My Check List for Metal Detecting

Once I went metal-detecting without my GPS. Luckily the site was not far from my home and I found only one object worth collecting, so I could mark the spot with a stick and return after dinner to get the coordinates. Another time I forgot my rubber boots and was confused by my detector’s strange behaviour until I realised that I was wearing heavy steel-capped workman’s shoes that triggered the detector at a distance of decimeters.

These days I have a checklist that I use to pack for metal-detecting. Here’s what I need to bring when going into the field.

  • Metal detector (!)
  • Batteries
  • Spade
  • Headphones
  • Ziplock baggies
  • Pens
  • GPS navigator
  • Camera
  • Coin manual
  • Working gloves
  • Orange road-worker’s vest
  • Lunch
  • Water
  • (Check weather forecast)
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Lost On A Fieldwork Gamble

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Success and failure in archaeological fieldwork is a graded scale. I wrote about this in autumn 2008:

My excavation at Sättuna has taken an interesting turn. I’m not feeling particularly down about it, but the fact is that we’re getting the second worst possible results.

The worst result would be to mobilise all this funding and personnel and find nothing at all. We’re certainly not there.

The best possible result would be to find all the cool things the metal detector finds had led me to hope for, viz the foundations of a 6th century aristocratic manor. We’re not there either.

The second best result would be to find other cool things than the ones I had expected, say, something with quite another date or function than I was looking for, but intriguing (and publishable) in its own right. No such luck.

What we have found is plentiful prehistoric remains, about one sunken feature per four square meters, quite labour intensive to document, and completely banal. And unpublishable. So I have the funding and the personnel to dig the site, I have the heritage-management responsibility to dig it, but I have no scientific motivation to do so. It’s like winning a year’s supply of something you have absolutely no use for and cannot sell.

I’ve spent the past two days metal-detecting and fieldwalking three Bronze Age sacrificial sites in the Lake Mälaren region with a team of up to eight skilled volunteers, and pretty much it’s one second-worst possible result, one inconclusive and one worst.

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At our Nyköping site we got lots of knapped quartz and fire-cracked stone, allowing us to posit a ploughed-out settlement site. But no pre-modern metalwork. This suggests that narrows in lakes such as the nearby finds-producing one were really important in situating sacrifices. Celebrants didn’t stray much from them. 14 person-hours of metal detecting and 10 of field walking.

At our Gnesta site only a fourth of the surface was open to study due to remaining snow and meltwater. It’s richly seeded with recent rifle cartridges, some so fresh that they aren’t even verdigrised yet. 6 person-hours of metal detecting. I need to get back there.

At our Enköping site we found nothing. No pre-modern metalwork, little modern, nothing. 15 person-hours of metal detecting. The field’s under stubble, so conditions aren’t ideal. I’m coming back after harrowing in August.

Luckily, thanks to the interest and generosity of my collaborators, these two days in the field cost me only two tanks of gas and six person-nights at an affordable hostel. So unlike in the case of Sättuna, the lack of useful data isn’t a big setback. My current Bronze Age project is much more of a high-risk game than the Late Iron Age one I did in Östergötland. Sites of the latter period are littered with metalwork and debris. Bronze Age ones are far more frugal, reflecting the period’s relatively poor metal supply where every gram of metal had to be imported or recycled. We were at sites where major metal finds were made a century ago, and found nothing. I’m headed for sites were nothing has been found yet…

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Newish Finds from Old Uppsala

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The view from my second investigation area. The great barrows were erected about AD 600.

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday metal-detecting for my buddy John Ljungkvist on some of the most storied soil in Sweden: Old Uppsala. Archaeology and early historical sources unanimously point this village out as one of the Lake Mälaren region’s most important power centres from shortly before AD 600 until about 1250, when it was superseded by the nearby town of (New) Uppsala. My Östergötland project in 2004-2009 largely aimed at searching for that province’s unknown equivalent.

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The view from my first investigation area. Old Uppsala church is the re-purposed remains of a larger 12th century cathedral. The green mound to the right is one of the platforms that supported the royal mead halls during the Viking Period.

John put me to work in two fields: one immediately below the monumental house platforms north of the church, one in a ploughed-out part of the famous barrow cemetery south of the church. Finds were plentiful but mostly not very old. I found copper coins from 1718 and 1721, another illegible one most likely from about 1700, and at the very end of the fieldwork, a mount from the butt-end of a 14th century table knife. I look forward to returning!

Finds pics below the fold.
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Teaching and Going Home

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Spent 5.5 hours on site in Wales today and 7 hours by car, train and plane to get from there to Skavsta airport. I’ve got another couple of hours by bus and train before I’m home. The trains I rode in the UK were on time but often did not leave from the platforms indicated by the online trip planner.

