British Museum blog

‘When a find is recorded, it is truly discovered’: metal-detecting and its contribution to archaeology

The excavation of a Bronze Age hoard from Wiltshire.Michael Lewis, Deputy Head of Portable Antiquities and Treasure, British Museum

As the second series of Britain’s Secret Treasures broadcasts on ITV in the United Kingdom, it’s been amazing to see the reaction and level of interest. The first series averaged 3.5 million viewers per episode, so we know just how captivating the stories being told are. The fact that all the discoveries featured were, and are, found by ordinary members of the British public – not professional archaeologists – makes this all the more remarkable.

Indeed, many people watching the series have probably found archaeology, albeit not necessarily recognising it as such, be it a bit of pottery from the garden, a coin on the beach, or a piece of worked flint while out walking in the countryside. Individually these objects might not seem important (though clearly some are), but together they help paint a picture of the past, helping archaeologists understand where people lived, and how they worked and played. It is this public contribution to archaeology, through recording their finds with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) [LINK] that is transforming the archaeological map of Britain.

A pilgrim’s badge of Richard Caister, Vicar of St Stephen’s, Norwich.

A pilgrim’s badge of Richard Caister, Vicar of St Stephen’s, Norwich.

To date over 900,000 archaeological objects have been found by the British public and recorded. Many of these have been discovered completely by chance, but most have been found by people proactively looking for archaeology, such as through field-walking or metal-detecting.

It is probably fair to say that archaeologists and metal-detectorists have not always seen eye to eye. It wasn’t until the 1970s that metal-detecting started to become popular and the response of many European countries was to ban or restrict such archaeological work by non-professionals. Indeed, this remains the situation in most of Europe, including our closest neighbours, the Republic of Ireland and France, where metal-detecting is prohibited.

The excavation of a Bronze Age hoard from Wiltshire.

The excavation of a Bronze Age hoard from Wiltshire.

However in England and Wales metal-detecting, with the permission of the landowner, was not legislated against; although metal-detecting on sensitive archaeological sites (scheduled monuments) has been prohibited (since 1979) and finds of Treasure – precious metals and groups of coins or base-metal assemblages over 300 years old – must be reported. Nonetheless, heritage legislation in England and Wales (and Scotland) remains quite liberal compared to elsewhere in Europe.

At one time, this was seen as a ‘failure to deal with the problem of metal-detecting’ by concerned archaeologists. By the 1980s the Council for British Archaeology launched the Stop Taking Our Past (STOP) campaign, based on the perception that metal-detectorists were systematically looting archaeological sites by removing objects from ‘stratified archaeological contexts’ (thus destroying important clues about how and why things were buried) to sell on the open market. Indeed, the private ownership of archaeological material, and also the buying and selling of antiquities, remains contentious, and defines relations between archaeologists and the metal-detecting fraternity today.

The excavation of a Bronze Age hoard from Wiltshire.

The excavation of a Bronze Age hoard from Wiltshire.

Nonetheless, most agreed that the attempt to ban metal-detecting was a failure and probably counter-productive. The STOP campaign did little more than entrench views, and frustrate dialogue between the two sides.

Over time it has been understood that most metal-detectorists have a genuine interest in the past, though of course there are a relatively small minority of individuals who metal-detect just for financial gain or have little interest in archaeology. An important observation is that most metal-detectorists search on cultivated land, where objects and coins are generally already dislodged from any archaeological context by agricultural work, such as ploughing. Indeed, it may be argued that recovering these items ensures they are saved from being completely destroyed by agriculture and natural and artificial corrosion processes.

Author sieving at the site of a Bronze Age hoard found by a metal-detectorist

Author sieving at the site of a Bronze Age hoard found by a metal-detectorist

Once disregarded by many archaeologists as of little interest (the plough-zone was often machined off in archaeological excavations of the past) it is apparent this layer holds many objects that can offer clues about any underlying archaeology. Even in their own right, such stray finds are of interest to researchers studying particular object types and their distribution.

This appreciation of the potential contribution that metal-detected finds might have to archaeology led to the establishment of the PAS; set up first as a series of pilot schemes in 1997, and then extended across the whole of England and Wales in 2003. The aim of the project was to liaise with the metal-detecting community, build trust, and encourage finders (on a voluntary basis) to lend their objects for a period of time so they could be recorded. The aim was not to acquire objects for museums, but that said, many finders, realising the importance of their discoveries, have allowed museums to acquire them, or have even donated them.

The excavation of a Bronze Age hoard from Wiltshire.

The excavation of a Bronze Age hoard from Wiltshire.

