A Fee For Metal Detector Permits Would Be Highly Damaging

From 2014 on, Swedish metal detectorists have had to report all finds datable to before 1850 to the authorities. I have recently shown in a note in Fornvännen that this rule came about by mistake, and that it has broken the County Archaeologist system. It takes hours for a county heritage administrator to process one metal detector permit. It also takes only a few hours for a detectorist to find a copper coin from the 1840s, which voids her/his permit for that site. S/he then applies for a new permit, which means that the pile of unprocessed permit applications on each administrator’s desk grows exponentially.

My suggestion for how this problem should be solved is to move the cutoff date from 1850 to 1719. This is a useful year for coins: the year after Carolus XII died and the year before Frederick I ascended to the throne. No research is ever done into small finds from after 1719 that are found in ploughsoil. We do not need to collect them.

The National Heritage Board has now suggested another solution: placing a hefty filing fee on applications for metal detector permits, regardless of whether a permit is eventually granted or not. I think this would be an extremely bad solution. It would probably radically cut down on the number of permit applications, but it would also have the following highly damaging consequences.

  • Metal detecting would go underground.
  • Detectorists would be alienated from contact with heritage management and archaeological research.
  • Detectorists who made important archaeological finds without a permit wouldn’t dare report them to the authorities.
  • Fewer archaeological discoveries would be made.
  • Heritage would become less accessible to the citizens who own it.
  • Legal metal detecting would become golf: only accessible to rich people.

The 1850 rule for small finds is silly, it came about inadvertently and it needs to be changed. The way to correct the mistake is not to place an artificial hurdle in the way of law-abiding detectorists, creating a system kludge to treat a symptom of the underlying problem. The problem is in the law that took effect in 2014. Let’s change that law.

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Tuna and Nävragöl: Harness Mounts

As I blogged about in late May, a recent find from Blekinge has cast light on an enigmatic oval mount that my team collected in Östergötland in 2007. We can now say fairly confidently that the object type belongs to the 19th century. And yesterday Karin Tetteris of the Swedish Army Museum came through with evidence that strengthens this dating and suggests a function for the mounts: horse harness.

Specifically, we’re dealing with cruppers, Sw. svanskappor, “a soft padded loop under the base of the tail, to keep the harness from slipping forward” as Wikipedia explains. None of the mounts in Karin’s photographs are exact parallels, but they’re close enough in my opinion. Case closed! Thank you, Karin! Though I’d love to see an oval, gilded mount still on its harness, too.

19th century crupper in the Swedish Army Museum. Photo Karin Tetteris.

19th century crupper in the Swedish Army Museum. Photo Karin Tetteris.

Mount from Tuna in Östra Husby, Östergötland, April 2007

Mount from Tuna in Östra Husby, Östergötland, April 2007

Tuna and Nävragöl — New Light On An Old Find

In April of 2007 I directed a week of metal detecting at sites in Östergötland where there was a potential for an elite presence in the period AD 400-1000. These investigations were part of a project that I published in my 2011 book Mead-halls of the Eastern Geats.

One site that proved a dud for the project’s exact purposes was Tuna in Östra Husby parish. But my friend and long-time collaborator (and these days, colleague) Dr. Tim Schröder found something pretty damn cool anyway: a gold finger ring from AD 310–375, the last phase of the Roman Iron Age. It had been twisted up and thrown into a long narrow inlet of the Baltic, apparently as a sacrifice. The find got us all energised and we put extra time into the site, hoping to find more from this era. But in the end the second-oldest datable finds were mounts for 15/16th century table knives. Tim and I published a paper on the ring and the site’s wider significance in 2008.

There was one intriguing object though from Tuna that I could neither classify nor date: a gilded oval mount for a strap or a wooden object. The gilding and the bevelled edge might place it in the 6/7th centuries. But it might also be from a piece of 18/19th century furniture or horse harness. In the journal paper and the book we illustrated the find and admitted defeat as to its classification. And nobody has contacted me about it since.

