23 Oct 2013

The Benefits of Recording finds made by Metal Detectorists in Europe

Trevor Austin, NCMD General Secretary


Over the centuries, historical items, such as coins and artefacts have been discovered in the ground. As far back as Edward the Confessor finders were rewarded for items of Treasure Trove, although in ancient times this was intended to bolster the coffers of the then ruling monarch and there was not much concern for their historical importance. However we now live in a more enlightened age where the importance of such finds is recognised for their cultural importance to the nation.

Most farmland both in the UK and the rest of Europe, contains some level of archaeological material and it is recognised that a large proportion of this  would be vulnerable to degradation or destruction by modern invasive agriculture practices or succumb to other factors such as development pressures, if it were not recovered.

However it is not only the finds themselves that are important, it is the information and scholarship that can be gleaned from the reporting of such finds and their subsequent study, which is perhaps more important for the understanding of a nation’s past. If the information of the many random casual losses is recorded in an appropriate way, it can lead to a better understanding of the general archaeological landscape and as in the UK; redraft the current thinking on a number of regional archaeological studies for example the distribution and use of Roman coinage or to better develop the understanding of battlefield archaeology. In addition there is an increasing opportunity for the discovery of unknown archaeological sites in areas unlikely to be studied by orthodox archaeological surveys, whilst an ever growing corpus of small finds data provides the basis for many collaborative projects between researchers in various Universities.

There is a huge resource of hobby metal detector users throughout Europe; this is a resource that can be utilised for the benefit of each member state. In the UK the Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) have over the years embraced this resource and built a reliable working relationship with finders and landowners through education and acceptance of the practice, allowing the cultural importance of finds made by members of the public to be recorded, whether found by metal detector or other means.  The continuation of the practice of paying rewards to finders for certain classes of finds which fall within the definition of the Treasure Act 1996 which museums wish to acquire has also proved a great success.

To the casual observer looking at the vast amount of archaeological material recorded by members of the public in the UK, they may be forgiven for thinking that the UK is some sort of “Treasure Island”, however this is the result of museums and archaeologists working closely with finders, a situation which is lacking in many other European countries and shows the extent to which these countries are missing out on their heritage.

The system in England, Wales and Northern Ireland has been extremely successful in safeguarding the information these finds can yield, and more importantly ensure that this it is recorded and published for the benefit of all.

Metal detecting has been the primary source of this information and hobby metal detector enthusiasts have played a substantive part in the recovery of these items. Metal detecting clubs and individuals work closely with local museums and local Finds Liaison Officers to report items of historical interest which they discover. In recognition of the benefit that the use of metal detectors in the hands of skilled operators can bring, many commercial archaeological contracting Units employ detectorists either as paid employees or as willing volunteers, to help in excavations ensuring the greater recovery of metallic small finds to help in the understanding and use of a particular site.

However not all EU countries have adopted the same enlightened approach as the UK Government and many academic, professional or commercial archaeologists and much of the archaeological material in these countries is either left in the ground to be destroyed or worse still removed by unscrupulous means and sold on the black market, thus depriving the State of their rightful cultural inheritance.
This is a crime against the State and it is surely time for Governments to recognise the fact and look at the model used in the UK to record recoveries and safeguard their history for future generations.

Trevor Austin

NCMD General Secretary

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