Metal detectorists get a mixed-press. On the one hand, we have the warm and idiosyncratic portrayal of Mackenzie Crook and co in the BBC’s Detectorists, and on the other, the recent news coverage of the ‘night-hawking’ damage to the Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site.
From my point of view as an archaeologist, and having the responsibility for co-ordinating archaeological work on The Auckland Project’s properties, metal detectorists can have a positive or negative impact.
What’s the problem?
Those of us who have co-ordinated archaeological excavations do have a fear of turning up on site one morning to find our carefully cut trench edges and delicately cleaned surfaces destroyed by someone hunting, illegally, for metal work within a dig site. These so called ‘night-hawks’ can, as was made clear by Historic England in the recent coverage of the practice along Hadrian’s Wall, be seen as stealing not only from the landowner, but also from the public.
For landowners, archaeological material within the grounds they own is theirs, except in a few cases, when the Crown makes a claim. For archaeologists, often the most important fact of a metal object is its context – that is, its location within non-metal material or buried soils. Pin-pointing the exact location of iron nails might be able to tell us what timber-structure these nails may have held together; the presence of a shadow of burnt material might tell us what date the fire into which a coin was dropped was last lit; or even metal objects might be placed in the grave of an individual whose childhood, work, illnesses and diet could be established by detailed research.
All this information is only available by carefully removing and recording all of the archaeological material – illegal metal detecting almost always destroys this information alongside the context around the metal objects, and hence robs the archaeologists and, more importantly, the public to whom the information about the collective past of this country ultimately belongs. Like many landowners, The Auckland Project is committed to protecting and understanding our shared heritage by preventing, and taking very seriously, illegal metal detecting.
Why work with a Metal Detectorist?
However, attentive readers will note that I have used the term ‘illegal metal detecting’ to describe this damaging activity. Legal, landowner approved, archaeologically informed metal detectorists can be extremely helpful. Whether working directly with archaeologists, or having gained permission from landowners and informing archaeologists, metal detectorists can bring to light fantastic objects and sites of wonderful potential – greatly enhancing the information available to the public on our collective past.
A great scheme which seeks to bridge the gap between professional archaeologists and metal detectorists, is the Portable Antiquities Scheme. The PAS gives metal detectorists who have arranged permission with the relevant landowner the chance to bring their finds to an archaeologist to have the objects recorded and returned. This gives the detectorists a better understanding of what their finds are and how they might be important, and then returns the objects to them, and gives the archaeologist the information we so desperately crave, and a chance to add the find(s) to a publically available database, to develop the knowledge and understanding of that particular find-type, or the location it came from. See the Portable Antiquities Scheme website for more information.
At The Auckland Project, we’re really interested in hearing from anyone who has found archaeological material on our sites, especially in the grounds or park of Auckland Castle, or around Binchester Roman Fort, whether that was by metal detecting or as a chance find. Anyone hoping to do metal detecting or search for other archaeological material in the future should always consult with us first.
We’re planning a series of excavations and ‘non-invasive’ surveys over the next few years, so if you have an interest in discovering more of the past of this part of County Durham, do let us know via firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Metal Detectorist
Metal detectorists can make an invaluable contribution when working with professional archaeologists on excavation sites. You’ve read too much from an archaeologist already though, so how about a word from a metal detectorist?
George Marley is a registered volunteer with The Auckland Project and a metal detectorist, who has been working with us at the excavations at Auckland Castle and Binchester Roman Fort this year – I’ll let him tell you a little about the possible relationship between archaeologists and metal detectorists, in what he describes as ‘Saving history not lives…synergy not antipathy.’
“As a Paramedic, Trainer and Senior Manager in the NHS for over 43 years, my retirement has allowed me to focus my passion for metal detecting onto saving history as opposed to saving lives!
“For myself and numerous metal detecting enthusiasts across the country, the thrill of discovering coins and artefacts from times long past is something that is hard to describe in words. It has to be experienced to be appreciated.
“When sharing the finds with family and friends, almost always, the first question is ‘so how much is that worth.’ I inwardly sigh, take a deep breath and explain that it’s not about the monetary value but more importantly it’s about ‘saving’ our history. Working alongside archaeologists on digs such as the Auckland Castle and Binchester Roman Fort projects, organised by The Auckland Project, brings together two very different skill sets but the synergy of such a match-up is yielding demonstrative benefits for the challenge of ‘saving’ our history.
“Using a fairly basic metal detector, I’m searching the topsoil excavated from the Binchester site this year and have discovered a number of interesting finds that previous field ploughing has turned up into the top 25cms of soil. Together with Roman coins ranging from the second to fourth centuries, I also discovered a bronze Roman appliqué which may be the bust of Mars the Roman god of war. This was a mount which was used to decorate the likes of coffins or chariots! I also identify ferrous and none ferrous signals across the excavation site, in order that the finds can be subsequently excavated in context, which is fundamentally important to helping to understand the archaeology of the dig area.
“Whilst the excavation progresses, I systematically search over the additional spoil for any metal objects, to ensure that we capture as much information as possible. It’s such a pleasure and so motivating to work with like-minded volunteers and the dedicated archaeologists on this project and together with the help of The Auckland Project, we can work harmoniously towards capturing our heritage for future generations.”
To see some of the fantastic finds that George and the teams at Auckland Castle and Binchester Roman Fort have uncovered, check back with this blog and follow The Auckland Project, Durham University Auckland Castle Excavations, and Northern Archaeological Associates on social media.
About the author: John Castling is Community Archivist at The Auckland Project and co-ordinates our archaeological work.