a serious scholarly response to the article at some point, and I look forward to reading it. At present I’m not aware of any thoughtful scholarly work (peer-reviewed for example) which criticizes the PAS. Perhaps Barford would be inclined to produce something like this? Given the tenor of his blog though, I wonder if he is capable of passing peer-review.

I don’t really have a lot to say about the points he raises, because there aren’t any intellectually honest arguments. Rather he’s displayed an unfortunate tendency to produce Rovian and Hannity-style discourse. He takes my arguments out of context, wilfully twisting them in a way which indicates an inability to conduct any kind of meaningful discourse.

To take one example, he writes:

[T]he PAS allegedly represents a policy that: “sharply contrasts with the context-focused narrative found in most culture heritage scholarship”. This gives a totally false impression of the PAS and its aims… It is all about context of the finds in its database.

Right, well here’s what the article states:

The PAS is the voluntary system created to record and document objects that are not encompassed by the Treasure Act and are unearthed legally. The PAS is a novel approach to undiscovered antiquities, which rests on a legal framework that essentially allows amateur and unprofessional digging. This policy cuts against the overriding policy choices of most nations of origin and sharply contrasts with the context-focused narrative found in most cultural heritage scholarship.

He also accuses me of stating the PAS pays finders and detectorists. No. I state very clearly “If the object is deemed treasure, the finder is entitled to a reward based on the market price of the object.” One of the main reasons I wrote the piece was to make clear that the PAS does not pay finders of non-treasure objects! Finders of treasure recieve a reward, and have since the 19th century; the PAS works in conjunction with this legal framework to encourage voluntary reporting of objects the Crown has no legal claim to.

I don’t expect everyone will agree with my perspective, but at the very least an individual who claims to be an academic would be able to respond in an honest and thoughtful way. I’d encourage Barford to adopt the perspective of Kimberley Alderman, who has recently started a very nice blog:

Here are the things I think would promote more meaningful discourse:

1. Less polarization between what have been characterized as competing “sides” of the argument.

2. Less emphasis on doctrinal positions (on both sides) and more emphasis on solving the mutual goal of cultural preservation.

3. More emphasis on what is working as opposed to what is not.

4. Less emphasis on what positions people have espoused in the past (too often used as a means to unproductively attack).

5. More precision in language used …

That’s very good advice I think. It’s a brief statement of a similar kind of argument made by Alexander Bauer recently. A. A. Bauer (2008). “New Ways of Thinking About Cultural Property,” Fordham International Law Journal 31:690-724.

I’m happy to accept legitimate criticism. Petty attacks aren’t doing anyone any favors though. Barford is not a fan of the PAS. He’s entitled to that opinion, but give me some clear reasons why the current system is harmful, and provide a better legal or policy framework. If you’ve got a better ‘mousetrap’, tell us about it — if you can do so respectfully.


I see Barford has responded here. Regrettably the newer post is only slightly less strident.

As he rightly points out, I neglected to include a link to his extended response to the article which is here. He claims to have pointed out “serious problems” with the article. I’m afraid we will have to agree to disagree on that point. I’m happy to have a spirited debate on the PAS, but mis-characterizing my position and taking statements out of context makes such a productive discussion impossible, and he has yet to correct these errors. When my first year law students make these kind of analytical mistakes its an indication of weak analysis and insufficient research.

At its core, I argue in the article that a national ownership declaration is an important legal strategy; but this declaration in isolation does not necessarily create the best cultural heritage policy. In fact there’s legal precedent which makes this very point (see US v. Johnson 720 F.Supp. 810, 811 (C.D.Cal.1989)) and the US accession to the UNESCO Convention via the CPIA takes the efforts of nations of origin into account when the CPAC considers export restriction requests.

I assume that effectively guarding every archaeological site is impossible given limited resources. Even in the US, a wealthy nation, there is widespread looting of Native American sites. A nation like Peru has even more difficulty given its developing economy and the remote location of many sites. The looting of these sites in North and South America is a travesty. This is a foudational problem with heritage policy. One potential solution is a policy framework and network of PAS-style liason officers. But that’s not to say that these states should encourage metal-detecting or the like.

Rather I think outreach and education is badly needed. Barford argues this exists in many nations of origin already. Perhaps he is right, but we are merely talking speculatively. Where is the evidence? I’d be delighted to read some thoughts on this. The PAS works in conjunction with the law, which was of course a compromise postion between heritage advocates and landowners. A very strong legal regime may in a perfect world be the best policy. But what good are they if they aren’t meaningfully enforced? These laws can be compared with abstinence only sex education or America’s ill-advised “War on Drugs”. When it comes to practice, they aren’t producing the desired results — less teen pregnancy or drug abuse for example. In the heritage context, the PAS and metal detectorists are producing contextual information. It’s a different kind of information, which we can characterize as shallow but extremely broad; rather than a thorough documentation of sites which might be narrow but very deep.

