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Michael Lewis, Head of PAS and Mike Heyworth, previous Head of CBA, have condemned metal detecting rallies, first in British Archaeology and now in The Times. The tone is far stronger than the current pulling of punches on the PAS website. Well, Hurrah! But for many years we’ve published HUNDREDS of articles begging for that to happen.

Still, we’re grateful it looks like something is finally going to be done. But we do wonder whether Britain will now apologise to the world for the damage the delay has caused to the world’s heritage?

Anyhow, as a matter of interest, here’s one of our earliest complaints, from nearly 16 years ago. (Many of our articles from that era were lost due to a cyber-attack by ruffians unknown)..


Shameful Heritage plunder near Avebury, Sunday 24 April 2005

Last Sunday anyone who cares for the past who drove north out of Avebury would have seen a distressing spectacle. No fewer than 480 metal detectorists crowded onto two fields alongside the main road at Winterbourne Bassett, busily intent on digging up our common heritage.

Metal detecting is a hobby in search of respectability. Some detectorists are very responsible people who report their finds to the government’s Portable Antiquities Scheme, allowing society, in general, to learn and benefit from the knowledge attached to these items. But the majority do no such thing – they just take.

Vulgar scene
The ‘Near-Avebury Metal Detecting Rally’ was a spectacular and avoidable own goal for the hobby. In a vulgar scene reminiscent of Supermarket Sweep, people raced to be first onto the land, anxious to claim the booty for themselves. Flint artefacts as well as metallic objects are now considered fair game.

All those who took part were members of national metal detecting organisations which proclaim their ‘strong support’ for the government’s voluntary recording scheme. Bizarrely, though, they don’t require any of their members to report finds, and the Scheme’s statistics prove that most of their members certainly don’t report finds. Whatever they find gets taken away by individuals for their own pleasure or to be sold on. Unreported and unrecorded. You may consider that the knowledge attached to these items has been stolen from our common heritage. That’s because it has.

Fields were done over
In view of this, the rally would have been ugly enough had it taken place on waste land. But here, in the world-famous archaeology of the Marlborough Downs and close to The Ridgeway, 2 Iron Age forts and countless bronze age barrows, it was sickening. Those fields, classed as disturbed plough soil – “so it’s legal, innit” are packed with our common history, from palaeolithic scatters onwards. Or at least, they were.



As it happened, the 480 people who ‘hoovered’ these 2 fields last Sunday reckoned very little was found. Maybe that’s true, maybe not. How would anyone know? Maybe, as many of them claimed, it was because “those fields were done over” by a similar rally 10 years ago. Whatever the truth, when the full and detailed account of our past is written, those 170 acres in the heart of this vitally archaeologically rich area will forever show up as a blank in the record.      

Shame on them! And shame on the thinking members of the hobby for tolerating such selfish and ignorant behaviour from the majority. Shame on the management of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. The Scheme’s management must find the moral courage to loudly proclaim what is and isn’t civilised.

[They have now! 16 years later! – Ed.]


More Heritage Journal views on artefact collecting


January 2021

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