by Nigel Swift

I’ve been “challenged” (by a rather thoughtful detectorist) to define “ethical metal detecting”. A short answer would be to say it doesn’t really exist except within a structured academic or rescue exercise as anything else may cause damage for avoidable reasons or with insufficient payback. I guess if others like PAS disagreed there’d be pictures on the net of them swinging detectors with the rest at commercial rallies, but there aren’t! But of course, the short answer’s neither here nor there as people are metal detecting so my definition of ethical detecting has to be tempered with reality. As Macbeth almost said: “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done ethically!”

But then it hit me. There’s no definition of ethical metal detecting, anywhere. No metal detectorist, no supporter has come up with one and remarkably (considering its whole raison d’être) nor has PAS! All we have is the Code for Responsible Metal Detecting and you could hardly claim that isn’t a watered-down “best-we-can-hope-for” version of “ethical”. (Try reading it substituting “ethical” for “responsible”. It becomes gobbledygook.) If ethical is to do with maximum public benefit and minimum public damage then the Code can hardly be said to have much to do with ethicality at all. Which maybe explains exactly why PAS hasn’t defined ethical? To do so would be to emphasize how far from ethicality the Code actually is.

Still, there are some detectorists striving to be more ethical and it seems to me their standards ought to be codified as well, indeed more so than the contents of the Code. We need a Sermon on the Mount, not just a vague indication of what’s at the bottom of the spectrum of acceptability else how will the public know it is at the bottom or that there are people that manage to do a lot better? Shouldn’t those people be praised as elite so they can gain from their efforts? After all, their standards in some respects are not far from those of archaeologists. Landowners ought to be told about them. Just as all detectorists are sick of being confused with nighthawks so ethical detectorists must be sick of being confused with ordinary detectorists (even “responsible ones”).

Yet I fear they’ll wait forever, for reasons explained, so if they want things to change they’ll have to do it themselves. It wouldn’t be hard – a few people could simply say “Let’s form an association just for metal detectorists that behave very, very, well and see if we can reap some benefits and do some good!” Such people are out there, just an email away from setting themselves up, writing some rules and issuing badges. They nearly did it a few years ago (at my suggestion) but made the mistake of asking the rest for permission and heard: “Bad idea…. mustn’t split the hobby…. unity is strength.” Strength for who one might ask. It’s not hard to see who has been piggybacking on the good behaviour of others for many years. In truth ethicality is strength, not unity. Who would think of banning or restricting ethical detectorists? No-one! If detectorists were ever subject to regulation the last detectorists left in the fields would be the ethical ones, it’s a certainty.

Anyhow, here’s an outline for an Ethical Metal Detecting Association. Not an entirely ethical, minimal damage one, but a lot better than “responsible”. It will have a permanent place on the net in due course with a link from the Journal. Unlike the Code it’s not going to be watered down to suit the unwilling, or sent to the National Council for Metal Detecting for emasculation, it’s just going to sit there as a reminder of what’s right and a reproach to those that think “right” ought to be ditched in the face of bellicosity. Many detectorists (the ones who wouldn’t comply) will trot out a zillion reasons why it’s preposterous and unrealistic. Ethical detectorists will know otherwise. If any of them (the ethical ones not the ones that say that what ethical detectorists already do is actually impossible and unrealistic) care to comment please do. Alternatively if they would like to correspond with us in strict confidence or anonymously via we’d be interested to hear their thoughts.

I guess the biggest protest this set of ideas will provoke will centre on the concept that there should be no finds sharing agreement. Both the bulk of detectorists and PAS (presumably) will disagree. As to the former, they’re easily repulsed – if you’re in it for love of history you can’t possibly complain. Can you? Unless you want to confess something? As for PAS, it actually recommends both sides to enter into an agreement (via the Code and via a Country Landowner’s leaflet) in order to “avoid disputes”. I really can’t see why…..

It seems rather like lazy thinking, slipping into the presumption that it is “legally right” to contract to share. On what legal basis would that be? Just because the State decided to offer a 50% finder’s reward for Treasure items that doesn’t mean private individuals are obliged to do the same with their property or to be told that a history lover (or indeed anyone else like a dog walker, bird watcher, farm worker or school child) that finds non-treasure items on their land has a legal claim to a particular percentage of them, whether 50%, 1% or 100%,  and that such a claim should be acknowledged for “safety” reasons by being formalised contractually “in order to avoid disputes”. What disputes, pray? Legal ones? On what basis? I can’t think how.  Or maybe some detectorists are thinking of possible disputes arising over the landowner saying “I won’t insult you by giving you a big reward as you’ve told me you’re only here for the love of history?” Or could PAS possibly mean disputes arising from a history-lover putting a find in his pocket because he hasn’t been given a guarrantee of a big fat contractual share in it’s value? Surely not? It must be some potential for some other dispute that both lots have forgotten to spell out.

It’s outrageous IMO that landowners should be officially misled into thinking a contract about sharing the finds is necessary or in their interest. Some of these agreements reserve 100% of all finds up to a value of £2,000 each find to the finder – in other words 100% of almost everything that is found. Central Searchers for one, which deals with scores of landowners and thousands of detectorists per year.  Look ’em up and click on their Rules. It’s number 15. Imagine, as a fieldwalker from an archaeology society – or a twitcher – waving that together with a twenty quid note at a farmer! Why would a farmer lay himself open to being persuaded to sign up to such ridiculous and blatantly unfair and exploitative terms when legally the items are his 100%, and if he wants to give a finder a reward (of however much he likes) or not then that’s up to him? “Oh well, we pay him twenty quid each to detect there.” And for that you think it’s fair to take 100% of almost everything you all find do you?! Well, maybe the poor farmer is stupid or, more likely, he’s been reading something from an official body, recommending him to enter into an agreement and from that got the idea that the nice plausible purely history-loving people at his door really would have a big legal right to almost all of his property if they found it so he’d better sign something drafted by them that reflected the probable legal situation since the experts (them and PAS) recommended it. 

No. Finds agreements are not not necessary, not ethical, work entirely against the landowner, point to a love of money not history and are based upon a false premise. 

Meanwhile, any ethical detectorists out there, courage mes braves! You have much to gain, all of it deserved – and nothing to lose but other people’s reputations!


Here it is! (Updated March 2015)


More Heritage Action views on metal detecting and artefact collecting