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Despite the pandemic and the parlous state of national finances, expensive reforms to the Treasure Act are imminent and the public is being misinformed about them.

Here are four true headlines and one truth:

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In 2005 we  published the Heritage Action Artefact Erosion Counter (HAAEC), providing a real-time running total of the likely number of artefacts found by detectorists. Evidence from various surveys (including detectorists; ones) show that on average each active detectorist finds at least 30.5 recordable artefacts per year and we assumed at the time there were 8,000 active detectorists, hence the rate of “tick”.

The resultant total now stands at close to 6.3 million recordable artefacts dug up since PAS was formed (compared with 1.5 million recordable artefacts recorded in the PAS database.) However, there are now perhaps 27,000 active detectorists and accordingly in 2018 Paul Barford published a revised counter reflecting this growth.

The implications are very sobering and Paul has now prepared the graphic below showing how things will be in ten years assuming the same number of detectorists each finding the same number of artefacts per year.

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By Nigel Swift

I see that Mike Lewis, Head of PAS and Mike Heyworth, ex Director of CBA have been raising awareness in the Times over the fact very few finds from commercial detecting rallies get reported. They have a huge point. Making loads of money out of Society’s back yard while giving almost nothing back to Society is surely not right? But there’s more than that for them to be scandalised over:

Here’s a rare Roman horse brooch from Leasingham found by a detectorist. He “allowed it to be put on display” in a museum. You (and Messrs Lewis and Heyworth) might well wonder what sort of self-entitled creepiness leads someone to “allow it to be put on display” rather than simply handing it over. That’s because if you (or they) had found it you’d have probably handed it over in a heartbeat. As that would be moral.

Yet sadly, the 0.04% of the British population, who find the bulk of Treasure items, mostly want paying. A lot. Or else. Even in a pandemic, and with the heritage sector skint. Britain really shouldn’t be being blackmailed. Indeed, the blackmail is about to be extended, presumably with the blessing of Messrs Lewis and Heyworth, with even more items never owned by detectorists being made subject to Treasure Act rewards for handing them over. It is being branded as “More items to be saved for the nation” but in fact, it’s “more items are to qualify for being ransomed”.

Why are moral pygmies being further enriched for doing something the great majority of the population would be glad to do without payment? Wouldn’t bigger penalties be cheaper than extending the rewards? If “paying for reporting” is a sensible policy why not pay commercial rally organisers to ensure finds are reported? Reductio ad absurdum, eh? Such a shame Socrates isn’t in charge!

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A new definitive official stance is born (see yesterday):
“Most detectorists at commercial metal detecting rallies don’t report finds”. Allelujah! But now for some questions:

1. Since that has been blindingly clear in PAS’s own statistics for 20 years, why has it taken till now to admit it to the readers of British Archaeology and The Times?

2. How many millions of bundles of knowledge have been stolen in that time? (It IS possible to calculate: compare finds per detectorist from commercial rallies with finds per detectorist fom non-commercial or archaeologist-run events).

3. Will this public admission be taken on board by pro-detecting archaeologists and academics, (bearing in mind commercial rallies are now a massive proportion of all detecting)?

4. Why are we merely saying “We should send a clear signal to detectorists that rallies should be avoided” when it should be being sent to the Government, the taxpayer, the concerned stakeholders and most of all, FARMERS?

5. Is anyone going to apologise to the public for the delay and consequent losses? To taxpayers? To the stakeholders? To us? To UNESCO? To posterity?

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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)..


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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.

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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.      

Shameful
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.]


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This Christmas headline from Scotland warmed our cockles …

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Good. It has to be a mark of civilisation that such concern can be shown for our ancient heritage at this time when finances are so stretched. But our cockles re-froze when we remembered this earlier headline:

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In what crazy, topsy-turvey British world did a man who simply got lucky while metal detecting but refused to share his finds with the church which owned the land deserve to be given almost twice as much as the research team? Something to be considered by those involved in the forthcoming Treasure Act changes.

How about a £10,000 maximum reward in Scotland, England and Wales whatever you find and at least 5 years in prison for non-compliance? Would that work? Well, despite furious (or unthinking) claims to the contrary there are three Welshmen who have just spent their second Christmas in prison who would say yes, it definitely would!

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Our Erosion Counter continues to grow inexorably. On the last day of 2020, it showed 6,972,338 recordable artefacts dug up with only 1,516,359 objects (in 971,530 records) in the PAS database. It still runs on our original estimate of 8,000 active detectorists but as everyone now agrees, there are now vastly more of those so in July 2018 Paul Barford produced a revised counter amalgamating our figures and Sam Hardy’s. That now shows an estimate of 8,760,847 artefacts dug up (and accelerating fast).

