by Nigel Swift.

Detecting forum UKDN recently made a new rule forbidding reference to “sales of coins or artefacts on EBay”. They deny it’s to keep it from the public that many of them are engaged in selling finds but it’s hard to see how telling people to keep quiet about something isn’t keeping something quiet. Anyhow, their denials have just become even less credible. They’ve posted an advert for a detecting rally at Little Maplestead, Essex with an extraordinary “license agreement” that the landowners have already signed and crucially it says: “Only items subject to the Treasure Act 1996 are to be divided 50/50 with the respective landowners.” Trouble is, those items all belong to the State so can’t possibly be subject to a private agreement to share them, as detectorists all know. The sole effect is to make the landowner think the detectorists are offering him something. They aren’t!

Worse, since it specifies “only” Treasure items will be shared it means non Treasure items don’t have to be. Yet non Treasure items are often far more valuable than Treasure items and anyway comprise 99.9% of anything that’s likely to be found! Let me put it in stark terms: almost every item found, be it worth ten pounds or ten thousand, has been signed over in full to the detectorists and if another Crosby Garrett Helmet is found the landowner will get nothing and the detectorist will get £2.3 million! Did anyone explain? Would the landowners have signed if they’d understood? And there’s more. The £14 entry fees (but not the finds, nota bene) go to Maplestead Round Church restoration (as they should!) so it is presented as an entirely beneficial “charity” event – to such an extent that the Friends of the Little Maplestead Round Church are running a food and drink stall to supply those that are busy relieving the locals, the church funds and the landowner of 100% of what is found!

So there we are. Doubtless the locals have heard the universal detectorists’ mantra “we’re only interested in history” and assume the attendees are all charitably minded heritage heroes for whom the selling of finds is anathema (and visiting detecting websites like UKDN won’t have taught them otherwise!) And even if they did have fleeting doubts, PAS will be there, giving every impression the whole process is archaeologically sound, officially sanctioned and not at all an oikish, unnecessary, damaging and acquisitive racket.

Finally, if you still don’t think there’s a problem that officialdom ought to warn the public about, consider this simple truth: if communities are dead set on allowing the digging up of their local archaeological record to raise charity money (and they shouldn’t be – let them ask PAS or any archaeologist in private what they think) they’d be vastly better off hiring a few detecting machines for their local amateur archaeology society to do it (although their ethics would hopefully preclude it). That way, 100% of any government Treasure rewards could go to the charity, 100% of all the other finds could go to the charity and 100% of the finds would be willingly and accurately reported to PAS (making the exercise less damaging than any metal detecting rally in history!) Let’s hope it never happens*** but tell me Dear Reader, if avoidable archaeological damage had to take place would you rather it was on the basis that £2.3 million might go to a church restoration fund or to self-proclaimed history lovers every one of whom had signed a contract ensuring every single last penny went to themselves and not the landowner or charity?

*** P S:
This might be the first time anyone has mentioned DYCAAS (Do-it-Yourself Community Archaeological Artefact Stripping) so I should clarify I’m against it. But it illustrates two truths:

First, it shows up the illogicality of British official policy. Big Society or not, The Establishment would never get involved in a stunt by a local community to dig up artefacts to raise money for charity. They’d see it as crass and uncivilised. Yet that’s what they do in the case of charity detecting rallies which produce less benefit to charity and cause more damage to the archaeological record.

Second, it confronts detectorists with their own dogma. They endlessly opine that the way to combat nighthawking is to invite them to strip sites that might otherwise be nighthawked. DYCAAS is the product of identical thinking. Amateur archaeologists would be invited to strip sites that might otherwise be subjected to charity metal detecting rallies since that would deliver, beyond scope for serious denial, more benefits for charity and less harm to the archaeological record. A group that proclaims its primary concerns are to serve the public interest, raise money for charity and preserve history could hardly object to that.


More Heritage Action views on metal detecting and artefact collecting….