The Portable Antiquities Scheme announces £150K research project to study its database

Published: 8 years ago Author:

The Leverhulme Trust logoThe Leverhulme Trust has given the British Museum a 3-year Research Project Grant of £149,805 for the project, 'The Portable Antiquities Scheme database as a tool for archaeological research' which starts today. Katherine Robbins, currently completing a Collaborative PhD at the University of Southampton in which she is analysing the data gathered by PAS in three pilot areas (Hampshire, the Isle of Wight and Northamptonshire) will be employed as Research Assistant, with Roger Bland, Keeper, Department of Portable Antiquities & Treasure.

The project will analyse the factors that underlie the Portable Antiquities Scheme database, which currently consists of over 750,000 archaeological objects found by the public across England and Wales. It will analyse the spatial distribution of the data, comparing it with other datasets; it will also survey finders and will produce a report and web resource which will enable the many researchers who use the data to understand the biases in the dataset.

The PAS was founded in 1997 and has operated across England and Wales since 2003: it has a network of 39 locally-based Finds Liaison Officers (FLOs), managed by 4 staff at the British Museum and supported by 5 National Finds Advisers. Over 14,000 metal detectorists and other members of the public have offered finds for recording. The PAS database is providing a rich and detailed source of information with national scope that is available online at http://finds.org.uk/database. It is increasingly used by academic and professional archaeologists to study the past and to inform planning decisions.

However, although 62 PhDs, 12 major research-council funded projects and 109 MA or BA dissertations are known that currently use the PAS database, the data is not being used to its full potential because there has been little detailed research on the nature of the data and some archaeologists do not use it for this reason.

There are wide variations in the frequency of finds recorded on the PAS database from around England and Wales: there are 28.6 objects per km2 from the Isle of Wight, compared with 0.7 per km2 from Devon. The counties of Norfolk and Suffolk account for 20.4% of all finds of Treasure since 1997, but for only 7.0% of the land mass of England and Wales and 4.1% of all Scheduled Monuments. As yet, we do not fully understand how to interpret these variations. Do the concentrations of finds from the Isle of Wight and East Anglia mean that these areas were much richer than other parts of England or do they simply reflect the amount of metal detecting there? There is an urgent need to understand in greater detail the factors that influence the geographical distribution of the data and the relationships between collection practice, artefact type and space. The project will therefore answer the question: what underlying factors govern the spatial distribution of finds recorded by the PAS?

By providing a clear analysis of the factors underlying the dataset, this project will enable the rapidly growing PAS database to be exploited to the full in future research on the archaeology of the UK. The PAS database also provides an unparalleled scale of data that can be used in the study of sample bias in archaeology.

The survey of collection bias among amateur finders will have applications outside archaeology (e.g., in natural history where a great deal of data is gathered by amateurs) and it will also have an impact on studies of similar finds outside England and Wales. The use of spatial statistical analysis on this type of data is also cutting edge and the combination of spatial analysis with a study of finder behaviour has not, to our knowledge, been undertaken in any other field. This study will help to transform the use of the PAS database in research.

Under the supervision of the Principal Investigator (Roger Bland), the Research Assistant (Katherine Robbins) will use techniques already developed in her PhD, which looked at 3 pilot areas only, to extend the study across the whole of England and Wales. Katherine will continue to work with Graeme Earl as a Visiting Fellow in the Archaeological Computing Research Group at the University of Southampton, and continue to be advised by Chris Lloyd from Queen's Belfast.

She will map the PAS database against key archaeological datasets, especially Historic Environment Records, and others that she omitted from her PhD for reasons of time. She will use spatial statistical techniques, within a Geographic Information System, to generate intensity maps of find locations and selected classes of finds. She will explore correlations between the intensity maps and will build a model to incorporate information relating to finder activity and other perceived biases. Robbins will also analyse finder and Finds Liaison Officer practice, using a combination of statistical techniques with qualitative data from questionnaires and surveys.

An academic panel will advise on the project and a conference in spring 2014 will include papers from experts who will analyse and discuss data supplied by the PAS covering a range of periods, artefact types and geographical areas. These will be published online and as a book. There will also be a Report written by Robbins and Bland which will bring together the results of the project to produce a definitive study of the data recorded in the PAS database. This will identify and analyse key features of the data and will define the best ways to present the data, with their inherent biases, in a transparent fashion. This will be a British Museum Research Paper available in print and online. In addition, guidance for researchers on how to interpret the spatial distribution of PAS data will be developed on the PAS website, besides articles in popular magazines and two peer-reviewed journals.

Notes for editors

The Leverhulme Trust was established in 1925 under the Will of the first Viscount Leverhulme. It is one of the largest all-subject providers of research funding in the UK, distributing funds of some £60 million every year. For further information about the schemes that the Leverhulme Trust fund visit their website at http://www.leverhulme.ac.uk or follow them on Twitter via http://www.twitter.com/LeverhulmeTrust

Contact: Daniel Pett 0207 3238618

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