The tense truce between detectorists and archaeologists

Started by gash, December 19, 2017, 11:19:47 am

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There's been reason for cheer in metal detecting circles, with the news this month that 2016 saw a record number of finds reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme. This announcement has spawned numerous congratulatory reports - including in the Guardian - detailing the wonderful things found, the back-stories of the lucky finders, and the sometimes extraordinary sums of money their finds have fetched. The rise in finds is attributed to improved detector technology and an increase in the number of people taking up the hobby, encouraged by recent spectacular finds and the popularity of the BBC's Detectorists series.

Within the archaeological community the response has not been quite so cheerful. Several archaeologists have complained to me about the Guardian appearing to promote metal detecting as a harmless leisure pursuit, and online there's been a distinct rumble of archaeological discontent. So why are some archaeologists upset about the swelling ranks of detectorists and the flood of important finds they're turning up? The explanation lies in the uneasy relationship between archaeology and metal detecting which stretches back over the last 50 years.

Metal detecting as a hobby first emerged in the post-war years, when relatively cheap, portable detectors developed for the army began to be made available to the public. The number of users remained small however, until more effective and affordable models gave the pastime its first flush of popularity in the 1960s and 70s.

The growing numbers of detectorists quickly came into conflict with the archaeological community. As well as fairly harmless activities, such as combing beaches, reports came in of metal detectorists increasingly impinging on archaeological sites, leaving damage and removing artefacts, many of which were finding their way to antiquities dealers or even leaving the country. Archaeologists were horrified.

Objects from the Staffordshire hoard, discovered by detectorist Terry Herbert in 2009. Although lawfully reported, some archaeologists were unhappy to find that Herbert had dug for five days and recovered almost 250 artefacts before contacting the authorities.

The problem lies in fundamentally conflicting aims. Archaeologists primarily value information about the past. Objects are important, but only within their archaeological context - their relationship to structures, deposits and the full range of finds - contributing to the wider understanding of a site or landscape. For metal detectorists, the primarily focus is the objects themselves, the collection of which by detectorists divorces an object from most of the information which makes it valuable to an archaeologist.

As detectorist numbers spiked in the late 1970s, the attitude of the professional archaeological community became increasingly hostile. Various forms of legal restrictions on detecting and the sale of artefacts were proposed, strongly opposed by a detectorist community which was rapidly becoming more organised. The conflict culminated in the STOP! (Stop Taking Our Past!) campaign, launched in 1979 and championed by the Council for British Archaeology, with the support of a wide range of societies, professional bodies and organisations. The campaign aimed to raise awareness of the damage unregulated metal detecting was doing to the archaeological record and pushed to outlaw metal detecting in the UK.

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