Metal Detecting and Archaeology
Metal detecting and archaeology have had a troubled relationship.
Archaeologists once dismissed metal detectorists as “night hawkers” who seek treasure and who destroy the archaeological record. But over the past 20 years important archaeological discoveries have been made using metal detectors, and they have become a standard element of our geophysics armoury.
Whether metal detectors are a benefit or a curse for archaeology depends on how they are used. The notes below are drawn from training materials prepared for metal detector training sessions organised for FRAG members.
Metal Detecting and Archaeology – Do’s and Don’ts
Whilst today’s exercise has been about the use of metal detectors in an archaeological sense as a prospection and location tool, their use is widespread elsewhere in the hobby of metal detection. Consequently different rules apply to such use and need to be followed to avoid damage, maintain good practice and to comply with the various pieces of statute law which can be infringed through inappropriate use.
The list is not comprehensive but to give an idea of what should be considered:-
Remember that all land has an owner. The term “public, common or open access land” has a right of access, but that does not confer the right to use a metal detector or dig only a right to access the land on foot for a variety of agreed purposes. This also includes beaches and foreshores.
Permission must be sought from the owner of the land to use a metal detector. To use a metal detector without permission is classed as going equipped to steal by the Police. Digging or disturbing the land can constitute criminal damage and the unauthorized removal of items is simple theft by finding.
A tenant cannot grant permission as they do not own the land or have any rights to finds made if permission to detect is granted by the landowner.
There are various land based designations which carry a proscription against the use of metal detectors and many also have specific laws which can be used to prosecute offender. Always check the status of the land before either seeking permission to use a metal detector or proceeding to use one. Some landowners when granting permission may not be aware that parts or all of their land is designated as a protected place. Check the status whatever the landowner says just to be sure.
Designations which include either a criminal proscription or have a legal requirement to exclude metal detecting assess include:-
- Scheduled Monuments and other archaeological protected areas
- Sites of Special Scientific Interest
- Nature and other wildlife reserves
- Some Agri-environment Agreements include areas where metal detecting is not allowed
- Consecrated ground
Additionally a number of Institutional Landowners such as the National Trust, Duchy of Cornwall and Lancaster and the Ministry of Defence maintain a total prohibition on metal detecting whilst other such as the Church Commissioners, the Crown Estate and some County and local Councils run a permit scheme for access to suitable land.
How to deal with finds
All finds belong to the landowner. Their permission is to use a metal detector on their land and does not confer any right to keep any finds made during searches.
Agreements must be made with the landowner on how they wish to deal with their property which you have found for them.
It is expected good practice to keep a record of where the finds are from and this can be done using a GPS or adding details to a large scale map. All this information can be added to the identification details of any finds. Provenance is a key piece of information to help understand the distribution and importance of what may seem to be random casual losses.
If the finder and the landowner are happy to do so finds can be recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) or a number of other third party recording databases. Whilst it is widely considered to be good practice to do so the permission of the owner must be sought to record with any third party. Recording non-Treasure items is voluntary. The PAS can also provide information on the curation of finds.
Some finds will meet the definitions of Treasure under the Treasure Act 1996 and any of its subsequent Designation Order(s). The definitions of what constitutes Treasure are readily available from the PAS website and elsewhere. If you are unsure if an item is Treasure the PAS Finds Liaison Officers (FLO’s) will be able to advise.
Finders have a duty under the Treasure Act to report Treasure finds to the Coroner for the District in which was found within 14 days of finding or at the point where they realise that the item is Treasure.
FLO’s may say that they can do this for you, but under the Act they are not a designated person to report to. They can advise on the Treasure process, but the onus is on the finder to meet the requirement of the law. This has caused confusion and many finders on contacting the Coroner’s Office will be told to take the find to their local FLO. That is perfectly correct as the finder will have fulfilled the requirements of the Act by reporting their find to the Coroner.
It is an offence not to report a Treasure item and although the landowner needs to be informed of the find and the process to be followed they cannot prevent the finder from reporting the find.
Common sense needs to prevail when dealing with access to land such as respecting the wishes of landowners when searching their land to avoid growing crops or areas used for game shooting cover. It should go without saying that this would include shutting gates, avoiding livestock and so on.
The possession of Public Liability Insurance is of high importance and this can be obtained either individually or by becoming a member of a representative metal detecting body such as the National Council for Metal Detecting which provides insurance as a part of their membership package.
The details of expected good practice are covered within the voluntary Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting. This Code highlights how responsible metal detecting can make an important contribution to archaeological knowledge by providing guidance and highlighting the requirements of finders under the law as well as more general voluntary guidance on accepted best practice.
Changes in Law and Sentiment since the 1970s
When the Water Newton Treasure was discovered near Peterborough in 1975 attitudes to metal detecting and to the protection of archaeological artefacts were very different:
- Although on a listed site the ground was being subjected to deep ploughing on an annual basis
- Metal detecting on this precious site was rampant
- Archaeologists held entrenched positions and one reportedly told the finder “it would have been better had the hoard never have been saved from the plough” [The finder has always maintained that he was not using a metal detector when the hoard was found.]
- Equally, many metal detectorists or amateur archaeologists who stumbled across valuable artefacts would never consider reporting their finds
Fortunately, the unique group of early Christian silver was reported, objections to its treatment as “treasure trove” were overcome at the Coroner’s inquest and the objects now reside in the British Museum.
Since then a more productive approach has been adopted by both sides though there is a way to go before, for instance, the code of best practice is universally adopted.
- ‘STOP’ (Stop Taking Our Past: the campaign against Treasure Hunting). This draconian attempt to ban amateur metal detecting in the 1980s generated animosity on both sides and eventually met with failure
- The Treasure Act of 1996 recognised the shortcomings of the Common Law of Treasure Trove and continues to provide a more pragmatic and extended definition of “treasure”
- Following regional pilots supported by lottery funds, the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) became a national scheme in 2003
- The PAS has now recorded nearly 1.5m objects on its online database (www.finds.org.uk); the data is a free research resource available to both professional and amateur archaeologists.