Finds from Nävragöl in Fridlevstad, May 2016

Finds from Nävragöl in Fridlevstad, Blekinge, May 2016

But now there’s been a development. As so often with these enigmatic metal detector finds, it’s the amateurs who have, if not the classification, then at least the parallels. My friend and collaborator Tobias Bondesson (a detectorist and banker who deserves an honorary doctorate for his encyclopaedic knowledge about small finds, his academic publications and his services to archaeology) pointed me to a group of finds made this week by Thomas Hasselberg at Nävragöl in Fridlevstad parish, Blekinge. This all looks like 18/19th century to me: note the 1801 coin. And in the middle of the collection sits another one of those oval mounts.

Mount from Nävragöl in Fridlevstad, Blekinge, reverse

Mount from Nävragöl in Fridlevstad, Blekinge, reverse

Nävragöl’s front is an exact match for Tuna, and the back side has had fastening rivets in the same places as Tuna though Nävragöl has had loose rivets, not tangs cast with the mount. Thomas has wisely been careful with the cleaning, but he reports that his piece is also gilded. Tuna measures 33 x 22 mm. Nävragöl measures 38 x 30 mm. I’m convinced that both mounts have served the same purpose and are of a very similar age.

But what age? Well, neither find is from a closed context. And at Tuna there are ample cemeteries and finds that prove intensive settlement at least from AD 1 onward. But Nävragöl is a very different deal. Thomas tells me the land he’s been detecting is the site of a farmstead established in about 1800. It’s on the edge of the parish, in the woods near the Småland border, an area that has never been densely settled and probably had very few inhabitants before AD 1100. Fridlevstad parish itself isn’t even documented in writing before 1349, though the church dates from c. 1200. And finally, due to our unfortunate legislation, Swedish daylight detectorists like Thomas only get permits for land judged to have a very low archaeological potential. The Nävragöl find has convinced me that the Tuna mount is Late Modern, not Late Iron Age.

In 2007 I asked around a little with people who know about antique furniture, to no avail. I’m trying again now. Stay tuned!

Big thanks to Thomas Hasselberg for information and permission to publish his photographs. A similar case of eventual find identification was the one with the bodice-lacing pin from Skamby in Kuddby.

Update 22 June: The Swedish Army Museum’s staff found pretty good parallels to these mounts on objects in their collections!

Update 10 January 2017: Thomas lent me the piece so I could collect som extra information. It measures 37.9 x 30.3 x 8.4 mm and weighs 9 g.

Metal Detectorist Tattoo #2 – Hansen

Two strap ends from the eponymous Borre ship grave. Image from Oluf Rygh's 1885 Norske Oldsager.

Two strap ends from the eponymous Borre ship grave. Image from Oluf Rygh’s 1885 Norske Oldsager.


Metal detectorist Steffen Hansen has kindly given me permission to show you his tattoo sleeve. He found the strap-end at Øvre Eiker in Buskerud fylke, Norway, and had it tattooed along with other Norwegian examples of the Borre style. I haven’t got a picture of his find, but you can see what they look like in the accompanying picture of a piece from the eponymous find at Borre in nearby Vestfold fylke. The tattoo was done by Mikael “Kula” Jensen of Radich Tattoo in Mjøndalen.

The Borre style is the Viking Period’s second and most long-lived style of relief decoration, c. AD 875-975. Its frontal animal heads, often with Mickey Mouse ears, marks it as animal art and as a descendant of the Gripping Beast style, but the interlace that covers the objects’ surfaces isn’t animals. Instead it’s abstract ring braids with characteristic saw-toothed ridges, mimicking metal filigree or cord passementerie. Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson has pointed out in a 2006 paper that the Borre style never occurs on offensive weaponry, but is common on jewellery, belt fittings and mounts for defensive weaponry. Thus she interprets the Borre style as a form of magical protection for the wearer.

Borre itself is a royal site with many major barrows. In all likelihood, the ship burial from c. AD 900 that gave the style its name contained a king of the Vestfold lineage. I was there in 2013, gave a talk and took a lot of pictures.

