Homes of eBay 6: Spindle Whorl

Ok, last one of the picture posts. Thanks to all of you who have been following this series and sharing the posts on Twitter and elsewhere.

The purpose of these six sets of images has been to start some wider debate on the potential for eBay to be be public archaeology by jumping over the hurdle of illicit antiquities and metal-detecting finds at the outset. While these are very real, important concerns with this particular forum and I will address them in a future post, for PA2015 I am more specifically concerned with the material networks operating around the site and the people who engage with it. So, I wanted to start at a very personal level, giving an anonymous tour of sellers’ houses. It’s also the reason I chose not to collect data on how much items sold for or even whether they sold or not. There are plenty of other people looking at this side of eBay. As this month goes on, and we move away from the networks of the controversial eBay to the networks of the far less controversial recycling, I hope the benefits of taking this start position will become clear. Before we move on though, here is the final part of the Homes of eBay mini-project. Let’s meet the spindle whorl sellers.

Spindle Whorl

My data collection returned 127 listings for Spindle Whorl. At the end of November 2014, there were 4583 spindle whorls recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme. So, eBay sells in one month material equivalent to 2.8% of the PAS and would take about 3 years to sell the same amount of material.

Ancient Lead Weight. Spindle Whorl

Ancient Lead Weight. Spindle Whorl

Ancient Roman Granite Stone Spindle whorl c.1st-2nd century AD

Ancient Roman Granite Stone Spindle whorl c.1st-2nd century AD

Ancient Roman Stone Spindle Whorl CIRCA 2ND CENTURY AD x 3

Ancient Roman Stone Spindle Whorl CIRCA 2ND CENTURY AD x 3

ANCIENT SYRIAN. ALABASTER SPINDLE WHORL - CIRCA 1000 B.C. x 2

ANCIENT SYRIAN. ALABASTER SPINDLE WHORL – CIRCA 1000 B.C. x 2

ANGLO SAXON DECORATED SPINDLE WHORL

ANGLO SAXON DECORATED SPINDLE WHORL

Authentic Ancient Artifact   Lead Spindle Whorl

Authentic Ancient Artifact Lead Spindle Whorl

Bronze Age  Hungarian  Terracotta Stone Spindle Whorl x 3 lots

Bronze Age Hungarian Terracotta Stone Spindle Whorl x 3 lots

DECORATED MEDIEVAL SPINDLE WHORL AND ROMAN COINS

DECORATED MEDIEVAL SPINDLE WHORL AND ROMAN COINS

Large decorated spindle whorl roman or saxom sic

Large decorated spindle whorl roman or saxom sic

Lead spindle whorl x 4

Lead spindle whorl x 4

LOT Roman PERIOD - LEAD SPINDLE WHORL 1-2nd Century AD x 2

LOT Roman PERIOD – LEAD SPINDLE WHORL 1-2nd Century AD x 2

Medieval Anglo Saxon DECORATED LEAD SPINDLE WHORL GROUP X 18 _ 3 lots

Medieval Anglo Saxon DECORATED LEAD SPINDLE WHORL GROUP X 18 _ 3 lots

medieval decorated spindle whorl plus two others metal detecting finds

medieval decorated spindle whorl plus two others metal detecting finds

Multi period 87 lots

Multi period 87 lots

ROMAN BRITAIN.  DECORATIVE SHALE SPINDLE WHORL.  NICE CONDITION.

ROMAN BRITAIN. DECORATIVE SHALE SPINDLE WHORL. NICE CONDITION.

RomanSaxon Decorated Spindle Whorl

RomanSaxon Decorated Spindle Whorl

SPINDLE WHORL or LEAD WEIGHT  MEDIEVAL NICE EXAMPLE METAL DETECTING FIND

SPINDLE WHORL or LEAD WEIGHT MEDIEVAL NICE EXAMPLE METAL DETECTING FIND

UNUSUAL ANGLO-SAXON LEAD SPINDLE WHORL c630 AD METAL DETECTING FINDS

UNUSUAL ANGLO-SAXON LEAD SPINDLE WHORL c630 AD METAL DETECTING FINDS

All map data ©Google

Can eBay be public archaeology?

