What Can A Research-Minded Metal Detectorist Do In Sweden?

Paul Hounam asked some interesting questions in a closed discussion group on Facebook. I decided to take the discussion here because it is of wider interest.

How difficult is it as an archaeologist to obtain permission (and funding) for a metal detecting survey of a site here in Sweden? As far as I understand the problem is funding the preservation and recording of finds? But what if people were willing to donate their own time (and b72) to help with such a project? Has it been tried before?

I am an archaeologist by trade and spent the years 1994-2017 mainly doing research. I have lost count of the times I’ve done what Paul asks about. I do know that for my 2011 book Mead-halls of the Eastern Geats, myself and my detectorist friends investigated 17 sites.

For a research archaeologist with a PhD, to get a permit of this kind from the County Archaeologist you need two things: a plausible research agenda beyond “I think there’s cool stuff there”, and a plausible finds conservation budget. Conserving one piece of copper alloy currently costs SEK 2000 = $ 208 = € 185 = £ 160. Conserving iron is way, way more expensive. My usual M.O. has been to tell the County Archaologist the following.

“We will not dig on iron signals. We will re-bury everything we can date to after (e.g.) 1700. We have SEK 20 000, which means that we will stop metal detecting and go home when we have found 10 datable objects from before 1700.”

As for funding, if you are a productive scholar it is not difficult to get SEK 20 000 for such a project. And detectorists are super happy to help. I have the sites and permits. They have the skill and time. (Almost no professional archaeologists are as good at using a metal detector as a reasonably committed hobby detectorist, simply because we use our machines way less often.) It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. Usually I just pay for simple lodging and breakfasts. And I make very sure to credit detectorists by name in my publications.

Hypothetically.. say I knew of an area rich in artefacts… Would it be possible that Länsstyrelsen would allow a team of self-funded / volunteer archaeologists to do a detecting survey on the site? With help from SMF, university students etc? Who ultimately makes that decision?

This can only happen if you have a respected professional archaeologist to head the fieldwork, a plausible research agenda and a plausible finds conservation budget. The County Archaeologist’ office (länsantikvarien) decides.

I quite often hear from detectorists who offer to collaborate with me on projects like these. I used to reply “Sorry, I can’t take research time to metal-detect your Late Iron Age site in Västergötland, because my current book project is about the Bronze Age in Södermanland”. Now that I am no longer subsisting on grants outside of society’s safety net, I simply reply “Certainly, just get me a lectureship at your region’s university and we will hit those fields like a swarm of locusts.” Sadly no detectorist has yet been able to endow an academic chair for me.

Overall, there seems to be a common misunderstanding among detectorists about why archaeologists do fieldwork, with or without metal detectors. We never go out to find random old stuff for fun. Mostly we go into the field to document and remove sites that are going to be bulldozed for a railway project. If we are among the lucky few who can do fieldwork just for research purposes (and aren’t busy writing theoretical fad verbiage instead), we target sites that can answer our project questions. A couple of times I’ve halted work on productive sites because the stuff that was popping out was irrelevant to my research yet was eating my conservation budget. The detectorists weren’t super happy. So if you have a super cool site full of delicious evidence for 15th century trade, then you need to find a funded scholar who works with 15th century trade. Or endow a chair for someone who’s willing to change their specialisation.

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

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