No big news on site today. I did some topless deturfing in the sun and taught a bright student to use a metal detector. Funny how much wordless knowledge you accumulate and spell out only when teaching. “Grab clod, wave over dish, listen, divide clod, wave, listen, toss quiet half, repeat. Close your fist when you wave the clod over the dish or you’ll fling the object away. You’ll find it by ear, not by eye. It’ll look just like a piece of stone until you clean it.”

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Wednesday in the Trenches

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Professor Nancy Edwards and associates take stock of the western trench at the end of the day’s work.

Today offered much better weather, but due to permit trouble very little metal detecting. Instead I’ve been “cleaning” with the students, which basically means slow removal of soil using a trowel and a brush. I found a large piece of glazed Buckley ware (19th century), a piece of clay-pipe stem, some quartz and not much more. Somebody found a piece of Roman black burnished pottery that had been partly refashioned into a crude spindlewhorl. But we’re still on top of the barrow’s capping slate-shingle cairn (put in place by the 18th century antiquarians who re-erected the Pillar of Eliseg?), and it is uncertain whether it will be removed at all this year.

In other news, Dear Reader Sandgroper points to some interesting information about a venture capital firm that owns much of Seed Media Group.

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Digging in Wales, Watching Sb Crisis

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I’m in north-east Wales for a few days’ work on a Universities of Chester and Bangor dig. We’ve had a rainy day, which meant that we couldn’t work effectively for very long. But I did some metal detecting, finding lead spatters that may have to do with 18th century repairs to the 9th century Pillar of Eliseg, and two 20th century coins, and of course a few aluminium ring-pulls. And I took part in de-turfing and trowel cleaning on the flanks of the barrow and the flat field around it. The weather forecast for the next few days looks somewhat more favourable.

Meanwhile, here at Sb, the crisis set off by Pepsigate has worsened. GrrlScientist and Bora Zivkovic among others have left, mirabile dictu, and Pharyngula is on strike. The latter fact is of critical importance to Sb’s future since PZ pulls in 2/5 of the entire site’s traffic. The problem is no longer about journalistic ethics: bloggers are leaving Sb because SMG doesn’t seem to care what they do. This isn’t news to me: my blogging situation is no worse now than before Pepsigate. But if Sb loses Pharyngula, then the upheavals we face won’t be about SMG selling the site as I suggested recently. It will be about the site no longer being profitable nor sellable at all.

Old Masters of Quartz

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Wednesday was another day guest-digging at one of Mattias Pettersson & Roger Wikell’s sites in the Tyresta woods, this one in the huge denuded area of the great forest fire. Otherworldly scenery! It’s the unusually high site discussed here three years ago by Mattias. And since we’re dealing with seal hunters in an area with swift shoreline displacement, it’s in all likelihood the oldest of the lot: 10 000 years, give or take half a millennium. It’s so old that it’s pre-stone-axe. The characteristic greenstone flakes left over from the making of Mesolithic axes don’t go as high as this.

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The finds are all quartz (and a single chip of precious imported flint). And I saw quartz objects that I’ve never seen before. Just in my two tiny excavation squares I found the site’s first microblade, a large unusual biface with a notch at the end (top left below) and something that looked a lot like a trapezoid microlith. The guys just smiled wryly and said “There’s no such thing as a quartz microlith, ask anybody.” But what really struck me was the first series of standardised formal quartz tools I’ve ever seen. Size, shape, production method – all the same.

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The Early Mesolithic type Tyresta semi-discoid quartz blade knife. Despite the fact that quartz fractures in an almost unpredictable manner. These people really knew how to work it, bringing chunks of it on their sealing expeditions to the remote group of tiny islands that is now the heights of Tyresta.

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Kjellén’s Blanket: Methods of a Rock-Art Master Surveyor

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Roger Wikell, Kenneth Ihrestam and Sven-Gunnar Broström during a recent documentation session with oblique lighting in Småland. Photograph by Emelie Svenman.

Many important categories of archaeological site are never discovered by academic archaeologists. In the case of wetland sacrifices, it’s simply because nobody’s figured out a method to look for them. We just have to sit around waiting for decades until one turns up in the course of some unrelated activity. But in most cases, our problem is actually that we aren’t good enough at the methods that exist, simply because we don’t spend enough time doing them. I’m thinking of field walking, metal detecting and rock-art surveying. The masters of these methods that I have worked with have all started out as hobbyists, even though a number of them are now recognised professional specialists.

The basic reason for this is probably that few people, including academic archaeologists, want to spend their weekends doing what they do at work. And nobody gets paid to put in the hundreds of hours it takes to get really good at field walking, metal detecting and rock-art surveying.

