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by Nigel Swift


We’ve had some clues lately. We now know Responsible Detecting is NOT digging up German soldiers using unqualified people and disrespectful behaviour to make a crass TV show called “Nazi War Diggers”. Nor is it digging up treasure from what was perceived to be a grave in Kent instead of leaving it to professionals. (Although, bizarrely, PAS is yet to condemn the latter and many detectorists have said both incidents were “fine”!). Personally I think I know exactly what the term means. It means working for the public’s benefit, not your own. I’m confident every archaeologist thinks that too but in Britain there’s a political and tactical need to avoid offending artefact hunters so most of them don’t express it, not in in public anyway. Eight words unsaid, that’s what makes Britain’s portable antiquities policy bonkers for it lets anyone claim “responsible detecting” is whatever it suits them to say it is.


Three detectorists have just illustrated the fact. The worst says a responsible detectorist simply “adheres to the letter of prevailing laws“. (Yeah right, the laws that leave you free to not report 99.9% of finds and indeed to put them into a crusher!). Another says you should  report your finds but that the NCMD code is fine (even though it doesn’t require you to report 99.9% of finds!) The third says you should avoid damage and report your finds – and to signal that belief he has resigned from NCMD.  So he’s the only one of the three that comes within a million miles of responsible but he’s hardly typical. It’s the same with detecting clubs. All say they favour responsible detecting yet all but one don’t insist on Members adhering to the official Code or reporting 99.9% of finds. They tell farmers their Members are code-bound and responsible but they don’t tell them that!


Thus the claim “I’m a Responsible Detectorist!” acts as a magic open sesame at farm gates. All the farmer knows is what he is told in the press ad nauseam, that there are just two sorts of detectorists – a tiny minority known as nighthawks and all the rest, who are “responsible”. If only, if only officialdom and more archaeologists would stop saying that and tell landowners the real truth (an article in the farming press perhaps?) that “the rest” comprise every shade of responsible and none and that the term can only mean protecting the public’s interest. How about “The deliberate recovery of buried portable antiquities always involves the unearthing of knowledge and no-one should annexe, conceal or destroy it.”? Which bit of that should landowners not have been officially told all these years? It would make such a difference to conservation if they were. But not upsetting detectorists seems to outrank conservation or telling farmers the truth in many official quarters in Bonkers Britain.


Keep calm and carry on. Nothing to see here. Agenda driven amateurs eh? Tsk!


More Heritage Journal views on artefact collecting



March 2014

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