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Metal Detecting

Metal detecting is probably the most popular and accessible type of archaeological activity.  Many individuals own metal detectors, which can be bought cheaply or made from kits.  Many archaeologists also make use of metal detectors – they are a very useful addition to the range of site equipment available.  There is a great deal of controversy surrounding metal detecting – it is seen by some archaeologists as ‘treasure hunting’ rather than research, but there are many examples of archaeologists and metal detectorists co-operating very productively.

Metal detecting is a form of geophysics – it uses a type of magnetometer to detect metal buried in the soil, which gives an audio signal over the location.  The more sophisticated machines available today can have their detection range set to screen out certain types of metal, such as iron, allowing the user to focus on bronze, copper, silver or gold.  It is a useful technique for retrieving metal objects from the topsoil, although archaeologists would advise against retrieving an object from below the topsoil, as it may still be in its original context, such as a brooch or pin from a burial.  Metal detectors are very useful during excavations for pre-screening layers and features, and for searching machine-stripped topsoil for metal objects.
Metal detectorists have found some of the most impressive archaeological finds of the last few decades and regular reports of discoveries appear in the media.  This can be a lucrative pursuit – some finds can be sold on the antiquities market, or if the discovery comes within the terms of the 1996 Treasure Act, the finder may receive a proportion of its worth from the state.  Metal detecting is legal if it is done with the permission of the landowner (who is the legal owner of any finds), and is not done on a scheduled (protected) ancient monument [these are very often not marked as such – so it is up to the individual to make sure a site is not scheduled before they consider detecting on it].  Illegal metal detecting activity exists – people known as ‘night hawks’ visit sites without permission (often in the hours of darkness) and loot objects, selling them on without attribution to their location.  The police are now more vigilant about this than they once were.  The value of looted finds to archaeological research is almost nothing once their location is lost.  A ready market in the UK and overseas exists – but archaeologists and most law-abiding metal detectorists would always prefer to see finds going to a public museum rather than into private hands.

Most metal detectorists are responsible people with a deep interest in the past and many belong to clubs.  Archaeologists have built up a good working relationship with clubs, particularly the Finds Liaison Officers in the national Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), who work regionally and encourage the reporting and accurate recording of finds and find spots.  Through initiatives like the PAS, thousands of finds have been recorded which otherwise may have been lost to archaeological research.  Archaeologists have been able to respond positively to discoveries and mount investigative fieldwork at find-spots, which often produces extremely important new evidence.  Legitimate metal detectorists are therefore becoming an integral part of the archaeological community