Before the PAS there was no mechanism to record such finds. Some people may have taken what they had found to their local museum (or even a national museum) for a curator to look at. But only a fraction of these were logged either by the museum or with the local Historic Environment Record. Even fewer were published, such as in a local archaeological journal. For many of these finds their discovery was only brief, as once they were returned to their finders they were probably put away in a box and forgotten, almost certainly without any record of their findspot (of most interest to archaeologists) being recorded. How then might they further archaeology?

Nowadays all the finds recorded with the PAS are logged onto its online database for anyone to look at, study and enjoy. On the public site precise findspot details are protected, to ensure archaeological sites are not damaged by looters, sometimes called nighthawks. However, the full data is made available for archaeological work and research, and is proving to be a major component in many research projects trying to understand the past.

A mount from a medieval coffett, probably enamelled in Limoges, France.

A mount from a medieval coffett, probably enamelled in Limoges, France.

Unless someone spends a reasonable amount of money on a metal-detector (several hundred pounds) they are not likely to find much archaeological material; cheap machines are nothing more than toys, with which you might find some lost change or ring-pulls at the most. Therefore it is a hobby people invest in and become quite serious about. Whatever the initial motivation to take up metal-detecting, most acquire an appreciation for history and want to learn as much as possible about the objects they find. They share the same buzz we archaeologists get about discovery. It is nonetheless important that metal-detectorists take care to avoid sensitive archaeological sites and follow the Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting at all times. This Code also outlines how important it is to get permission (from the landowner) before you search and the necessity of recording finds with the PAS.

Only once a find is recorded is it truly discovered, and through recording finds with the PAS metal-detecting can make a truly positive contribution to archaeology.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Britain’s Secret Treasures is broadcast on ITV 1 Thursdays at 20.30, 17 October – 5 December 2013

Filed under: Archaeology, Portable Antiquities and Treasure,

11 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Reblogged this on History of Britain and commented:
    #AceHistoryNews says as the second series of Britain’s Secret Treasures broadcasts on ITV in the United Kingdom, it’s been amazing to see the reaction and level of interest. The first series averaged 3.5 million viewers per episode, so we know just how captivating the stories being told are. The fact that all the discoveries featured were, and are, found by ordinary members of the British public – not professional archaeologists – makes this all the more remarkable #britainshistory

    Like

  2. Jeff Hatt says:

    Thanks for that. Best read of my virtual day…

    The facts as they stand are that metal detecting in close collaboration with museum professionals is perhaps the greatest stride forward world archaeology has ever seen. Not because what is found is any great treasure (though some is) but because the map eventually produced of the horizontal ploughed-out context that now contains the majority of the quotidian remains of the everyday life of the past is so vast, so enormously important to future study, and so accessible now on a small budget. I do believe it will be a century before its true import is ever truly appreciated, but those at the coal face know what will come.

    Jeff Hatt

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  3. Watsons says:

    Can not find the word coffett on line–can you tell us what it is? (See the picture below “a mount from a medieval coffet”)

    Like

  4. Martin says:

    Excellent – Thank You British Museum -Working with FLO and PAS All the time and loving it and the advice and information you give is second to none and ALWAYS helpful and informative. Happy to donate all finds to local museums if requested by my local Finds Liason Officer and/or land owner. It is the greatest stride forward and we (detectorists) should always work in close collaboration with our local Archaeologist, FLO and record on PAS – it’s important so please follow the guidelines and work hard to help the British Museum understand our past even more than they do now.

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    • lord lovell says:

      Have allways said unsratisfied finds are as important to history as any find and give you a moving picture of true eb and flow of yesterday and yes most be recorded for future study

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  5. delazouch says:

    The biggest problem as loads of metal detectors find items
    Following the law submit them to Finds and PAS
    But the appulling conduct endured from over a year+ waiting for Finds to deal with the treasure submitted
    If this is not sorted and dealt with more and more will end up on the black market and not in the museums as they should be
    Please demand Finds to issue a code of practice they are held accountable to

    Like

  6. Michael says:

    I’ve only been detecting around two and a half years and my interest in history was basically, what I was taught in school. However, since taking up the hobby on retirement its amazed me just how interesting I’m finding this hobby. I spend hours just researching and talking to like minded people. Our local FLO is now someone I talk to on a first name basis. I can only say its transformed an aspect of my life (retirement) which I viewed with some trepidation, into an exciting day to day pastime.
    I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody in the detecting world, who doesn’t have the same passion for discovery and recording their finds for the benefit of all. As Dylan (Bob that is) one wrote,
    “The times they are a changing”.

    Like

  7. grosongles says:

    If only the French archaeologists could also be open-minded than the English archaeologists …

    Like

  8. Ralf says:

    The situation is getting better in Germany in 2014. The archäologists are working with us – hand in hand :) Ralf | metalldetektor

    Like

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