The Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Indifference of Government
Yvonne Aburrow has reminded me that if I want to blog about the financial crisis facing the Portable Antiquities Scheme then I’d better do it soon. I haven’t till now because many people have blogged about this I don’t want to simply say me too. There’s also the problem that I don’t want to be too ranty. It’s difficult because the PAS isn’t merely good, it’s so good it’s difficult to say how good it is.
What is the problem? These are the latest answers on the scheme in Parliament. the latest news I’ve found in Hansard, the record of Parliament.
Mr. Dismore: To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport what assessment he has made of the likely effect on the reporting of treasure in England and Wales of the proposal by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council to maintain the funding for the Portable Antiquities Scheme next year at its current level; and if he will make a statement. 
Margaret Hodge: The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) is funded by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) and so any decisions on its future funding will be taken by the MLA.
The PAS is of national importance and the MLA is committed to seeing it thrive and evolve. The MLA will continue to work with the British Museum and other stakeholders to build on the success the scheme has had in its goal of advancing archaeological knowledge—for finders, museums and, most importantly, the wider public.
The MLA believes the scheme fits with the wider Renaissance in the Regions agenda and intends to maintain current levels of support for 2008-09, while considering options for future funding in the context of wider priorities for museum collections and public participation.
Daniel Rogerson: To ask the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport why funding for the Portable Antiquities Scheme was not ring-fenced in the Comprehensive Spending Review; and if he will make a statement.
James Purnell: The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) is funded by the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) and so any decisions on its funding are a matter for the MLA. The MLA has already committed to maintain current levels of support for the scheme for 2008-09. Since the 2004 spending review, the Department’s funding allocation to the MLA has not included ring-fencing for the PAS.
Ver fundin ain’t nuffin to wiv vem squire.
If you visit They Work for You you can vote on whether you think they answered the question or not, but the insistence they it’s a matter for the regions sends a clear signal that they really don’t want to be bothered with it.
But if they’re getting the same level of support then surely it’s not a problem is it? Well yes it is, because same level of support is a budget freeze. What do MPs think about budget freezes? There’s a big argument over whether or not they should have their own rise above the rate of inflation. In light of this the answers appear to show contempt for the notion of support. It’s a shame because unlike the House of Commons the PAS has clearly been a success.
Like many works of genius the PAS is deceptively simple. It’s a scheme that encourages people in England and Wales to report archaeological finds. That’s people. not archaeologists. I know archaeologists are people too, but this is an open scheme. It allows all sorts of people to participate, not only in putting information in, but getting information out. If you visit the PAS website you can browse their photos and interrogate their databases. In terms of providing a service of use to everyone, there isn’t anything like it anywhere else in the world. Great but why does it need to be a national scheme?
In this case more doesn’t just mean bigger, it radically changes what you can do. MPs may find this hard to believe but many people in the past acted as if they had no idea what the administrative boundaries of 21st Century Britain would be like. Not only that, but sometimes things flowed from north to south, rather than everything originating from a small corner from southeast England. You’d think they had no idea organisation of a centralised government based in a swamp which would eventually become London. Yes it sounds sarcastic, but there is a basic issue about the material. It is not distributed in a way that makes modern regional boundaries meaningful. There are certainly things which can be done at a regional level, but if you want to try and find any meaning in the discoveries then it has to be in the wider context of the island. The PAS does this. A search for Neolithic Axes revealed this axe from Northamptonshire, which is apparently like other axes found the river Thames – quite a distance away (The image was buggy last time I looked. but the more images link works ok). It’s thought axes travelled across the island as gifts exchanged between high status individuals. Was this direct long-distance exchanged or were they passed from one neighbour to the next, gaining value as they moved further from their source? It’s the kind of question that a nationwide database might be able to answer. It’s also the kind of question which would have a major impact on how we view the Neolithic.
Try a search for Celtic coins. Money was a innovation brought in from Europe via the Roman Empire. However it didn’t appear at the same time as the Romans. Coinage arrived earlier. This indicates that the people living in Britain weren’t isolated and were already becoming more Romanised in their lifestyles without the invasion. This matters because during the Roman period we see an adoption of more Roman material culture. How much of this was adopted because of the invasion and how much would have happened anyway? This Celtic coin, found near where I live doesn’t tell me a lot by itself. The PAS’s Celtic Coin Index shows there are plenty of others, but I’d have to know where the coins were to examine the right databases. This is difficult if what you’re looking for is where the coins were found. It’s even less fun if you don’t know the current state of play in local administration. Would Rutlandic coins be listed in a Rutlandic database or would they be on the Leicestershire database?*
It’s this ability to be able to answer national questions that makes the scheme important. Add to that the visionary idea of making this stuff as accessible as possible and it becomes hugely successful. If it can be made available then this kind of data should not be the exclusive domain of archaeologists who want to answer their questions. It should be open for everybody to be able to ask whatever questions interest them. The pressure is then on archaeologists to show why their research is as important as they say. All well and good but the PAS is better than that.
This really is information you can use. Here are the images from the PAS annual report. The licence on the images I looked at is a Creative Commons 2.0 BY licence. Credit them as the source of the image and you can do what you like with it. In an era when government agencies are getting proprietorial about their images, this is a bold step and it’s something the PAS does really well. In fact they do it so well I’m not even sure I can say how brilliant their accessibility is.
If you go to their weblog you can see the various ways they’re making themselves public. Here they are on Facebook. Here they are on Google Earth. Here they are with PDFs of a recent talk about mash-ups. The mash-ups are possibly the most exciting thing. They’re providing data in accessible ways to that if you can think of using it in a way they haven’t, then you can put it into action. Separating the data from the archive is simply a very very clever way of thinking. In the not too distant future it could be possible that an Open Source Second Life model of the UK, hosted by JANET, pulling data from the PAS, inserting images from Flickr and details from the Megalithic Portal or other databases could provide a radically different way of working with geospatial data.
The most exciting of these applications aren’t necessarily the ones we’re going to foresee, but the ones we don’t. As an example Kubrik’s 2001 thought that increased communications would lead to video-phone booths. He completely missed that the same increase in capabilities would enable handheld phones, and soon handheld multimedia devices. Mash-ups require very different ways of thinking about information and some of the new possibilities that are created. In some ways it’s foolish to try and second-guess the future but we can at least try and prepare for it by building the infrastructure. The PAS is part of this future, if it’s funded. The scheme could be funded if MPs only increase their allowances by £7,000 this year instead of the £10,000 they plan. Alternatively they could fund the scheme for four years if they received the same level of support that they’d like the PAS to get.
*Trivia: Rutland used to be an independent county, but was absorbed into Leicestershire as a district which meant Rutland county ceased to exist. After various campaigns the District council was granted unitary authority status, which means it is now an independent district within Leicestershire. This isn’t good enough so the council changed the name of the district from Rutland to Rutland County Council, which explains the Rutland County Council heading on their website. Technically the council itself is Rutland County Council District Council. This is confusing. It’s also irrelevant – if the PAS is a national rather than regional scheme.
Update: The Bronze Age axe-head hoard reported in the papers on 22nd of Jan is another find processed through the PAS. Read Wessex’s Archaeology’s blog for more details.