Metal Detecting – The Hobby and its Detractors

11 July 2017 — 26 Comments

When I started the blog in 2011 this was one of my first posts, subsequently lost. The original was composed in 2007 by Rod Blunt of the UKDFD. In 10 years little has changed … time for a reprise, I think!

Thanks to Rod for his permission to republish.

Metal detecting is a truly fascinating hobby, which is enjoyed by people of all ages and from many different backgrounds. It is not only a stimulating recreational pursuit, however, it is also a source of valuable information, which is adding very considerably to our knowledge of the past. In fact, the hobby’s contribution has a particular significance. It provides information about lost and discarded items, which otherwise would never be known. Importantly, it rescues these items from hostile environments that threaten their rapid destruction.

Not so, argue the hobby’s detractors. Metal detecting is depleting the archaeological pool and resulting in the loss of contextual information. Detectorists are reluctant to record their finds, and the hobby’s contribution to knowledge is minimal. Interest in the hobby is driven primarily by financial gain.

So, what is the reality of the situation? Let us consider the issues raised, starting with the ‘archaeological pool’ and its ‘depletion’.

In the context of metal detecting, the ‘archaeological pool’ is the body of small man-made items in the ground, which have been lost, discarded or buried. Some of them have the potential to add to our knowledge of the past, but while they remain undiscovered they contribute nothing. It is only when they are recovered, whether by metal detectorists, archaeologists or members of the general public, that they provide any information at all. However, the great majority of items in this pool will only ever be discovered as a result of metal detectorists pursuing their hobby. Furthermore, while they remain in the ground they are exposed to a very severe risk of destruction. The emotive phrase, ‘depleting the archaeological pool’, is therefore entirely misleading, because it implies a net loss to our knowledge, as opposed to a net gain. Far from taking anything away, detectorists are adding to our knowledge by discovering and recording material that otherwise would have been lost forever. In fact, the reality of the situation is far better expressed, if the negative and propagandist, ‘depleting the archaeological pool’, is replaced with the more meaningful, ‘rescuing our material heritage’.

And ‘rescuing’ is the operative word. Few people outside archaeology and the metal-detecting hobby have any appreciation of the rate at which our undiscovered material heritage is being destroyed. The vast majority of metallic objects that remain in the ground are condemned to certain destruction as a result of the intensive agricultural practices and land development that are associated with modern living.

Agrochemicals, for example, will completely destroy a base-metal object within a few years of being in the ground. Many ancient coins and artefacts will have survived in good condition in the soil for nearly two millennia, only to be completely destroyed in the last fifty years.

The two modern coins shown below are of bronze, and of a type that was struck between 1971 and 1981. The upper coin is in as-struck condition. The lower coin is a metal-detecting find made in the early 1990s. It was probably in the ground for less than twenty years, but is so severely damaged by chemical attack that it is not even possible to read the date.

FROM THIS

TO THIS

IN LESS THAN TWENTY YEARS

Chemicals, however, are not the only threat faced by objects in the ground. The mechanisation of almost every aspect of agriculture makes long-term survival of any object within ploughsoil virtually impossible. Pre-historic stone implements and metallic objects are equally vulnerable. Even the smallest and lightest of items are cut to pieces, and any information they might have yielded is lost forever. The medieval silver coins shown below are all less than 20 mm diameter, but nothing escapes the high-speed blades of modern cultivators.

Medieval Coins Fragmented by Farm Machinery

And it is not only in the fields that mechanisation is taking its toll. Rivers and other waterways are being dredged to increasingly greater depths in order to improve land drainage. The consequence of this is that many fords and archaeological structures are being destroyed because they present obstacles to flood water. Artefacts and coins are disturbed from these safe environments, and become damaged by gravels and rocks as they are carried downstream.

In the light of the conditions described above, it is instructive to consider a hypothetical situation.

