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It seems that the metal detecting nest egg that Britain has incubated for the past decade is about to produce a chick that’s a lot bigger and uglier than PAS and others could have dreamed. 

The “depth” at which hobby machines can find most small objects has been stuck at around 5 to 8 inches for decades and everyone assumed the technology was close to its optimum. But the Minelab Company has just launched the GPX5000 – which seems to be a major breakthrough.  See this:  and this:

There seems no doubt about it, the Minelab GPX5000 can easily find small objects at 18.5 inches!

[UPDATE 26 January 2012 : in fact, 24 inches – see latest testimony from the detectorist who was the original tester in Comments]


But see this survey on the British Farming Forum, “What depth do you plough to?


Not definitive of course, (like our Artefact Erosion Counter!) but almost three quarters of the 124 respondents say they plough in the 6-9 inch range, whereas the new machine detects objects at more than double the depth of the 9 inch plough soil and more than three times the depth of the six inch plough soil – in other words more than 9 inches and more than a foot respectively [Edit– more than fifteen inches and more than eighteen inches] into the undisturbed levels! In fact, in every one of those 124 cases it seems the GPX5000 could project well below the plough soil and far into any underlying and undisturbed archaeology – as could a spade of course.


 So what are the implications?

 Well first, it seems likely an awful lot will be sold. Maximising depth has been an obsession for detectorists and a holy grail for manufacturers for forty years (see Google for proof of both) so the demand is there. Although presently expensive people are already talking of buying them on a shared basis and the history of all new technology is that the price tumbles once the new-product premium is removed, economies of scale are achieved and competition kicks in. In my view it’s not a case of whether large numbers get into the hands of detectorists but when.

 Second, it seems that this machine and similar are going to be profound game-changers because metal detecting has hitherto been tolerated in Britain on the basis that (allegedly at least) it takes place in disturbed plough soil and above the archaeological layers and is therefore relatively harmless – whereas the new machines are set to render that whole claim invalid, and this time there’s no room for argument. Who could sensibly claim that detectorists will always (or even often) confine their digging to the top few inches when they are urgently being made aware there are good targets further down. To propose such a thing would be to suggest they aren’t human. PAS oughtn’t to imply otherwise.

Third, it surely follows that there is no realistic way that PAS can tell the public there is no problem with these machines being out in their fields. It just won’t wash to say that “because we have outreached to, liaised  with, and partnered detectorists nearly all of them are now so responsible they would stop digging after a few inches.” Surely the “metal detecting debate” isn’t going to end up with PAS saying they truly believe most detectorists will practice the withdrawal method? I have news for Pope Roger: they won’t, in their thousands, and everyone knows it!

Fourth, the penny is starting to drop with some detectorists that their ability to find targets so far down is good for them but disastrous for the image of their hobby. Initial open exaltation has begun to be tempered (and moved into closed forum areas in some cases) as the realisation dawns that “We do no harm” would no longer be just a dubious claim it would be an unbelievable one that even their most loyal apologists couldn’t take seriously or transmit to the public and the government. So claims are being made about the machines being too expensive and too cumbersome and of limited interest. I beg to differ. I beg to suggest that the demand is high, that some of the criticisms are insincere and that any valid ones will be met and speedily rectified by the manufacturers, since that’s how commerce works. How about hundreds, perhaps a thousand, being swept over carefully researched areas of buried archaeology by this time next year? All perfectly legally, but followed by digging as deep and damaging as nighthawks do. Anyone want to bet against me?


So what is to be done in the face of this real and present danger to the resource?

