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The Portable Antiquities Scheme has wanted to send a leaflet on metal detecting to landowners for years (we think we were the first to suggest it to them) but detectorists have resisted furiously (threatening “strike action” unless it was abandoned or severely emasculated). Now, things are coming to a head – see this leaked new draft on a detectorists’ forum.

Some parts are excellent…

  • For instance, it asks landowners to refuse requests “to plough deeper in the hope of recovering further objects.” Quite right, as that’s simple vandalism for personal gain.
  • In addition, it says (hallelujah!) “Most archaeologists view metal-detecting rallies as extremely damaging to archaeology”. About time too! An inadvertent but undeniable admission that as responsible archaeologists they don’t attend rallies to carry out joint projects or to be “partners” to detectorists, but to mitigate the damage from what shouldn’t be happening.

But other parts are awful…

  • Despite acknowledging rallies are extremely damaging it recommends  “metal-detecting rally organisers should follow the Guidance on Metal-Detecting Rallies in England and Wales” to reduce damage. But surely in the circumstances the only responsible advice is “don’t allow rallies, they are extremely damaging, period”? Surely, anything else simply abets damage.
  • And it mentions the NCMD and FID codes of conduct. Why? Only the official code is agreed and approved and neither of the others requires detectorists to comply with it so by definition they aren’t “good practice” and are bound, inevitably, to mislead farmers into thinking otherwise. So surely it is inarguable that mentioning them in an official letter abets damage.
  • Despite PAS having been set up purely to mitigate damage caused by the hobby the document actually promotes and therefore expands the activity. E.g. it reassures: “Today, most archaeologists recognise the benefits of responsible metal-detecting” (ignoring the facts that responsible detecting is a minority practice and most of the world’s archaeologists consider the net effect of detecting is malign.) And it says it is especially good for “retrieving and recording finds vulnerable to corrosion and damage”- despite there having been no comprehensive studies on the scale and distribution of deterioration, which is localised at worst, so that random, selective removal of artefacts from everywhere cannot possibly be an appropriate conservation response. Surely, official bodies have no business repeating unscientific mantras designed to persuade not inform since it abets damage?

PAS would do well to note the reassurance given to detectorists by their most prominent ally: I cannot however see any evil statement in the document. not one.”  We don’t ask for evil statements but we do ask for the unvarnished truth to be told. Clearly this document is perceived as not telling certain uncomfortable truths landowners are entitled to hear – the things, for instance, that we have been telling them for years on our website (that PAS has never, ever suggested were wrong.)

It’s pretty simple, this proposed letter has brought things to a head. Officialdom must demonstrate whose side it is on. Either farmers are told the truth by the signatories (prompting the fury of metal detectorists) or they are told half truths (or worse) to persuade them to allow metal detecting on their land. It might have been easy to be economical with the actualité (and we do understand why) when delivering talks to farmers but that’s simply not possible in a published document. It’ll show.


More Heritage Action views on metal detecting and artefact collecting


See also Paul Barford’s article on this subject.


August 2010

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