A metal detector in my Christmas stocking. By Roy Goutté.

I have to say that I have longed to own a decent metal detector for some years now. Yes you can buy cheap versions in stores that you would be lucky to find a metal dustbin with just 1” under the soil, but at my age and with time on my hands I am about to have my wish come true, as I am being bought that decent one for Christmas!

It wasn’t what was planned though as the family had asked if I would like to have a quadcopter (drone) as a Christmas gift so that I could take aerial videos of stone circles and the like, being my main hobby these days. Having the whole of Bodmin Moor to ‘fly’ over subject to permission if required, it was very appealing. However, on checking out the prices for the type of one I would prefer, it soon became apparent to me that it would be a very costly purchase for them, so I declined their generous offer but suggested an alternative. ‘Could I have a decent middle-range metal detector instead please?’.

So that’s where I am today and really looking forward to owning one, especially as we have our own field to ‘test drive’ it in. So now, instead of flying above ground, I’ll be digging beneath it for the time being!

My interest in archaeology and the metal detector are not far apart these days and I’m rather hoping the two will go well together when the approved occasion arises. MD’s are widely used by archaeologists today, but by a strict code of practise as I was to discover when I went out of my way to get the low-down on where exactly you could use them.

The truth of the matter is that you can’t use them ANYWHERE without permission,  unless you happen to own your own land and it’s not already protected that is. That was a surprise for a start as I assumed you could still pretty much wonder down to any public beach, park and scrub land and detect away. Not so these days it would seem and for good reason for there would appear to be much going on that is spoiling things for the everyday detectorist out for a quiet and relaxing day in the countryside or beach hoping to discover a few old coins or lost rings instead of the regular flow of ring-pulls, bits of wire and rusty nails associated with metal detecting.

Over more recent years and probably since the introduction of more powerful depth seeking metal detectors, fantastic hoards of gold, jewellery and coins have been discovered along with literally 1,000’s of individual items of antiquity and very often in areas where nothing was ever expected and certainly where archaeologists had no reason to take an interest in!

This has led to a number of those everyday ‘weekender’ detectorists turning to the dark side and purposely targeting these items of great value and not declaring them… an illegal and prisonable offence! Commonly known as ‘Nighthawks’ these thieves are selling off our heritage for personal gain and giving the honest and respectable detectorist who are members of local clubs a bad press. In other words, they are stealing from the nation and whilst doing so bringing honest metal detectorists into disrepute. It has to be stopped.

So how exactly is the law, archaeologists and detectorists working together these days to resolve this situation?

In an article written by Alex Hunt of the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) and updated in 2011 he explained much of that early history:-

‘A 1995 survey on metal detecting in England, by the Council for British Archaeology, pinpointed some gloomy facts about the impact of the hobby. It concluded that of the hundreds of thousands of artefacts recovered by detectorists every year, only a fraction was being reported to museums.

Even worse, three-quarters of archaeological field units had experienced raids of their excavations by detectorists, and between 1988 and 1995 illicit metal detector users damaged at least 188 scheduled ancient monuments (archaeological sites of national importance, protected under law, where special permission is required to dig or to use metal detectors).

Two particularly high-profile cases of looting were the illegal removal of a hoard of fine Romano-British bronzes from Icklingham in Suffolk in the 1980s, and the plunder of the site of a Roman Temple at Wanborough in Surrey in the 1990s.

This kind of looting appals archaeologists and responsible detectorists alike, because the combined effect of both looting and non-reporting of finds is that crucial information about archaeological sites is being lost’.

He continued :-

‘Archaeology lives and breathes on context. Knowing exactly what comes from where, the soils in which it lies, and the relationships or associations between artefacts, features and other forms of evidence, is critical for interpreting archaeological remains.

An object on its own may tell us quite a lot. For instance, using some of the many scientific techniques available, we might find evidence about the technologies and resources used in its manufacture. Or the form and design of the object, and the way it shows evidence of patterns of wear or repair, might tell us about its function and use. Techniques such as radiocarbon dating also allow us to work out the age of some artefacts. Yet there may be little point in doing this work, if we know nothing of where the object was found.