If logic and conservation mean anything at all the Code of Responsible Detecting and the Rally Guidelines should be amended to say such machines should not be used (no, not “voluntarily used responsibly” – not used! Like sub machine guns.) And PAS should say so on the front of their website and warn every landowner not to allow them. And DEFRA should forbid their use on land subject to stewardship schemes. And no public landowners should countenance them or private landowner be left unaware of them. Indeed, if logic means anything, the importation and use of powerful metal detectors should be licensed or prohibited by law not voluntary codes. MPs and Ministers love concrete figures and a quick demo by PAS of the miracles the new generation of machines can perform ought to convince them to ban them altogether.  The argument makes itself so there shouldn’t be much difficulty: there would be no change of the status quo, just a denial of the ability of detectorists to intensify the current rate of erosion, so there’d be no valid grounds for them being angry at this curbing of their “rights” (other than frustrated greed) or being frightened on PAS’s part (other than habit). A very good test of exactly how many detectorists are truly “responsible” and how sincere our protection agencies are in their conservation aims!

But will any of it happen? Or will the archaeological establishment stay paralysed and under the detectorists’ thumbs, unable to react, as the reach of detectorists extends progressively into the archaeological layers, inch by inch?

One might think there was a bit of hope since as these machines threaten the resource they also threaten metal detecting. But trying to convince most metal detectorists that it is in their own interest to act in society’s interest is a mug’s game as I know only too well so I don’t expect many volunteers for depth-celibacy, and in the end it’s down to the authorities alone. The choice is clear, do something about it fast. Or don’t.

But rather than acknowledging that amateurs like me know owt, why not heed the words of an expert – Neil Jones, the highly experienced British detectorist who tested one for Minelab:

“It has awesome punching power and can detect to incredible depths. It just opens up a whole new level of detecting that other machines can’t touch, and that opens up lots of new ground when you think about it.” 

Or Mr Brun:

“If you are going to get one of these machines make sure your able dig deap holes” (Sic)

Or Gordon Heritage:
“It’s down to the bedrock!”

But the prize goes to “Turfaholic” for voicing what will happen:

“it’s the solution to the resource being hammered – “Interesting approach as todays finds become more rare at the 6 to 10 inch depth, this may open a whole new style to coin and releic hunting?” (Sic)

(The “solution”, nota bene, “to the resource being hammered”: This is a detectorist remember, confessing what the likes of us and Paul Barford say, and PAS won’t.  What he is saying is that emptying the ploughsoil doesn’t matter as now they can get at the undisturbed archaeology below it!)

Or maybe I should claim a prize myself for offering a moral homily that is 13 years too late and yet might still be relevant in the future:

“Never plan a strategy on the basis technology won’t advance”


Update 31/10/10 

NOTE ABOUT COMMENTS RECEIVED ON THIS TOPIC: We have received a succession of comments on this, all from metal detectorists, all telling us these machines are useless and pose no threat. Since this is so much at odds with the initial reaction on detectorists’ forums (universal delight, and many saying they would buy them) it looks very much like the comments are not to be taken at face value so we don’t feel obliged to give them a platform here. Nevertheless, here are a few examples of what we have been asked to believe. The reader can decide for him or herself whether they add up to a pretty obvious attempt to unjustly allay public fears:

I wouldn’t take too much notice of these GPX depth claims

 “I wouldn’t get in such a panic.”

Almost no-one will buy them as they’re too expensive

 “most detectorists are elderly and unlikely to wish to exert themselves to a great degree

the three people demonstrating the machine “are well known in the detecting community to be responsible”  [yet they are advocating digging to 18.5 inches?!!]

 It’s not a brand new machine, just a revamp

 “it’s not set up as an artefact finder but for hunting for gold nuggets, therefore not really that suitable for UK detecting [even though the Minelab official site says “Also great for the specialist relic and jewellery hunter who demands the best, and wants to recover targets deeper than ever before.” ?]

The previous model never really sold [so Minelab have launched this improved version expecting that this too won’t sell well?!]

people will get pretty sick of digging lots of junk at all sorts of depths”,

 “it’s mainly sales hype so the people involved can receive free detectors & other perks from Minelab

And best of all:
they are pretty much useless for most archaeological sites in Britain.”