The previous instalment in our series of metal detectorist tattoos was from Hugo Falck. Us archaeologists love to see people engage with the archaeological heritage, and you don’t really get more personal about it than this. Dear Reader, have you got a tattoo of an artefact that you’ve found? I’d love to show it here!

Metal Detectorist Tattoo #1 – Falck

Yesterday I learned about a cool new tradition among metal detectorists. They’re having images of their favourite finds tattooed, often on the arm with which they hold the detector! Note that in Scandinavia these are generally objects that the finders have handed in to museums – they keep them only as tattoos. This is in line with the Danish way of regulating metal detectors: there the submitters of each year’s ten best finds are invited to the Finds Oscars in Copenhagen and are publicly honoured by my colleagues.

Hugo Falck found this beautiful brooch in 2014 while collaborating with a colleague of mine over an important new site in Østfold, SE Norway. It belongs to type J1 which I have defined and dated to some time in the 7th century in a 2003 paper. (I didn’t know of any find combinations that would let me narrow the date down.) It is probably an import piece from nearby Jutland. Many thanks to Hugo for letting me show his photos.

I can feel a blog series coming on! Dear Reader, have you got a tattoo of an artefact that you’ve found? I’d love to show it here!

Racist Detectorists

In countries with a big metal detector hobby, the stereotypical participant is an anorak-wearing, rural, poorly educated, underemployed male. I don’t know how true this cliché image is. But apart from the anorak, it’s certainly an accurate description of the core voter demographic behind the rise of racist right-wing populist parties. These people have trouble finding jobs, and they have trouble seeing through the racist propaganda that tells them they would have jobs and girlfriends if it weren’t for the bloody furriners.

I’m known as a detectorist-friendly archaeologist. I’ve made many friends in the little Swedish hobby over the past twelve years. These people are overwhelmingly urban professionals, often with university degrees and pretty solid incomes. I’m talking a banker, a school teacher, a newspaper editor, a businessman, a scientist, a software company CEO. I’ve never known them to make racist remarks, live or online. Sweden’s laws regarding amateur metal detector use are hopelessly restrictive, so when not collaborating with researchers like myself, most of our few detectorists spend their free time collecting last year’s coins and finger rings on beaches.

But now I’ve gotten involved in Danish and Norwegian detectorist groups on Facebook. Those countries have more liberal laws and bigger hobbies. Many of their detectorists have added me as Fb buddies. And suddenly I’ve got several rural Danes and Norwegians in my Fb feed who will post nine pictures of interesting new archaeological finds, then a piece of racist propaganda, followed by nine more finds, etc. I’m just appalled. It’s so far from my Swedish experience.

Let me be clear and fair here. Most of my Danish & Norwegian detectorist contacts on Fb never post racist stuff. But the only people who do post that shit in my feed are Danish & Norwegian detectorists. I wonder if the main detectorist associations of Denmark and Norway have taken a public stand against racism, for instance by welcoming immigrants as members.

Fornvännen’s Summer Issue On-Line

Fornvännen 2013:2, last summer’s issue, is now on-line in its entirety on Open Access.

Best Danefae of 2012

Most prosperous countries have legislation for what kinds of archaeological finds a citizen has to hand in to the authorities. In Denmark, still using a Medieval term, such finds are termed danefae, “property of the dead”. And here is Danish TV4’s list of the top-10 such finds of 2012. All but one of them have been handed in by detectorists, and two by Swedish detectorists operating in Denmark because of Sweden’s restrictive rules!

It wouldn’t really be worthwhile to make a top-10 like this for Sweden, as the pretty gold & silver metalwork they concentrate on in the program is usually found detectorists, and we don’t allow the honest ones to go looking in Sweden. The reason that precious metals are so interesting to archaeologists isn’t their market value, but their resistance to corrosion. Most of the beautiful craftsmanship of the past has disintegrated or become unrecognisable. But the precious metalwork endures unchanged.

Thanks to Morten Axboe and Tobias Bondesson for the tip-off.