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