by Nigel Swift


Brian Taylor (in The British Journal of Sociology – Amateurs, Professionals and the knowledge of archaeology) references the view that in the first half of the 20th century it was considered that the core defining characteristics that distinguish professions were:


However, Mr Taylor suggests an “alternative conceptualization” whereby amateurism is considered “a self-legitimising component of the vocabulary of professionalism itself.”

It’s quite a proposal, but very much in the spirit of the times, when the emphasis is on outreach, partnership, inclusivity, community archaeology and (on the quiet) filling the gaps left by funding cuts. But can it be valid? Can amateurs be seen as somehow closer to professionals than they used to be? Without question, yes. They are. Yet it’s also clear the above defining characteristics of professions are still valid whereas most amateurs patently lack the full range of characteristics to qualify as professionals.

So how has the trick been achieved? How have those who clearly lack the defining characteristics of archaeologists come to work closely and often effectively with archaeologists? The answer is hardly a secret. The most effective amateur archaeologists “borrow” the core defining characteristics of archaeologists by working in ways directed by or approved by professionals. There is no other way.

Which is the quarrel I have with artefact hunting and Britain’s failure to regulate it. Most amateur archaeologists borrow the defining characteristics of archaeologists whereas artefact hunters reject them. That really matters if Archaeology is seen as a finite resource from which maximum knowledge should be extracted whenever possible and I challenge anyone, including the Culture Minister and the Head of PAS, to deny that metal detecting ought to be conducted in accordance with the core defining characteristics of professional archaeology.

Take just one of the defining characteristics, a code of ethics. Archaeologists (and hence most amateur archaeologists)  have one. Artefact hunters don’t, which is tantamount to them shouting from the hilltops: “we are not prepared to accept that Archaeology is a finite resource from which maximum knowledge should be extracted whenever possible”. Well actually, I tell a lie, they DO have codes of practice but they are not the same as the ones that bind archaeologists and amateur archaeologists. They are camouflages – codes designed to divert the attention of landowners from the fact that those who cite them are not willing to behave like archaeologists or amateur archaeologists.

Consider this:
Number of detectorists who have adopted our suggested Ethical Detecting pledges:
Number of detecting clubs who insist on their members adhering even to the severely emasculated standards of the Official Responsible Detecting Code:
Number of detectorists and detecting clubs who say they are committed to the NCMD, FID or similar detectorists’ “Codes” none of which even require adherents to report all finds to PAS:

Next time you hear talk of heroism or what a lot of finds PAS has recorded please bear in mind those three numbers – zero, one and “all of them” and ask yourself why – and how much loss of knowledge they hint at.


More Heritage Action views on metal detecting and artefact collecting