British Metal Detectorists Do a Good Job

Since a 1997 change in UK law, metal detectorists in that insular realm are reporting ever more finds to the authorities.

David Lammy, the minister of culture, said that metal detetectorists who spend days scanning newly ploughed fields in the hope that a beep will lead them to buried treasure, are doing a huge service to Britain’s cultural life.

“Metal detectorists are the unsung heroes of the UK’s heritage. Thanks to the responsible approach they display in reporting finds and the systems we have set up to record them, more archaeological material is available for all to see at museums or to study online,” he said.

But I always sing to the detectorist heroes I work with. Link.

Thanks to Johan Carlström for the tip.


5 thoughts on “British Metal Detectorists Do a Good Job

  1. And since the 80´s Danish metal detector people have produced tons of goodies, all very well documented. Loads of new sites that have positively affected research. There seem to be a remarkable good cooperation between “detectoristas” and museum people there.


  2. The UK situation is a little more complicated than this. Like them or loathe them, metal-detectorists have been responsible for finding some fantastic finds and augmenting our understanding of the archaeological past. Disappointingly it is the ‘treasure’ that still gets reported when their real service has been on bulk discovery of quite common archaeological finds, allowing sites to be mapped and distributions of find-times to be better understood. Equally though, it is a hobby out of control with little legislation and a minority are irresponsibly ransacking archaeological sites including some on metal-detector ‘holidays’ from the States to destroy both protected and important archaeological sites.

    Unsung heroes? Now this is bollocks. Firstly, because metal detectorist are amazingly vocal about how heroic they are and archaeologists are now bending over backwards to say likewise. Second, because there is a great tradition of local volunteer archaeology in the UK. We have innumerable local societies, many very active in practical archaeology. So what about the thousands of local archaoelogy enthusiasts who actually utilise archaeological methods and techniques responsibly? Aren’t they the unsung heroes?

    So while many metal detectorists do archaeology a real service and much has (and continues to be done) to break down the longstanding mutual distrust, Lammy’s comments are disappointing. In the last 30 years we have lost many sites to metal-detector ransacking. Things are improving (apparently, because government money is behind it and it has to be seen to be improving) but every time an excavation happens in the UK, there is the threat of overnight nighthawking.

    For my part, I have very mixed feelings. I am working in Devon where there isn’t a good relationship between metal detectorists and archaeologists. We have had to take serious precautions on our site to avoid overnight metal-detecting. I have negotiated with the local responsible metal-detectorists and have a tense but established dialogue with them. But then again, our site isn’t that rich and interesting so the ‘threat’ isn’t that great.

    On the other hand, I have surprised and shocked some archaeologists by wishing to use a metal-detector – as if the instrument itself is evil! These are archaeologists who are happy to spend many thousands of magnetometry, but not wishing to purchase a metal-detector! There is an understandable but frustrating culture-divide here.

    I have now bought one myself for our department and it was a great help in our excavations this summer at Stokenham where we uncovered a medieval and Tudor manor house.

    Metal-detectors are just a tool, used by some responsibly, others idiotically. It is like saying that ‘computer users are the unsung heroes of archaeology’. It depends on what you use the computer for! Certainly responsible metal-detector users are one among many groups who are working hard to explore the archaeological record in the UK.

    Now Sweden is another matter, and perhaps your legistlation is over the top. But do you really want hundreds of Brits coming over every year to rip finds out of your fields adjacent to known archaeological sites?


  3. If I understand things correctly, the UK needs to tighten up its metal detector rules, and Sweden needs to lighten them.

    In Sweden, all old copper-alloy and precious metal objects found in the ground and waters are the property of the state since over 100 years. Nobody is suggesting that this should change. My idea is that metal-detector use should be licenced like the use of hunting rifles. You take a course, pass a test, and receive a licence. Then, if you misuse your gun/detector, your licence is revoked.


  4. When I bought my metal detector, it contained ‘mixed messages’ in the packaging. There was a government-funded ‘Portable Antiquities Scheme’ leaflet helpfully telling me how to responsibly report archaeological finds. There was also a cheesy car window-sticker from the metal-detector manufacturer with their logo – a profile head of a Spanish conquistador (presumably searching for El Dorado)and the slogan ‘Tesoro- the name that means treasure!’ Hence my point about culture-divide.

    Legisation is part of the issue, but it is also about culture – something archaeologists are very interest in.

    As long as metal detectors are allowed to pride themselves as treasure-seekers hoping to find something worth selling on E-bay, then this is the only thing they can be heroic doing, sung or unsung. And they won’t expect me as an archaeologist to slap them on the back and say ‘well done’.

    However, if metal-detectorists can start seeing themselves as amateur archaeologists or simply as ‘archaeologists’ who record and map archaeological discoveries, they will gain respect and can then be seen to be unsung heroes if they wish to be. Many metal-detectors are just that – archaeologists who on a voluntary basis and as a hobby, using a metal-detector with landowner’s permission, to seek and record archaeological finds from the disturbed ploughsoil. Metal-detecting doesn’t require a PhD and therefore should be a democratising process – another popular technique that people can use to explore their past, rather than simply those that want to pay £10 to go to a National Trust property.

    Personally, I think the current UK situation is not allowing metal-detectorists to herald themselves in this positive light but to celebrate their treasure-seeking aims.

    I am, however, not an expert and only have a handful of experiences to draw upon. The main point for this blog is that there is a heated and ongoing debate roughly 30 years old about metal-detector use in the UK and don’t be too cautious about heralding us as an enlightened and progressive country in this regard. Your ideas for Sweden sound very controlled but a practical and useful step forward


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