Paul calls the figures a “mitigation failure”. But we do wonder why “mitigation” is still an aim at all? With the country in such a parlous financial state, why are we spending time and money on effectively preserving and rewarding a mere leisure activity that causes massive net damage?

Wouldn’t the money be better spent on amateur archaeology, rambling, sport, museums, education, housing, the NHS, developing lab-grown meat, ballet, reducing poverty, and almost anything else you can think of? Why, when Archaeology prides itself on maximising knowledge while minimising damage are archaeologists supporting damaging behaviour much of which is little more sophisticated than that of chimps? We’d be glad to hear a rational  answer from PAS or anyone else but are willing to wager we won’t.

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Landowners might well consult Wikipedia to learn about nighthawks but it’s clear that whoever wrote the entry deliberately distorted the truth. For instance:

1.) “Nighthawkers, being criminals, are distinct from law-abiding metal detectorists.”

Obviously. But that diverts from the important truth, useful to landowners, that nighthawks are NOT distinct from detectorists in general. The two groups occuply the same space, the same clubs, the same forums and the same Finds Liaison Officers. How else could nighthawks gain intellgence and professional identifications and Treasure rewards? Why doesn’t Wikipedia make THAT clear for the benefit of landowners?

2.) “The National Council for Metal Detecting or the Federation of Independent Detectorists are not to be confused with such criminal activity”.

But as explained above, that can’t be true! Of course nighthawks are likely to be members of those bodies since nighthawks aren’t a distinct species they are simply metal detectorists. Why doesn’t Wikipedia make THAT clear for the benefit of landowners?

3.) “Furthermore, it has been claimed, but not proven, that nighthawkers use such groups as a method of obtaining information about archaeological sites.”

But why wouldn’t they, being metal detectorists, every one of whom do exactly that? Why doesn’t Wikipedia make THAT clear for the benefit of landowners?

4.) “It has also been claimed that criminal gangs have been directed to archaeological sites by rogue archaeologists seeking a share of ill-gotten spoils.”

Claimed by whom? Evidenced when? Why would a rogue archaeologist intent on ill-gotten spoils have a need to enlist the help of a scruff with a spade? The statement serves simply to make it crystal clear who wrote the page. It is to be hoped that landowners will take heed.

PS … and this one’s a doozy!

5. Regarding Treasure, “Nighthawkers rarely declare their finds due to the method of acquisition”.

What utter, utter rot! If you’d nighthawked something valuable and had no conscience you’d simply tell PAS and the Treasure Registrar you found it elsewhere, at a rally, surely?!

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A French metal detectorist has been accused of looting on a vast scale in France and Flanders after police found a haul of 27,400 valuable objects at his home..

France’s Economy Minister, Bruno Le Maire commenting on the fact imprisonment was likely, said: “This is a clear message to those who, for the benefit and selfish pleasure of a few, rob us of our common heritage and erase entire swaths of our history.”

But only 27,400 valuable objects Monsieur? When it comes to stealing cultural knowledge we Rosbifs can do better than that. We think nearly 250 times more than that, 7 million recordable objects, haven’t been reported to PAS by detectorists (including hundreds from France and Belgium, here for out “rallies”) since PAS was created. How’s that for “erasing entire swaths of our history”?!

Est-il possible que vous puissiez empêcher vos moins talentueux de venir ici pour nous voler notre héritage commun? (Nous regrettons le Brexit mais 90% de nos détecteurs l’ont voté).

[Any chance you could stop your least talented from coming over here to “rob us of our common heritage”? We apologise for Brexit by the way. 90% of our detectorists voted for it.]

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This gentleman and his friends waived their finder’s reward and donated a hoard of 47 silver Roman and Iron Age coins to the local museum where it will be put on public display. But …


  • More than 90% of detectorists don’t! They insist hard-pressed museums pay them a reward – and very often appeal saying it’s not high enough.
  • Most of them don’t report all their recordable finds to PAS either.  Disgracefully, it has just been revealed that last year only 81,600 finds were reported, a derisory three per detectorist per year. (Our much-scorned Erosion Counter assumed 30!)

So who do YOU think deserves to be in the fields, dear Reader? That gentleman, or those who take society’s money and steal society’s knowledge, while loudly proclaiming they’re “in it purely for a love of history”?

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