by Nigel Swift
A metal detecting poem has just been published in a detecting newsletter. It is called “Years pass by” and was written by “Old Git John”. Although I had better not reproduce it, it can be accessed here.
In essence it portrays metal detectorists as people who are honouring a duty that they “owe” to our ancestors to “learn” and “share” and “pass on” the knowledge of them – which sounds good, in fact it sounds heroic. Trouble is, it simply doesn’t reflect any sort of reality, it merely projects an image of metal detecting and artefact hunting that those who are involved in them would like the public to see – and who knows, perhaps it is how many metal detectorists actually see themselves. But the truth is, most detectorists, demonstrably, simply don’t do all those things – and in fact, in mostly not sharing and mostly not passing on and in almost invariably removing selected artefacts while disregarding all the others and the whole context, they mostly destroy in situ most of the knowledge of our ancestors that they come across.
That’s why elsewhere, despite them rationalising it otherwise, they are mostly prohibited from doing what they do here in the way they do it here. And why English Heritage has laid out guidelines (“Our Portable Past“) on how professional metal detecting surveys ought to be carried out (and on what limited occasions they are justified) – not through meanness or elitism or professional jealousy but simply to maximise the amount of knowledge of our ancestors that can be recovered (now and in the future), that we can learn” and “share” and “pass on”.
So, Old Git John, I disagree with you. Your portrayal of the detectorist-as-hero, preserver of the past, is essentially a false claim, without substance in most cases. If your methods and practices did not involve net loss of the past there would be no need for archaeologists to develop detailed methodology and stringent ethical constraints would there? They could all just join you in the fields and look for and dig out bits of metal rather than whole pictures of the past, and thus fulfill a duty to preserve the past to the optimum degree. No sir, if our ancestors could speak they would certainly not regard most metal detectorists as doing right by their memory, they would see you as primarily robbing them of much of their right to be remembered – exactly the opposite of what you claim.
It is very wrong, in my view, that the public should be given the impression that, for instance, the succession of recent rallies near Durobrivae in Cambridgeshire so bitterly opposed by the local archaeologists, which has netted the Yorkshire organiser many tens of thousands of pounds from thousands of attendees, have been about “learning” and “sharing” and “passing on” knowledge or anything remotely resembling it. So where ARE those objects now? In a permanent archive to be studied, or gone without trace to thousands of ephemeral private assemblages? And what about what they left behind in the fields? Is there still an archaeological record to be studied and revealed in future or a gaping gap where our ancestors used to be? The answer is beyond dispute and bardic boasts won’t wash.
Incidentally, Old Git John, you aren’t the only old git that has written poetry about metal detecting and the ethical realities of it. Some of us have been doing it for many years. Here’s one that expresses the likely feelings not of a member of a loudly self-praising here-today-gone-tomorrow acquisitive hobby but of a member of a profoundly more important group of stakeholders in metal detecting and artefact hunting – our ancestors – who, other than where selfishness prevails, are here to stay:
The quiet man of metal detecting.
Here I lie, no longer flesh or even dust.
Yet here I lie, in signs that tell
That once there was a man
Like you. Who lived and laughed.
I am no less than you, for having gone,
Nor are my rights the less.
I am a man like you and ask
Only that my life is not denied.
Yet here you dig, in blind and selfish haste,
Smashing every clue but one
Because it glints a little
And feeds your avaricious taste.
Now, that is all I am,
That bling within your grubby palm.
What now? What will you do
To save me from oblivion?
Take it home in secret? Make it shine?
Show it to your mates with swelling pride?
Claim a right to hoard a husk of history
As if to say that history is yours not mine?