“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