A member of the public is walking across a field and notices a Roman brooch protruding from the soil. Should he retrieve it or leave it in the ground? If he retrieves it, it can be photographed, measured, weighed, analysed, conserved and recorded. If he leaves it in the ground, its identity and details will never be known, and it will probably be destroyed in a short space of time when the field is ploughed and sprayed.

If you believe that the responsible course of action is to leave the brooch in the ground, join the hobby’s detractors, and you will find yourself amongst like-minded people. However, if you believe that it is better to retrieve the brooch, ask yourself this question. What makes this accidentally discovered brooch any different to all the other brooches, coins and artefacts that are discovered with the aid of a metal detector?

These Roman brooches have suffered both chemical and mechanical damage

Before moving on to the next issue, ‘loss of contextual information’, it is appropriate to draw attention to an important point regarding the respective modi operandi of archaeology and metal detecting. Archaeologists usually focus their attention on sites of intensive past human activity, whereas hobbyists search vastly greater areas, the majority of which will have seen only limited activity. The contribution that each group makes to our knowledge of the past is consequently of a different, but complementary nature.

Context, from an archaeological perspective, relates to the depth and relative positions of buried objects in an undisturbed environment, and it provides valuable information about their age and use. The key phrase, however, is ‘in an undisturbed environment’. The vast majority of land searched by metal detectorists is cultivated agricultural land, and the objects recovered are from the ploughsoil. Their depth and precise position within the ground are very unlikely to have any significance, but nevertheless their general location plays an important part in contributing to our knowledge of the past. The distribution patterns of individually lost objects, for example, can shed light on aspects of our history that conventional archaeology is not able to illuminate. The ‘horizontal context’, as it has been described, can make a unique contribution.

So, on what basis do the detractors make their claim that metal detecting results in a ‘loss of contextual information’? As already indicated, the vast majority of land searched by detectorists either is, or has previously been, under cultivation. This can therefore be eliminated as a potential area of ‘risk’. Similarly, all archaeological sites that have ‘Scheduled Monument’ status, and those that are otherwise protected by legislation, are out-of-bounds to the hobby, so they, too, can be eliminated. And excavated spoil from land development projects can hardly justify their concern.

The land that remains (predominantly undisturbed pasture) is a very small proportion of the total that is detected, and any unknown archaeological sites that exist on it will, by statistical probability, represent only a small fraction of the area. The actual risk of unwittingly disturbing items in an archaeological context is therefore extremely low. Notwithstanding this minimal risk, all responsible hobbyists detect in accordance with codes of practice that address this situation to ensure that the maximum amount of information is preserved. The reality is that archaeological sites accidentally discovered as a result of metal detecting are sites that would probably never otherwise have been discovered.

To realise their potential in providing information about our past, it is, of course, not only important to rescue objects from their hostile environment, but also to ensure that they are recorded and published. By doing so, details of the object are available for study, both in their own right, and in the context of related items and locations.

The silver penny of Stephen names a hitherto unknown moneyer of Hereford

A coin, for example, may provide evidence of a hitherto unknown moneyer, like the silver penny of Stephen illustrated above. The collective recording of many coins, which individually might be insignificant, can establish where and under whose authority they were struck, their area of circulation, and even tribal boundaries. Analysis of findspots of Celtic and early Anglo-Saxon coins in England, for example, has significantly increased our understanding of these periods of our history.

The facilities available for recording finds made in the UK are probably the best in the world. The UK Detector Finds Database (UKDFD) offers detectorists a hobby-based self-recording scheme and the government-sponsored Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) provides recording via a network of Finds Liaison Officers. In addition, the Celtic Coin Index (CCI) and the Early Medieval Corpus (EMC) provide facilities for the recording of coins from these two periods. All these databases are online and freely accessible to the public, and the content of all of them owes a great deal to the metal-detecting hobby.