This more permissive legal regime has actually produced important contextual information, which historians, researchers and archaeologists are using to write scholarship. Research is being produced with the PAS and its database, and it is including the broader public in heritage and archaeology, which will ideally bring more attention to heritage issues generally. Did Hiram Bingham include locals in his efforts to excavate Macchu Picchu? Modern-day Peruvians think not, which has led to a host of very public disagreements between Yale and Peru.

The PAS policy unquestionably sacrifices some archaeological context, but is there any nation of origin which is able to ensure all of its sites are professionally excavated or remain untouched? Is some contextual information better than none?

Questions or Comments? Email me at

4 thoughts on “An Unkind Response to my PAS Article (LATE UPDATE)”

  1. You raise some important points for discussion in your article and your recent posts. In my opinion, use of a carrot and stick approach to cultural heritage issues is much preferable to one based largely on punitive measures. It would be interesting to compare reporting of archaeological artifacts by the public in the UK with other countries. Something tells me that reporting in places that do not provide fair market awards to finders like Greece, Italy, Cyprus and Egypt falls far behind that in England and Wales.


    Peter Tompa

  2. Here are the things I think would promote more meaningful discourse:

    1. Less polarization between what have been characterized as competing “sides” of the argument.

    2. Less emphasis on doctrinal positions (on both sides) and more emphasis on solving the mutual goal of cultural preservation.

    3. More emphasis on what is working as opposed to what is not.

    4. Less emphasis on what positions people have espoused in the past (too often used as a means to unproductively attack).

    5. More precision in language used …

    Well said sir… well said. It is a shame that certain individuals – as you have seen, will take anything and selectively re-edit, or presume meaning.. to fit their own narrow agenda. An agenda that does not work.

    Your suggestions are exactly what does work.. and only then, can we truely deal with the issues.

    Recently, on my return from Jordan and Syria, I was prsented with the interesting conundrum of local people not connecting with the ‘Roman’ past.. and therefore, seeing no cultural value with the remains – sarcophagi used as cement mixing trays, tombs turned into rubbish pits, inscriptions smashed by children.. etc…

    Do I shout at them, berate them from my Western tower? or discuss with educators and officials as well as the locals themselves, how these monuments and sites fit into their past? How they can be important to them and are worth caring for?

    Good luck to you… you can count on my support.

  3. @Peter,
    The Scheme is preparing a conference on different antiquities laws for next Autumn with speakers from around Europe.

    @Derek – we enjoyed your article in the office. If you write anything else in future, do call for a chat for answers to specific questions. With regards to scholarly works critical of the Scheme, there are indeed a few, but these are mainly artefact specialist reviews from pre 2003. Many of the recent unpublished dissertations have very balanced discourse on potential problems with the Scheme – both data and practical/ ideological argument.

    Generally, we’ll have a much more user friendly database shortly (well Q1 2009 if I get the chance to work without interruption.) I’ve included some more methods for recording archaeological integrity of discoveries. We do sacrifice some contextual information as Paul often points out, but we’ve now improved the majority of findspot grid precision to 8 figures and this is increasing with the advent of cheaper GPS units. There are of course goldfever moments when finders do dig into contextual layers, but these are not the norm with the majority of our finders. When we get the chance to educate on context in an archaeological sense, it does often get taken on board.

    I think Paul is right in some of his points on the Scheme and transferring it to other nations; it isn’t probably a good model for many nations to follow. Cost of the Scheme is something that is debated regularly, and I assume come later this week, it will no doubt be revisited post this comment. I do believe it is actually cost effective for the work that we actually do. If you compare the departmental costs for PAS to other national organisation budgets, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who employes 50 employees at an average cost of £30K for all resources that they require (travel, materials, hardware, books, etc.) The cost per artefact has come down substantially, and I also believe the information that we have recorded has improved tremendously since 2003. As we frequently argue, we don’t just record artefacts in our daily duties. Other things that staff do include gallery talks, local history society meetings, Young archaeology events, handling sessions, etc and so it is therefore really difficult to produce a decent statistical analysis for cost however hard you try.

    Yes the Scheme has flaws, yes they have been identified and indeed more will be raised as time goes on, but it is providing much needed research material for an ever increasing body of researchers.

    @Paul – sorry I haven’t replied to your email, been busy coding which is killing my brain.

    I’ve probably diverged from your article; ergo I apologise if I’ve changed the tack of this commentary.
    Not keen on Blogger btw.

    Dan – new site coming to a small LCD near you soon.

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