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“Contrary to popular opinion archaeologists do not excavate in order to find gold or other valuable objects. Rather their intention is to get the maximum information about the past from the ground. Objects found in an excavation are important principally because of their recorded association with other objects, structures, layers or features.” – from ‘Irish Field Monuments’

This is a statement of Irish origin, I know, but it’s one that every archaeologist should hold to. There is a paradox, however. The personal annexation of archaeological objects and the regular destruction of context, in England and Wales, are like two fingers casually flicked in its direction. So, how is it rationalised? A number of standard arguments are used by metal detector users and I will group – and answer them – loosely under three headings. By naming the third heading, as I have, it is not my intention to draw any Nazi parallels, merely to hint (using association) how appeasement can be and has previously been, disastrous;

1. Superman
2. Offence is the best form of Defence
3. Munich Agreement

1. Superman (in two parts)

(i) helping the local community – contributing to local museums – the information to be gained from the object – the Staffordshire Hoard effect. As you will have gathered from my opening sentence, there must also be two parts to this answer; firstly, the question of whether the object is reported at all and secondly, and if so, the damage that is done to its context by unqualified excavation.

(a) Despite the occasional – heavily-reported – case, overall the amount of archaeological objects reported (and traceable to original context) is a fraction of those found. The amount of objects contributed to museums is less again. When challenged on the destination of their found objects, users will often state that museum collections are full and that the museums don’t want them anyway. Private hoards and Ebay are the immediate destination of the majority of artefacts and beyond Ebay, who knows?

(b) As to the second part – although much information can be gleaned from the likes of, for example, the Staffordshire Hoard, so much more is left behind; in the earth that flies from the spade, or in the ‘worthless’, non-treasure, items thrown to one side. To use the words of Minister Michael D. Higgins, in his presentation of the 1994 National Monuments (Amendment) Bill to the Irish Seanad;

“.., this is not even half the story. While the artefacts and monuments, in themselves, are important, in more recent years it is the sites in which these have been discovered, particularly when discovered in an undisturbed site, that have been seen to yield or constitute a reservoir of amazing information about our ancestors and, through them, about ourselves. When archaeologists have been given the opportunity to properly excavate such sites, they have, using the strict disciplines of their profession and helped by modern forensic technology, been able to begin piecing together the complex jigsaw pieces of the past…

..,the physical context in which an object is found is often more valuable in terms of the information which can be gleaned than the object itself. It has been said that the objects are only the index of a great text book while the context in which such objects were deposited represents the text.”

Index and text – that’s as perfectly as I have ever seen the relationship between object and context expressed.

(ii) saving archaeological objects from the onslaught of deep ploughing and corrosive agricultural chemicals. Although Paul Barford recently offered a neat dissection of the latter threat on his blog (twice), it is undeniable that the former, deep-ploughing, is eroding both physical context and object – in some locations. Why, then, not take, at least, the objects before they are lost forever? It is doubtful that any object removed from the ground, without its context, and then taken (or sold) into a private collection, is, in any meaningful sense, saved. Furthermore and this is the key point – there is, as I said earlier, no law to restrict users to this affected fraction of land. Think about that. The recommendation that users limit themselves to heavily disturbed ground carries the obvious implication that their activities (unqualified excavation) are also erosive. Yet there is no legal requirement for them to restrict themselves to that ground.

2. Offence is the best form of defence

This needs little explanation – the ad hominem approach. Threats, abuse, or belittling references to the challenger.

3. Munich Agreement

Cooperation rather than confrontation – metal detector use cannot be limited by legislation – if it was it would go underground and we wouldn’t even get the little information that we do now. This is, of course, testable. As I said at the beginning, I am Irish and I have quoted, all the way along, from Irish sources on the subject. The state of law here was not markedly different from that in England and Wales, until an event prompted change in the 1980’s. Briefly, two metal detector users were unhappy with the reward offered by the National Museum for the object that they found (the Derrynaflan chalice) and challenged the state’s right to ownership. They eventually lost their case in the Supreme Court, in a judgement that included these defining words from Mr. Justice T.J. Finlay;   

“…it would appear to me to be inconsistent with the framework of the society sought to be created and sought to be protected by the Constitution that such objects should become the exclusive property of those who by chance may find them.”

This decision led to the subsequent changes in Irish law, beginning with the National Monuments (Amendment) Act 1987. In the opening words of her 1986 Seanad speech, Avril Doyle described the prevailing background of the time;

“I now turn to another area that is new; the control of metal detecting. We are all aware, I am sure, of the damage that has been done to archaeological sites by treasure hunters. Reports have been received from almost every part of the country of sites which have been scarred by their operations. Coins and other objects providing valuable dating evidence have been removed from their context. This represents irretrievable loss and it is clear that something has to be done about it.”

Michael D. Higgins’ comments (concerning the same era) are also worth repeating;

“In seeking to legislate for the ownership and improvement of the protection of archaeological objects and monuments it must be borne in mind that, although we known that such objects are beyond price, there will be those who will put a price on such things, those who will seek out such objects, remove them without any concern for the context in which they are found and sell them to the highest bidder, those who will collect such items without regard for or understanding of the right of people to the ownership of their own heritage — and that heritage is in question — and to whom individual possession of an object is their only enjoyment. That such behaviour is a sad feature of the past 20 years, in particular, is to be deplored, but we must face up to it.”