The publication of detecting finds on the Internet, however, is only one aspect of the hobby’s contribution to knowledge. Long before the Internet became available, detecting finds were being recorded and published by more conventional means, and these continue to play an important role. Authors from within the hobby have played a significant part in this process, and many others have acknowledged the contribution that metal detecting has made.

So, with hundreds of thousands of individual detector-find records in the public domain, and every indication that the rate of recording is increasing, how do the hobby’s detractors come to the conclusion that ‘detectorists are reluctant to record their finds’? The answer is that they don’t!

A conclusion is, by definition, “an opinion formed after considering the relevant facts or evidence”. The hobby’s detractors are not concerned with considering relevant facts or evidence; they are concerned only with achieving their objective of seeing the introduction of legislation to restrict the hobby. Accordingly, they fabricate ludicrous statistics to support their aims and mislead those, particularly legislators, who are not conversant with the facts. Nowhere is this more apparent than in their claims regarding the numbers of ‘recordable finds’ made by detectorists.

Everything that is dug is, of course, recordable, including all the shotgun cartridges, drink-can pull-tabs and irregular, nondescript fragments of metal that form the vast majority of ‘finds’ made by the detectorist. It is absurd to suggest that resources should be wasted recording material that will add nothing to our knowledge, and, as everyone involved with recording detectorists’ finds knows, there is a diverse range of material that falls into this category.

The ratio of junk to worthwhile finds made by detectorists varies considerably depending on the site, but it is by no means unusual for it to be of the order of one hundred to one. And even when a worthwhile find is made, it is frequently the case that recording would serve no useful purpose. Modern coins, for example, may well be regarded as good finds, but their recording is extremely unlikely to add anything to our historical or numismatic knowledge.

Edward VII half-sovereign. Many ‘good’ detecting finds don’t justify recording

Collectively, detectorists do make large numbers of finds that are worth recording, and in a small number of cases, the finds are spectacular and valuable. The latter are often in the form of hoards, which by their very nature were hidden in remote uninhabited areas, and are unlikely to be discovered by traditional archaeological methods. Such valuable finds, however, are quite exceptional. Nothing highlights the ignorance of the hobby’s detractors more than their assertion that detectorists are motivated by financial gain. Experienced hobbyists treat such claims with the contempt that they deserve, and anyone entering the hobby with such an aim would very rapidly become disillusioned and leave.

In summary, the portrayal of metal detecting by its detractors is one that few informed people, inside or outside the hobby, would recognise. Their propaganda is characterised by distortions and misuse of statistics to portray the hobby in a negative light. They blur the distinction between hobbyists and criminals that use metal detectors, just as they blur the distinction between archaeological sites and land that has no known archaeological significance. They do likewise with spurious statistics regarding numbers of finds made and recorded, deliberately choosing to ignore the fact that the vast majority of items recovered are of no archaeological or historical significance. However, the reality of the hobby’s contribution to knowledge is plain for everyone to see. It is evident in the display cases of our museums, the records on our databases, and the publications on our bookshelves.

AMEN

This article is also published on the UKDFD

John

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26 responses to Metal Detecting – The Hobby and its Detractors

  1. Preaching to the choir on the forum John.. I wish that countries would take the UK attitude, ;enlightened and in many ways, supportive

    Micheal

  2. Hello Mr. Winter,
    This is your one and only plagiarizing dirt fishing acquaintance from across the pond.
    I feel compelled to say something to your above post. I hardly ever clean any of my finds unless there’s something I’m going to recycle like lead or copper and that’s just gets cleaned off with the garden hose. I literally have 20-plus jars of coins so caked with mud that I am not quite sure what they are. But on that rare occasion that I do clean a coin I have got it down to a very scientific method which does not distract from the patina on the coin nor does it show any abuse on the coin.
    I first start off with water at the same temperature as the coin with two drops of Dawn dishwashing liquid, one drip on the front and one drip on the back. Then with a extremely gentle counterclockwise rotation with my wife’s toothbrush on the front and a clockwise rotation on the back with my wife’s toothbrush I will slowly relieve the loose dirt with an ample supply of water flowing over the coin. After approximately 30 seconds front and 30 seconds to the back of the coin I stopped and rinsed the coin and the toothbrush completely the coin is then sat on a soft cotton tissue and patted dry. And the same is done with the toothbrush.
    Thank you for your thought provoking posts.
    And I look forward to your next article.

