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by Alan Simkins

“Can Detectorists be Archaeologists?” You’d think the answer would be a simple “Yes, assuming they adopt the habits and ethics of professional archaeologists“. After all, every year thousands of people do exactly that, getting involved in the many community digs organised around the country by archaeologists and local societies.

However, given that in the past some of my colleagues have been intimidated and threatened by some in the metal detecting community (to the point that police have been involved on more than one occasion), it was with some trepidation that I attended this year’s Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) conference on the above theme earlier this week at the Museum of London (MoL). As it happened, I needn’t have worried as the conference was very much preaching to the converted as far as the audience was concerned. And despite our stance here on the Heritage Journal, I tried to approach the event with an open mind, being neither a detectorist nor qualified archaeologist.

As the start time approached, I estimated that the Weston Theatre was about half full, so around 100 or people present with a good mix of ages but fewer people than I would have expected. Roy Stephenson from the MoL opened the day with the statement “Detectorists are de facto, archaeologists”, which set the tone for most of the day.

Michael Lewis from the PAS then outlined the work being done to kick off similar recording schemes in Flanders, the Netherlands and Denmark in order to combine datasets, and an interesting slide showed examples of similar finds from the four areas.

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The other morning sessions were, as expected, full of praise for the work that recording detectorists do, with specific examples from a couple of detectorists as to the lengths they go to in order to meticulously record findspots and analyse the resulting data:

Felicity Winkley told us about her survey of Detectorists, and how she accompanied a dozen or so into the field for extended interviews, looking at their motivations and relationships to their local landscapes. Local knowledge was a major factor in deciding where to detect, and much was made of a comparison between detectorist’s research methods with Archaeological `desk-based’ research techniques, including gridding a potential site to ensure full coverage. Interestingly but unsurprisingly, of those interviewed only a third admitted to actually recording their finds with the PAS.

Dr Phil Harding (no, not that one!) then related his 25 years of detecting in Leicestershire, resulting in over 2000 finds. Due to the volume of his backlog, which the FLO could not cope with, he decided to become a self-recorder, and attended a photography course to improve his records. He then explained how finds scatter analysis could indicate the growth of a settlement, but despite his research and analysis many questions remain unanswered.

Dave Haldenby highlighted his collaborative work with archaeologists which has led to several published articles, once again based upon accurate findspot recording at Cottam B in Yorkshire, a site which traversed the Middle Saxon and Viking periods.

And finally before lunch, Lindsey Bedford described her path from detectorist to archaeologist which led to a degree from Bristol University and told us about her work with the Berkshire Archaeology Research Group (BARG).

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The afternoon session opened with Faye Minter from Suffolk saying how working with detectorists using a (systematic) survey technique at Rendlesham produced results. An effort of some 174 man days detecting over a few years over 4 years, resulted in each detectorist finding an average of 3 recordable items per day.

From over 100,000 finds in total on the site, only around 4000 were pre-1650 metallic artefacts. In total, 27% of the finds at Rendlesham were Anglo-Saxon, compared with just 5% across Suffolk as a whole (I can’t help wondering if this is due to under-reporting elsewhere). We were then told about a site at Exning, where use of detectors could potentially have helped identify Anglo-Saxon graves which were otherwise only found accidentally during trenching, having not been spotted on the geophysics results.

As a result of these findings, Suffolk have now amended their requirements in archaeological briefs, specifying that only experienced/known/published detectorists should be used when surveying sites for development.

This point was raised again by Carl Chapness, who admitted that commercial units often only have access to the cheapest detectors, and very little training or experience in their use, mainly due to being commercially driven. Which lead to him raising a counter-question for the conference: “should archaeologists be detectorists?” There was some discussion of night-hawking and the lengths which commercial units sometimes have to go to in order to protect a site under investigation, and Carl suggested that cross-fertilisation of skills and knowledge between detectorists and archaeologists can only be a good thing.

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detectorists-archaeologists

Samantha Rowe then explained her work looking at the archaeology of the plough zone – examining lead bullets from civil war sites and comparing the erosion against the land use, concluding that over cultivation can exacerbate erosion of metallic objects (a real NSS moment there!)

John Maloney from the NCMD then spoke on the ‘Future of Archaeology and Metal Detecting’

I have to say he came over as an unpleasantly smug Trump-like bully – someone who is used to getting his own way and seeing no possible reason for that status quo to change. He started his talk by disparaging the efforts of the likes of David Gill and Paul Barford to debate some of the issues behind artefact collecting, and implied that figures used by critics of the hobby (such as those used by the Artefact Erosion Counter) have no substance in fact (as we know, the counter is based upon figures supplied by the NCMD, CBA et al). I suspect he came away from the conference very pleased with the cap-doffing shown to the metal detecting fraternity during the talks throughout the day. Very much a ‘you couldn’t do it without us’ attitude which was not pleasant to see. When questioned, he declined to tell the conference how many members the NCMD has, but someone in the audience proffered a figure of 11000 members. John said there had been no analysis done regarding ‘active’ members, but that it was thought there was a degree of ‘churn’ in the figures as people tended to buy detectors, join the NCMD, then get disenchanted when they don’t find anything, and fail to renew.

Thankfully, Mike Heyworth from the CBA, speaking on the same subject brought some common sense to the debate, saying that in the end a metal detector is just a tool that used in the right hands can be a boon to archaeology (as some of the talks highlighted). However, if the person using it has the wrong motives, or lacks the necessary archaeological skills and knowledge then no good can come of its use. “People using a detector as a tool to study the past in a responsible manner are archaeologists”

He is very interested in pushing for a redefinition of ‘treasure’, and a potential system of abatement of rewards to pay for conservation and preservation of finds, with additional penalties if the finds have not been uncovered in a responsible manner (I’m guessing Lenborough would have qualified for such an abatement). Sadly such a change would be dependent upon an overdue review of the Treasure Act, which the DCMS are dragging their heels over. However, the much vaunted ‘Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting’ is undergoing review for a second edition. This will very much be a case of ‘evolution rather than revolution’.

So what did I make of the day overall? As I said at the start, it was very much preaching to the converted – everyone there had a vested interest in building bridges between the two camps. Sadly, those who could learn most from the day were the very people who would not attend – the ‘Barry Thugwits’ and first-time detectorists of this world.

I would have liked to have seen some of the talks recorded, and made available to metal detectorist clubs so that the message of how the two sides can and should work together can be more widely spread.

Next year’s conference will be held in York, and will cover the subject of ‘Treasure’ (in all its forms, apparently).


Overall impressions:
I left the conference with the same thought that I had before I arrived (and indeed the conference strengthened my feelings): Of course detectorists can be archaeologists, providing they do it for public benefit and in accordance with archaeological methods and morals and they don’t pocket the stuff for themselves. Set against the selfless benefits which thousands of amateur archaeologists quietly deliver in exactly that way, cheerleading for artefact hunting looks bizarre, to put it mildly. PAS could have saved their money and breath, cancelled the conference and announced a replacement one titled: “Hurrah for amateur archaeologists!”

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