You can never completely stamp out illegal behaviour. As long as there is money to be made there will be people to take the chance. However, it will be obvious to any inhabitant of Ireland that the pre-legislation situation, as sketched out by Ministers Doyle and Higgins, above – what you might refer to as a countrywide epidemic of night-hawking -, no longer exists. It is also probable that the previous easy availability of metal detectors and the legality (and familiarity) of their use, in the search for archaeological objects generally, would have fed into their use in more nefarious activities. Certainly, this ‘Irish night-hawking’ dwindled after the change in law (it is noteworthy that metal detector users here also observed a “very strict code” previous to that point) – significantly, not only the use of metal detectors is curtailed in Ireland, but also their promotion.


More Heritage Action views on metal detecting and artefact collecting


by Gordon Kingston, Heritage Action

The other day, at the end of an article that one of us wrote about Stonehenge, a metal detector user wrote the following comment;

“Organise a Metal Detecting rally in the fields nearby ?, That should boost the coffers a bit…”

When we hadn’t published the comment – after just an hour, or two – it was enhanced with this;

“Why ask for comments if your just going to delete them you Muppet…
It was a sensible comment and one that would of generated revenue..
Just because you and your proffesion are being outdone by so called Amateurs like myself…
Just adds to my belief that your afraid ,,,, Very very afraid….
Enough said..
I am a Metal Detectorist and proud of it…”

He gave his name and the web address of, presumably, his club (named as their “detectorist of the year“), but we refrained from publishing what he had to say. How could you put something like that up as a response, except as an illustration – in anger veritas – of how fundamentally opposed archaeology and metal detecting are? You may not have noticed, but, since the finding of the Staffordshire hoard, an hubristic force has been building in the metal detecting community, like gathering thunder, and those comments sum it up better than I ever could. When you live in the jungle, danger may be an everyday fact of life, but to an outsider it would seem impossible – unnecessary, even – to live under those circumstances. Similarly, as an Irishman, I find it, to put it bluntly, grotesque, that anyone should think that such a rally could actually take place in the fields around Stonehenge – which are part of a protected World Heritage Site – and that they thought that the suggestion was “a sensible comment”.

Is it any wonder that our criticism is met with anger from metal detector users? It is both hobby and narcotic, don’t you think? Its features include the thrill of the hunt, regular hits of reward or possession and, ever-present (it could be you?), the tantalising possibility of hitting a lottery-like jackpot. If you recall Mike Parker Pearson’s long, painstaking, but ultimately rewarding, excavation in one of those same ‘fields around Stonehenge’ (the site of Bluestonehenge), how – again – grotesque is a proposition that the archaeological record of a similar piece of ground should be destroyed in a single afternoon, for a ‘hobby‘, for a ‘buzz’, for ‘profit’ – or, in the words of our correspondent – to “generate revenue” to spend on heritage? “You and your profession are being outdone by so called Amateurs like myself”. This is true, although not in the way that it was intended when written.

The law as it stands, in England and Wales, is that there is no restriction on metal detecting for archaeological objects outside of scheduled monuments and some other more locally restricted locations. A voluntary code recommends that users limit their activities to ground already heavily disturbed by the agricultural process, but there is no legal compulsion on them to do so. It is also recommended that they report what they find, but there is, again, no legal compulsion – except in the case of gold, silver and a limited number of other ‘treasure’ items. Ownership of nearly all found archaeological objects and the consequent ability to decide on their fate, rests, ultimately, with the finder and the landowner. The legal restrictions that – in stark contrast – pertain in other European countries are usefully set out on the National Council for Metal Detecting website. If you read through the page you will note that it is careful to list the laws in three areas; metal detecting, archaeological object ownership and reward. All are pertinent.

In a response to Minister Avril Doyle’s presentation of the 1987 National Monuments (Amendment) bill to the Irish Seanad, a member quoted from the Office of Public Works’  ’Irish Field Monuments’ and I will do so again here, to demonstrate (with eloquence), the dangers of this unqualified archaeological excavation by metal detector users;

“Modern archaeological excavation is a highly skilled activity requiring much expertise in the recovery of the evidence and in its interpretation and publication. Contrary to popular opinion archaeologists do not excavate in order to find gold or other valuable objects. Rather their intention is to get the maximum information about the past from the ground. Objects found in an excavation are important principally because of their recorded association with other objects, structures, layers or features. For this reason it is important that unqualified persons should not undertake archaeological excavation and if by accident a discovery is made everything should be left as it is without any further uncovering of the object or feature or any other disturbance of the immediate area until an official inspection has been made.”
And continuing, from my own copy;

“Section 26 (1) of the National Monuments Act 1930 makes it unlawful to excavate for archaeological purposes without a licence from the Commissioners of Public Works. Their consent is also required to use a metal detector for the purpose of searching for archaeological objects according to section 2 of the National Monuments (Amendment) Act 1987. Such consents are normally issued only to qualified and experienced archaeologists.”


More Heritage Action views on metal detecting and artefact collecting



June 2010

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