    PS please do not suggest as to why my wife’s toothbrush is always wet after a day of dirt fishing.
    Gerald

  3. John from Ontario (AKA Geobound) 11 July 2017 at 4:42 am

    The troubling part about all of this is, the more you restrict people from doing something, the more they will sneak out in the middle of the night and not disclose what they have found.

    The U.K. system may not be perfect, but it is far better than most.

    Having said that our history (Canada) is nothing compared to the UK (or the rest of Europe for that matter), so our finds aren’t that old (save the East coast).

    Archeologists will always claim that we are ruining history, and detectoriists will always claim we are saving it.

    One can only hope that our elected officials can see both sides of the coin (no pun intended), and come up with some amicable solution for all.

    As our populations grow the vacant land becomes consumed with infrastructure, and wouldn’t it be better for the masses of detectorists to find our history, rather than the limited archeologists lose it?

  4. Enjoyed the read only wish i could convince our irish politicians to read it.
    Archaeologists have already weaved a cloak of deception.
    They have convinced the public and politicians that their argument is the correct one.
    The battle in Ireland to right a wrong could take sometime but those who come after us will find the truth on social media and blogs just like this.

    Frank
    IMDS

  5. The chemical reaction from the fertilizers spread on agricultural land is truly born out on the unrepairable damage we metal detectorists witness to metallic artifacts and coinage which we discover but you should see the damage the same fertilizers cause to the farm equipment it is so powerful.

  6. Great article JW with many true points.

  7. The article was carefully put together by a great detectorist, whose knowledge goes without saying.

    Yes, things have changed, to some degree, opinions sadly have not, as far as some are concerned, including one very large thorn in the side. He will never admit to being wrong, nor will he change the opinions of those who actually know the truth.

    Since I first joined our hobby, I have been involved in numerous “debates” on forums, and have always been an advocate of building bridges between all who are interested in saving our past, for future generations to enjoy. Those feelings have not changed, what has though is the way in which all factors are much more prepared to work together, not all, but we are getting there.

    Overall, it will be much easier when Ireland accepts that P.A.S and the likes is the correct way to go in locating and conserving their history, which is equally as important as our is. Thank you John for resurrecting the article again, we can only hope to see continued moving forward, as a united set of “groups” sharing one desire.

  8. nice to see a blog again john

  9. Still as valid today as on the day it was written John.

  10. Nice to see it republished to remind people of the situation. I remember when it first appeared – was it so long a go.
    As a balance to what the detractors say it should be remembered that archaeology and particularly the commercial contracting units common to many countries in Europe, destroy more archaeology than an army of hawkers could ever do. This is all done in the name of preservation by record and mitigation strategies where top/sub soil layers are stripped from larger and larger areas and dumped in huge spoil heaps along with any archaeological small finds the layers contained.
    The common theme in this strategy is that little if any is ever searched in a meaningful way with a metal detector and so potentially millions of items have been lost to research over the last decades. However if a metal detector user searches ploughsoils for random out of context casual losses it suddenly becomes highly important and the detractors berate detectorists who dont record such random finds – all seems a bit hypocritical.
    Some years ago a friend helped on a TV series excavating the sites of battles. Part of the exercise was to have detector surveys done of likely areas where action had taken place followed up with targetted trenching. A good way it would seem to gather as much evidence as possible. However when the detectorist suggested that the spoil heaps from the trenches should be searched he was refused access on the ground that the archeolological unit doing the digging were no interested in small finds only features.
    Perhaps that is the rationale for the commercial units about today to avoid costly bills for dealing with large numbers of out of context small finds which would have to be processed, curated, identified and published in the final reports.

