Now in the news right now there seems to be a war waging between archaeologists and metal detectorists.
There has been an age old argument between the two groups on the surface (while we work together behind closed doors and on the quiet).
It has come about because of this:
Greedy, unthinking versions of metal detectorists have damaged part of Hadrian’s wall for their own personal gain. That is theft, pure and simple. They have taken something which has been deliberately preserved in situ for future generations and have taken national cultural heritage for their own back pocket.
I too have arrived in a morning to find that nighthawkers have been about since we were there the day before. Twice that has happened, one was a close shave and luckily they got bored working their way up and down the site (pulling out our drawing pins in frustration as they must have been the only things setting their detectors off) and missed the subsequent tiny bit of gold I found in my round house gully.
The second incident is one which still makes my blood boil to this day. Even now typing it out I’ve huffed and puffed in peevishness. I was on a Roman site in Gloucestershire where we hadn’t had much in the way of site changing archaeology, we had a couple of ditches, a patch of some waste material and a pit or two. Until I got to dig out this tiny blob which had appeared in plan poking out from our trench section (of course, all the best things go out of the limit of excavation).
It was a clamp kiln, preserved beautifully, complete with its last firing:
So the first picture is a little shot of it in plan, and the second is the stack of pots remarkably left for me to find and dig out.
I excavated the limit I was allowed to (turned out to be 1/3 of the overall feature), with the remainder of the kiln heading out to the field beyond our trench I had to wait for the county mounty to come out and give us permission to extend the trench. So I dug this little beauty on the Tuesday and Wednesday, removed the pieces of pot I could and covered it over with some plastic and covered the plastic with a little bit of dirt, me thinking I’ll put it to bed, protect what I can. I think this was a mistake to do. It made it look that little bit special, I might as well have put up a neon sign saying “looky here”
The county mounty wasn’t due out until the Friday and the Thursday morning I got into work to find the plastic removed and pot discarded all around my now not so gracefully dig out feature. A metal detectorist (and I know it was a night hawker for reasons in a moment) had come along the Wednesday night and hacked the kiln out of the section, not wanted the pots so had smashed them by digging them out and thrown them out of the way. Needless to say I had to take a walk to calm down. That may seem a tad dramatic, but when you go to university for 4 years and have a passion for archaeology (enough of a passion to earn £16k a year to spend all your time outside in terrible weather when you have £36k of debts to pay back) you get involved with your job. Your features mean something to you and you are the only person in the world that has seen something special just the way it was 2000 years ago.
I went back to tidy up the mess and now my reason for knowing it was a metal detector wielding nighthawker, I found this little gem:
I found this brooch in the now messed up base to my kiln. Either the person who hacked out my kiln had been spotted or spooked off by someone else before they could snatch and run or they found something nicer and thought that’s what set their detector off. Luckily I found this and it will go to a museum and be preserved in the proper manner and not sold privately and lost forever.
So far I have been rather doom and gloom about people who bring out their detectors, BUT now for the saving part.
Even after those two incidents I know that MD’s are not a bad thing. We actually need skilled MD’s on archaeological sites, archaeologists are not perfect and if you get a MD to go over the spoil heaps (soil we’ve thrown out for good) you can guarantee they will find something lovely which an archaeologists eye has just missed. We also use MD to go over an unexcavated site in case there is anything which needs to be exposed and conserved. Those who use MD’s properly and record their finds to the PAS or the HER are more than welcome in my eyes to keep their trinkets or sell them on and split the profits with the land owners. Those in charge of the heritage just need to actually know where it was found so it can potentially be targeted for further investigation and therefore the actual archaeology could be found, recorded or kept in situ and not developed on!
So where does this bad feeling come from? Why are there arguments between both sides?
I think it’s because we have a different focus. MD’s are actually looking for objects, archaeologists find objects just as a bit of swag from the overall goal of characterising features. I know it sounds weird but I couldn’t give two shoves about a hoard of Roman coins found in a blank field, it tells us nothing, it doesn’t provide a date for when something was dug or constructed and we already know that the Romans had coins.
When its important is when the precious bits of metal can actually tell us something we didn’t already know.
Like my tiny bit of gold in a round house gully. Date wise that informs nothing, what it did tell us (as the only spot of gold on site) was that we suddenly changed our small farmstead interpretation and added some high-status in there.
I have probably found more gold in my time than your average Joe Archaeology.
When digging in Edinburgh I was very fortunate to join after a whopping great Victorian brewery had been removed and I got put onto this lovely little well. In the bottom of that well I found 3 lovely rose gold coins (one had even been mis-stamped) from the 1640’s and 17 gold pins. The fact that I found gold wasn’t interesting it just gave me a lovely insight to the fact that this must have been a bit of a wishing well and in the 1640’s people had walked down Holyrood road and made a wish. When your finds aren’t telling you something you want them to add a tangible human element to what you’re digging.
A metal detectorist is going in deliberate search for finds. That’s what they want. Those who have a real interest in the past want to know what the find is, when it’s from and potentially how it wound up where they found it. It’s those people who report their finds and make a difference to the overall Historic Environment Record. When you have a real enthusiast they want to know all about the archaeology that surrounds their find. That’s the type of MD we want to work with.
All in all there should be no slanging match between both sides. We work together rather well.