Following our recent article article “A way for metal detectorists to become lovable” we noticed a way they could do even better. “Leisure Promotions” showed the way at their metal detecting rally near Lambourn : “we are going to be burying several hundreds of finds which will include roman coins, hammered silver coins and masses of other coins and artefacts. All of these will be buried in a large area marked out so that you can move elsewhere if you prefer to look for any natural finds afterwards.”  Although billed as for beginners or those who wish to test newly acquired machines, doubtless it will have far wider appeal – for it’s a lottery, plain and simple, the chance to get a prize that’s greater than the cost of the ticket. (The idea is catching on – the upcoming “Three Counties Xmas Dig” will include deliberately buried “hoards” of modern coins).

Needless to say, seeding land with historic artefacts amounts to vandalism as it corrupts the archaeological record but the Lambourne event is noteworthy for more than that for it prompts the question: how does metal detecting in general differ from it? The answer, surely, is that it doesn’t. Both are a random search for collectables at a place where the chances are thought to be greatest.

So could this be the way forward, a way to give artefact hunters what they want while ending concerns about what they do? Those that want to continue their hobby in a scientific and ethical manner could continue to do so subject to license and for the rest, who are in it as a form of random Easter egg hunt to add to their collections or make a bit of money, the government could provide small metal detecting reserves in each county and regularly seed them with artefacts. There would be a small entrance fee to create a fund to buy spare finds from the existing collections of detectorists (and museums?) that could then be re-seeded so the exercise would be no expense to the taxpayer. Or people could “pay” to come in by handing over their spare Roman coins (thus saving the trouble of selling them on EBay and posting them to the States). Detectorists would no longer fear they might be legislated against and they’d no longer need to travel far or pay huge fees to rally organisers. Their finds rate would never reduce as the site would be inexhaustable and they’d have no need to keep the location secret or have any irritating requirement to tell the landowner or anyone else what they found. If required, the authorities could also bury “Golden One Million Pound tickets” Willy Wonka style, thus replicating what actually happens under the present Treasure Act system but at far less public expense – although it’s possible the taxpayer might decide that was a bit tacky, who knows? There’s no doubt that the dozens of detectorists that joined in a Golden Treasure Hunt at Twinstead with huge enthusiasm just last weekend would like the idea!

So could this be the fabled “Liaisonville” that the Head of the Portable Antiquities Scheme used to talk of, the common ground where detectorists and archaeologists both get what they want and where Mumbo, Schroedinger’s jumbo, can have his tusks both conserved for the community and hacked off for personal gain at the same time… ? Seems like it. If it isn’t we’d like to hear how. Hurrah for Leisure Promotions, the Three Counties Xmas Rally and the Heroes of Twinstead for finally showing the way!

Mumbo, Schroedinger’s jumbo, who has his tusks both conserved for the community and hacked off for personal gain at the same time, being greeted with relief at the door of the British Museum

And here’s a picture of what such a scheme would prevent….

The above shows pits dug by looters at the archaeological site of Mounya, west of Djenné in Mali, regarded by some as representing “the most egregious case of cultural depredation”. It should be borne in mind however those holes have remained visible because they have been created in an arid region. In Britain excavation holes are mostly dug in plough soil or grassland and filled in anyway. So you’ll rarely see British pictures like the above – but in truth it could easily be a diagram of the digging at any metal detecting rally any week of any year, including those (virtually all of them) that are held on unprotected archaeological sites. (And that would not be a picture of an egregious case of cultural depredation how precisely?) Worth a thought, innit? A picture is worth a thousand positive press releases n’est-ce pas, PAS? Wouldn’t such behaviour be better restricted to a reserve?

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More Heritage Action views on metal detecting and artefact collecting

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