 Well, we can all stop worrying then! Or perhaps not. Incidentally, since not a single detectorist has written to us saying other than that these machines are useless and no threat whatsoever then detectorists will have no objection to their use being officially condemned or prohibited. Will they? And if, perchance, it turns out they DO express objections (any of them) then all the more reason for doing so!

 PAS, EH, CBA, MLA, DEFRA, CLA, NUF, ALGAO, IfA and DCMS kindly note!


More Heritage Action views on metal detecting and artefact collecting


The Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum has an, “…extensive range of paintings, prints and drawings of the monument. These include some of the earliest known depictions of the stone circle, as well as works by contemporary artists.”
Featured on the Museum’s website here – are some fifty illustrations, each with accompanying background information.
Silbury by William Stukeley
11 July 1723
In an interview* with Evan Davis yesterday, on Radio 4’s Today programme, Jim Leary makes (and repeats several times) the extraordinary statement that, “The received wisdom that we had when we went into the tunnel in 2007, was that the hill was constructed as a single construct…”
What! A single construct! I’m no expert, but anyone with even a passing interest in Silbury knows it was constructed in at least three phases. Perhaps Leary means he was surprised at how many phases it was constructed in, but that isn’t the impression he gives here. He’s certainly keen to push his book though (see here) and the interview concludes with Leary urging millions of Radio 4 listeners to go out and buy a copy…


Or selling off the land to the highest bidder, welcome to the age of  materialistic culture when we sell off our forests for holiday villages, MORE golf courses and adventure sites. Sod the trees, birds and wild animals in this all so small land of ours – we need FUN.  Or at least those that have enough money in their bank accounts to enjoy it.  Whoops I see a problem there, aren’t we going in for austerity cuts, though I have a feeling of course with all those trees to chop down, little wooden chalets to build and those rather nice lumpy golf bunkers to construct that it will create jobs – well at least for the short term.

But never mind, surely the cavalry will come riding to the rescue in the form of those national bodies that are supposed to protect our landscape, such people like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds….

“We would be quite relaxed about the idea of some sales, but would be unrelaxed if the wrong bits were up for sale like the New Forest, Forest of Dean or Sherwood Forest, which are incredibly valuable for wildlife and shouldn’t be sold off.

Or maybe the National Trust…

“We will take a fairly pragmatic approach and look at each sale on a case by case basis, making sure the land goes to the appropriate organisations for the right sites, making sure the public can continue to enjoy the land.

Thin end of wedges are already being driven into the trees, by the very act of  taking national protection from our landscape and putting it into the hands of private investors we are taking a terrible risk; true there are many planted logging forests that adorn our mountains that need coming down but the old Ancient Forests, think about them, Sherwood, New Forest , Wyre, Forest of Dean need absolute protection from short term profits…


The British Archaeology Magazine (editor Mike Pitts) is published bimonthly by the Council for British Archaeology and retails at £4.50 a copy (various cheaper annual subscription levels are available). The magazine has over sixty pages, contains superlative photographs and is packed full of interesting features dealing principally, though not exclusively, with the archaeology of Britain. The magazine is divided into News, Spoilheap (opinions), Letters, Archaeological features, On the Web (latest from the internet), Books (reviews), Briefing (conferences etc) and My archaeology (interviews with people like Alice Roberts, photographer Don McCullin and the artist David Inshaw.

The latest issue of the magazine (November-December 2010) has a new feature called First Sight. The feature is two pages in from the front of the magazine and is a detailed, full-page photograph of the newly reconstructed Crosby Roman Helmet (perhaps not a good start for a new feature considering the on-going debate on how the helmet was found and subsequently ‘restored’ but certainly a feature to look forward to in forthcoming editions).
All-in-all British Archaeology is an excellent publication for those (even the younger reader) with an interest in the archaeology of ‘Britain and Beyond’.