  11. Somebody called Barford has commented.

    I have removed his obnoxious post!

  12. A very interesting and thought provoking post John, I didn’t see it the first time around so I’m pleased that you resurrected it again.

    Some very interesting responses to your blog. Thanks for bringing it back to life.

  13. I am not surprised a comment was made in an obnoxious manner – the true picture of the unending destruction of archaeological material during commercial excavations is not easy to justify and one kept well out of the public eye.

    Perhaps a good investigative journalist should have a look at just what is going on and why the detractors attack detecting simply because it is an easy target.Dont see many detractors having a go at their own kind on such matters.

  14. Great to read your blog again John. A few years ago I offered my detecting services to an archeology team who were attempting to discover the purpose of some walls discovered by geophysics at a local castle. After uncovering the walls they came to the conclusion they were gun emplacements but could not decide in which period they were built.
    They graciously accepted my offer to help and I was put to work on two massive spoil heaps. Apart from a few nails the only other finds recovered were two musket balls and yes you guessed it, by myself from the spoil heaps. They dated to the civil war period. Dating problem solved. Goodness knows what remained in the spoil heaps!!

  15. peter walsh ,aka..G.Clooney 12 July 2017 at 4:23 pm

    chemical reaction from the fertilizers spread on agricultural land this is not the only problem ,i have seen loads of people on many a forum ,posting coins and Artifacts up ,that they have so called cleaned ,my god most of them look like they have been in a washing machine ,shiny as you know what ,coins that you can see your face in ,Roman Brooches covered in some sort of chip pan oil .things been cleaned in things like Lemon juice,hp sauce,brasso ,ect ect ect .for me every forum should have a header regarding cleaning and preserving Artifacts /coins .only the other day somebody put a hammered coin on a forum ,it was that shiny that i could have had a shave in it,when i pointed out he had just nackered the coin up ,all i got in response was it looks ok .idiots they are ,i dipped it in lemon juice he said looks Ace some said ,idiots..i rest my case ..has for the Arkies well ,i have no comment, they want you to find a site ,then they want to schedule it ,or dig it up then put a little blue plaque on a wall,”this site was excavated by blahh blahh Archaeology society.not the person that found it ….if a Arkie ever asked me what time was it ..i would say monday ..

  16. Hi John, A great article that emotes our passion for saving history. I have in my possession a leaflet from the 1970s, that a good friend gave me, who was influential at the time in helping to prevent the Council for British Archeology from banning metal detecting altogether. The campaign was called S.T.O.P (Stop Taking Our Past) and after reading how determined they were to ban our hobby altogether, it makes me feel lucky that I am able to detect today. I think it would be nice to remind the new generation of detectorists just how lucky we are, and to retrospectively thank the ‘old timers’ that stood up for everyone in the hobby back then.
    Simon

  17. Ah yes, the STOP Campaign. I interviewed Dr Mike Heyworth, Director of the CBA, in 2009. He said:

    ‘The council in those days took the view that metal detecting should be stopped and banned. We now recognise the metal detector is a tool that can be used.”

  18. Thank you to Paul for spotting my deliberate mistake. Instead of 1990, it was meant to be 2009. Just shows I’m human and not an automaton. I have changed the date. Nothing is ‘made up’ … perhaps I should reprise the interview with Mike. 🙂

    Where’s Ian? He usually does a little sub-editing for me. 🙂

    • “deliberate” or simply plain wrong? You have to see it in context, there was no PAS in 1990. I’d like to see what the Director of the CBA will be saying when there is no PAS again – and I bet it will not be “what a pity”… .

      • LIGHTEN UP, PAUL.

        I made an error, have now corrected it and thanked you as the one who pointed it out.
        What else do you want?

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