This month of PA2015 will look at the ways in which relatively mundane objects move around and what that has to do with people. It has long been a contention of mine that archaeology and archaeologists have a particular perspective on material culture that enables them to locate, understand and describe active, contemporary material networks in a certain, distinctly useful way. Further, I think that understanding material networks with an initial focus on the object being moved can tell you about the relationships between people and other people, things and places that other more widely focused perspectives cannot. Lastly, I think that communicating this understanding to people can give them new ways of engaging in contemporary politics (which means a lot of different things).

Where is the public archaeology?

In this conception, there are two different public archaeologies. The first is found in the archaeologist developing these themes and methodologies, then working to create ways to communicate them to non-archaeologists. The second, both equally and differently important, is in non-archaeologists finding some use in approaching aspects of their lives in an archaeological way. These two public archaeologies meet in the middle, but do not have to operate together. One does not have to lead to the other in a direct fashion. People can take inspiration from archaeology in any way they want to and I see the potential to create another kind of archaeology that might be useful and to make it visible so it can be appropriated.

Making it visible

This month will split into two parts, the first focussing on eBay, the second on recycling. I’ll come to the recycling later in the month.

EBay has massive archaeological potential, both as a fluctuating repository of material culture, but also in what it might tell us about the relationship between people and objects. I’ll be chucking a few stats around over the next week, but let’s start with a few jaw-droppers.

  • Recently, the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) celebrated the recording of its one millionth artefact, an incredible achievement. EBay lists, at any given time, somewhere in the region of 112.3 million items.
  • Looking just to object types on both the PAS and eBay, eBay listings in any one month equate to approximately 2.4% of the PAS database.
  • It follows that in numbers alone – i.e. discounting qualitative variables, which I will come to  – eBay sells the entire PAS every 3.5 years.
  • With qualitative adjustment, taking into account the relative frequency of different artefact types on the PAS, it would take eBay about 18 years to sell an equivalent set of objects. That’s not long.

eBay

EBay as public archaeology

So, where can eBay and public archaeology meet? When I tell people about this project, they hear the word ‘eBay’, smile and shake their heads. EBay is, in my experience, treated by archaeologists as a whole, and as a negative phenomenon. It’s where people sell metal detecting finds, right? Well, yes. But it’s also a normal part of millions of people’s lives and one of the primary ways in which objects move nationally and internationally on a person-to-person basis. So, it can tell us a lot about how things move and who is involved in moving them, this in addition to the almost unimaginable rolling dataset of 112300000 objects.

Working with the data

I can go into this in more detail through comments if anyone is interested. Basically, some years ago, eBay got annoyed with people scraping their customer site and slowing it down; they took people to court over it. One of the ways they have addressed this, realising that people using scrapers to categorise data drives more business through the site, is that they replicate their entire database on a secondary site and allow you to set up tools to extract information. Basically, you can set any parameters you want and collect information within them straight into an Excel file.

So, with a lot of help from my brother-in law, Andy Venables (he did 100% of the IT set-up), I ran a scrape of eBay.co.uk for the whole of November 2014. I collected data on every listing during that month on six representative artefact types: Jetton; Clay Pipe, Musket Ball, Spindle Whorl, Roman Coin and Lamppost. That scrape recorded 828 entries, which reduced to 605 after removing re-listings and misidentifications. For one month, it’s a workable dataset. Any PAS figures I refer to were gathered at the end of this period too.

For your own amusement, here’s the data: eBay data November 2014 for PA2015

Next week, I will do some work with the data and investigate the potential for eBay to play a role in the development of public archaeology. Also though I want to address my failure to engage any eBay sellers in my research! I’ll need people’s help with that bit, it needs to be a conversation and I look forward to having it with you.

Before that, over the next week, I simply want to introduce you to the data and, by extension, to the idea that eBay isn’t merely that bad thing over there, it’s loads of different people doing the same thing for different reasons. I’ll get going the day after tomorrow.