By Gordon Kingston, Heritage Action

Time and the lack of written record, have tied a tight blindfold between us and prehistory, but occasionally we get the chance of a small nudge in the right direction. Following the recent collapse of its capstone,  Tirnony portal tomb, in County Derry, is to be excavated in advance of restoration. The Belfast Telegraph carries this report;

As you’ll read in the article, this is indeed a rare chance. Excavation involves destruction and is, therefore, a tool that must be used sparingly; a delicate balance has to be struck between the desire for information and the need for preservation (a conflict between pressures, to borrow a phrase from Jung, that; “cannot be solved by an either-or but only by a kind of two-way thinking: doing one thing while not losing sight of the other”).

Certainly, the archaeological component of all the “saddle-up boys” development activity of recent years, while it did increase our ‘record‘, seemed to have drifted well away from the consideration of ‘need for preservation’. The same need that is lost to sight, I’m convinced, by allowing the uncontrolled use of metal-detectors; wonderful, easily destructible, knowledge does rest in the ground. Here at Tirnony, for instance and in contrast, the archaeologist Paul Logue can set out his team’s hopes to; “find out more about how this tomb was built, when it was built and how it was used.”

If you do happen to be interested in the portal tombs of Ireland, Wales and Cornwall, there’s a smart and very exhaustive study by Tatjana Kytmannow, available as a British Archaeology Report (BAR 455, 2008). It’s fascinating. The monument group has been dated, from finds analysis, to the Early Neolithic; to a period in the region of 4000 – 3500 BC and, interestingly, given the emphatic thrust to the contrary in one of the comments beneath the Telegraph article, she notes that;

“There are very simple dolmens in Portugal, Spain, Brittany, and western France which are all early, earlier than passage tombs, but there are no close parallels which possess the same defining criteria. While the idea (of) erecting large monuments of stone was most likely introduced, portal tombs are only found in Britain and Ireland and have most likely developed there.”

There is to be an archaeologist’s blog at, which should be worth checking out from time to time. It’s a good website to look through, in any case.

Kilmogue Portal Tomb; symbolism and spectacle?
Boudicca and her daughters
Statue by Thomas Thornycroft (1815-1885) on Westminster Bridge
Image © Heritage Action

Bettany Hughes, writing on page 123 of next week’s RadioTimes, says, “One of my favourite moments of the summer spent at the digs took place in the finds’ shed at Calleva. The director of excavations pulled out a first-century AD terracotta roof tile. Left to dry in the sun it had on it the imprints of a Roman hobnailed boot… Apart from immediately short-circuiting you into the fury of a [British] craftsman whose afternoon’s work had been ruined by these vandal travellers [the Romans], the marks seemed to stand for the Romano-British experience.

“It is little surprise, perhaps, that the Romans had a name for us – Britunculii – “pathetic little Brits.”

The Romans in Britain. Sunday, 24 October from 9:30pm on Radio 3.

“The future of the county’s tourist information centres could be under threat after Wiltshire Council announced five of the centres may be handed over to community groups.

“Maggie Moore, a former manager of the TICs in Devizes and Avebury, said both should continue to have TICs operating. She said: “It would be a great shame if they close.”

More here –

Moel y Gaer Hillfort. Wikipedia Commons photo; Attribution: Eiran Evans

A campaign to protect North East Wales’ ancient heather moorlands from the ravages of illegal off-roaders has been getting support from an unusual source – a national off-road organisation. ‘Tread Lightly’ represents thousands of law-abiding 4 x 4 users and off-road motorcyclists from across the UK, and aims to promote responsible off-roading. They have thrown their weight behind the Heather and Hillforts campaign launched this year to protect North East Wales’s heather moorlands and prehistoric hillforts from the scourge of illegal bikers and 4 x 4 drivers.

This can only be good. But we have a suggestion. Unless they have done it already (in which case, bravo!) could “Tread Lightly” also stamp down like a ton of bricks upon those legal 4×4 enthusiasts who think it’s OK  to rip up The Ridgeway near Avebury and to fight like tigers to retain their right to thrash around on tracks in the Stonehenge World Heritage Site? Can we also be assured that they wouldn’t tolerate any member of “Tread Lightly” doing either of those things?


October 2010

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