By contrast, understanding an object in relation to other objects, and to the deposits in which they are found, can allow a much more powerful level of interpretation. An artefact of one type, for instance, which can be dated, can – if looked at in its proper archaeological context – also help date whole layers and features and other kinds of artefacts, which cannot be dated in any other way.

In the light of this, some archaeologists have advocated a much stronger regulation of metal detecting, but others suggest that the best approach is to foster a responsible approach among the detecting community, through better liaison and education’.

Finding common ground:

‘In Norfolk for instance, the late Tony Gregory recognised early on that not all detectorists behave irresponsibly. He set about forming fruitful links with those whose primary interest was in the sense of discovery and a real interest in what they found.

For instance he sought the permission required for a group of detectorists to systematically survey the Roman temple site at Caistor St Edmund. This was to assess the damage being done by groups of treasure-hunting thieves who were regularly working over the monument by cover of dark, and to pre-empt any further damage. Bit by bit Tony and successive archaeologists built a lasting relationship with responsible detectorists across the county, who helped foil this vandalism.

In areas where archaeologists have been constructive in this way, detectorists are much more confident in reporting their finds. And they have been recovering a lot of useful material – metal detected finds have, for instance, significantly contributed to understanding Iron Age coinage, and also the deposition of Bronze Age metal hoards in south-east England. Finds can be reported to Finds Liaison Officers of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and metal detector users continue to contribute to the archaeological process and historical studies’.

Read more here:

The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) mentioned above, has an interesting history. It is a Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) funded project to encourage the voluntary recording of archaeological objects found by members of the public in England and Wales. Every year many thousands of objects are discovered, not just by metal detectorists, but also by people out walking and even just working in their gardens.

In July 1996, the Treasure Act was passed. The Treasure Act replaced the medieval law of Treasure Trove in England and Wales. This Act gave some protection to certain archaeological finds, acting to encourage their reporting. However, a great many objects were being found by members of the public which were not ‘treasure’, but which were nonetheless important in building up knowledge of the archaeology and history of England and Wales.

In the past, finds such as these were, in some cases, taken to local museums to record. However, many more finds were unrecorded as there were not always systems in place to do so, often due to lack of resources.

A further problem was presented as the removal of an archaeological object from the ground without properly recording the circumstances of the find can lead to loss of knowledge of an object’s context, or provenance. Context is vital in archaeology in order to be able understand past human activity. Archaeology is not simply about studying isolated objects. How these came to be where they were found, their relationship to other objects and stratigraphy (position in the ground), among other factors help build up a picture of the past as a whole. These unrecorded or un-provenanced finds meant a loss to knowledge of the archaeology and history of England and Wales.

The Act has been subject to ‘improvement and change’ since its introduction and it can be read here in full.

So, it is no longer just a matter of driving down to the local park or beach and getting on with it, although by all accounts, some still do. Permissions have to be sought and other rules complied with. And it’s not just about finding the odd 50p or a bit of modern jewellery and having a relaxing day out in the fresh air anymore for some it would seem, but the possible theft of our heritage by those who flout the rules and are in it just for the money gained by not reporting important finds of antiquity and selling them to private collectors or indeed keeping them for their own collections.

Looking at the rules of a local MD club in my area below, their rules are quite clear and I wonder if in the main the protagonists are loners with no connections with clubs whatsoever. It is supposed to be a hobby and certainly for the much greater majority and honest ones it still is, but how do you deal with those who are in it for profit and blatantly disregarding the law without an apparent care in the world?

Typical Metal Detector club rules:

  1. All members will hold a current membership of the NCMD. These will be shown to the club secretary upon joining.
  2. Do not trespass. Obtain permission before venturing on to any land.
  3. Respect the Country Code, leave gates and property as you find them and do not damage crops, frighten animals or disturb nesting birds.
  4. Wherever the site, do not leave a mess or an unsafe surface for those who may follow. Always re-fill your holes, do not leave unwanted finds in your hole remove them from the field.
  5. Membership of the XXXXXXXXXXXXXX will be open to all members of the public interested in metal detecting as a hobby and who are willing to both, support the interests of the club by keeping to its rules and make the payment of the current membership fee(non refundable).
  6. Before being accepted as a member of this club, applicants will be required to declare that they are not already members of any other club. If in the past applicants have held membership of any other club or clubs, they must have given formal notice of resignation to their previous club or clubs before their application will be considered.
  7. Members of this club may not join any other metal detecting club without immediately forfeiting both membership and member’s rights to this club.
  8. If you discover any live ammunition or any lethal object such as an unexploded bomb or mine, do not disturb it. Mark the site carefully and report the find to the local police and landowner.
  9. Help keep Britain tidy. Safely dispose of refuse you come across.
  10. Report any dead or injured livestock to your land owner.
  11. Remember it is illegal for anyone to use a metal detector on a designated area (e.g. scheduled archaeological site, SSSI, or Ministry of Defense property) without permission from the appropriate authority.
  12. Acquaint yourself with the Treasure Act 1996
  13. Remember that when you are out with your metal detector you are an ambassador for our hobby and club. Do nothing that might give us a bad name.
  14. Report all finds assumed older than 300 years to the local F.L.O.
  15. Never miss an opportunity to explain your hobby to anyone who asks about it, you never know, it may lead to new permissions.
  16. All club obtained land will only be detected on via an organized club search and at no other times.
  17. Annual memberships will run from the 1st April to 31st March with an annual fee of £XX
  18. Officers of the club, Chairman, secretary and treasurer shall be elected at the AGM.19. Club search fees shall be £X per member unless stated otherwise and payable on the day

Returning now to my own plans and how I am going about things so that I can enjoy this hobby without falling foul of the law.

My first move is going to be to contact a local MD club and become a member if they have vacancies and will accept me. By doing this I am hoping that I will be able to become really conversant with the accepted and approved rules and legislation in place, and of course to have detecting days out with them learning the ropes. I will only join a club that is registered with a recognised National authority as that has to be the only way forward for a newbie surely. See here for more information.

I have already found out how I go about obtaining permission and a permit to use a MD on the foreshore and by all accounts it is a very simple matter and free… but you must have one!

I am also very fortunate in having many farming friends with hundreds of acres of land that I hope I will be given access to and in time maybe also the club I decide to join. I’m in this for the enjoyment and relaxation and of course that glimmer of hope that one day a magic moment will arrive when something special makes its presence known to me and I can add just that little bit more to our understanding of our past. I see it, as in all aspects of my archaeology research and work, as my chance to put just a little something back in appreciation of our great ancestors gifts from the past, whether it be stone circles, dolmans, long barrows or Saxon gold and jewellery lying tantalisingly close just out of sight beneath our feet.

Footnote:

I don’t feel I can finish an article on metal detecting and its connection with archaeology without mentioning the wonderful BAFTA winning BBC4 television mini-series called Detectorists that is currently on our screens. Wonderful entertainment with superb acting from a brilliant cast all put together and including Mackenzie Crook (Andy).

It centres around detectorist pals Andy and Lance (the brilliant Toby Jones), their local club the Danebury Metal Detecting Club and its members and their love lives (or lack of it in Lance’s case). Adding further to the cast are two members of a rival club affectionately known as Simon and Garfunkel.

They typify the classic hobby detectorists in my book. Out all day in a world of their own finding ring-pulls, rusty wire, bits broken of ploughs and the occasional coin to keep the interest and enthusiasm alive… and all the time in the back of their minds is the possibility of them hitting the jackpot and discovering a Saxon hoard… something that unbeknown to them they have already walked away from being right under their feet at the end of yet another fruitless day!

Andy (right) and Lance (left) in Detectorists

According to Mackenzie, there is some skill involved in the whole exercise, and he’s now one of an astounding 30,000 enthusiasts who practise this hobby in the UK alone. “They’re not anoraks,” Mackenzie insists. “They’re amateur archaeologists.”

If like me, you are, or were contemplating taking up the hobby, do check out this very excellent and informative ‘Beginners guide to metal detecting’.

And finally, this clip from Series One of Detectorists. I loved it when Becky, Andy’s partner, suggests he may have missed a lot whilst he’s been detecting. What follows just about sums up their luck. Superb.