Yesterday I attended a seminar to the memory of one of the greats in Swedish rock-art surveying: Einar Kjellén (1903-2000). He was a farmer’s son and an auctioneer, and he happened to live in the Lake Mälaren area’s greatest cluster of Bronze Age rock carvings around the town of Enköping. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that he almost single-handedly created that cluster. Because although others were moderately successful in the vicinity, Kjellén worked almost entirely in four parishes and found hundreds of sites there. We don’t really know what’s outside his action radius.

Finding rock carvings is largely a question of vegetation and lighting. You need a stout brush and oblique single-direction light to bring out the often very shallow pecks and grooves in the rock. Yesterday, Kjellén’s daughter told us about one of his forgotten methods. Asked what the landowners thought of him, she replied that he was a well-known and respected figure thanks to his day-job, “But of course, some thought he was a little crazy, crawling around like that with a blanket over his head”. Most of us didn’t know what she was talking about.

For most of a Swedish summer day, there is no oblique light. It’s almost vertical and also diffuse. But Einar Kjellén had discovered that all he needed to get a patch of good light on a rock-art panel was the picnic blanket he kept in his car. You lie down on the panel, put the blanket over your head and lift one edge of it ever so slightly. In streams oblique light even at noon. To move the light source, just lift another part of the blanket’s edge. As Douglas Adams wrote, you need to know where your towel is.

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Contrary to Widespread Belief, There is a Spoon

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Yesterday I did another hour with my metal detector in the disused potato patch where I found a 17th century coin in September 2008. No luck really this time: the only coin I found dates from 1973 and the rest of the stuff wasn’t much older than that. But I did make one unusual find: a nickel-silver soup spoon from about AD 1900.

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It’s not an unusual kind of cutlery. The design, known as Gammal Fransk, “Old French”, is a perennial classic. But you rarely find complete pieces of cutlery in tilled soil. It probably ended up on the plot with garbage after cultivation ceased.

Nickel silver, by the way, is brass with enough nickel added to give it a silvery colour.

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Landscape Archaeology, Muddy Boots

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In front, a boulder upon which I found cupmarks. Behind, a Bronze Age burnt mound consisting of fire-cracked stones.

In order to study the landscape situation of something you need to know precisely where it is. This poses a problem when it comes to Bronze Age sacrificial finds, because they are almost never made by someone who can document the find spot. They used to be found by farmers and workers before anybody owned a map and before there was a national grid, and they are no longer found much at all.

Sacrificial finds, or “deposits”, are defined by two negatives: they are not in graves and not at settlements. Typically they are in a bog or river, or rarely by the side of a large boulder, or even more rarely just sitting on a dry ridge somewhere. In order to find them you need to dredge, ditch, reclaim, plough and dig enormous amounts of random earth and sediment. Do that in temperate Europe, and sooner or later you will find a Bronze Age deposit – provided you’re using a spade, not a mechanical excavator, or walking behind a horse-drawn plough, not riding a tractor in front. And archaeologists have never had the inclination or resources to dig randomly.

Nobody reclaims land in Sweden any more, no rivers are dredged for transportation purposes, nobody digs with a spade (unless they’re archaeologists) and nobody walks behind the plough. And so we don’t find these deposits any more. For most of the ones in the museum collections, we know only which hamlet in which parish produced each of them, but not which part of the hamlet’s land. And that sort of information is difficult to use on a landscape scale.

I had a great time today checking up on five finds in Södermanland where we’re lucky enough to know pretty well where they came from. Three are in the upper reaches of River NyköpingsÃ¥n between Lake LÃ¥nghalsen and Christineholm manor. Two are on ridge tops east of Lake Sillen in VÃ¥rdinge parish. I’ve walked around, looked at sites, gotten to know the lay of the land, searched in the plough soil (“fieldwalking”) and taken a lot of photographs. I found some knapped quartz, a grindstone and a piece of slate whetstone (as usual). But I left them where they were since they didn’t really tell me anything useful and I didn’t feel like contributing to the collective amassing of humdrum data today. I did make one really nice find though: checking a boulder on a known Bronze Age settlement site with burnt mounds I discovered eight cupmarks, and that was without removing any moss. Strange that the surveyor didn’t find them back in the day. Judging from the dearth of known cupmarks in VÃ¥rdinge, I guess s/he was probably not very aware of them.

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I encountered an elk, a lizard or slow worm, a flock of deer, sundry birds and a disgruntled gentleman farmer who didn’t like my walking on his sprouting wheat. I found a tree-house ruin, a satanic graffiti mural, many beaver-gnawed trees and a morel. It was a good day!

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