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Metal Detecting and Archaeology

Metal Detecting and Archaeology

Edited by Suzie Thomas and Peter G. Stone (Heritage Matters 2). Pp. x + 224, figs. 59, pls. 7, tables 3, maps 6. The Boydell Press, Woodbridge, England 2008. $95. ISBN 978-1-84383-415-1 (cloth).

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Archaeologists have a healthy skepticism of the practice of metal detecting. This edited volume attempts—with varying degrees of success—to temper this skepticism. The work achieves added currency as metal detectors are becoming cheaper and more prevalent. With the advent of smart phones and other devices, metal detecting may increase in years to come. Archaeologists and policy makers will certainly have to account for the public’s interest in the past and look at ways in which regulation, and even cooperation, can be used to ensure archaeological preservation. As a consequence, many in the heritage field would be well served by seeking out this collection, which aims to bring together the views of archaeologists and metal detectorists.

Many sections are written by contributors to a conference organized in June 2005 with the somewhat dubious title “Buried Treasure: Building Bridges,” hosted by the International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies at Newcastle University. Though the essays vary in quality, the collection largely accomplishes its goal of examining and accounting for the tension between archaeologists and metal-detector hobbyists. It must be noted that some contributions could have used closer editing to create a more cohesive collection. Many of the authors refer to the same aspects of the early history of metal detecting, which gets repetitive. Also, it would have been helpful if more direct evaluation of the damage done by some detectors and explanation of what can be learned from responsible use of these devices had been provided. The reader is left to make her or his own conclusions about the practice generally, after taking into account the knowledge that is gained and destroyed.

Contributors to the volume include metal-detector users, staff of the United Kingdom’s Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), and archaeologists. The sections examine the uses and misuses of metal detectors in a variety of countries, including England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Poland, the United States, and South Africa. The use of metal detectors, particularly in the study of battle sites in the United States and the United Kingdom, offers a model for how these devices can enhance the scientific study of sites. As a whole, the book does a fine job of offering context to the current disagreements between archaeologists and metal detectorists. The latter have a great deal of knowledge about heritage sites in the British countryside that are unknown to archaeologists. Richards and Naylor note in their contribution that “[d]riving through the Yorkshire Wolds one day, it seemed that there was a site at every turn: an Anglo-Saxon cemetery in that field; a Roman villa in that one; a settlement which produced gold and silver Anglo-Saxon coins on that hillside” (167).

Metal detectors were developed during World War II and became increasingly affordable for consumers, such that by the 1980s there may have been as many as 300,000 metal detectorists in the United Kingdom. A campaign called Stop Taking Our Past was then launched in 1980 to amend the practice of hunting for treasure and other objects in the United Kingdom (56). This has led to a number of changes in law and policy. At present, there may be some 30,000 active metal-detector users in England and Wales (3). Many now volunteer their finds under PAS, which is described in great detail by Bland, the current head of the program. In the United Kingdom, metal detecting is legal so long as the detectorist has the permission of the landowner. Use of the devices in certain areas, however—those classified as Scheduled Ancient Monuments—is prohibited.

PAS offers the opportunity to report finds in a large database open to scholars and the public at large. The contributors Richards and Naylor describe how the data have been used in the Viking and Anglo-Saxon Landscape and Economy project, which uses coin and artifact data from the period 700–1050 C.E. to chart social and economic development. The challenge in such a project has been to account for errors or omissions in the “modern recovery” of objects by metal detectorists (174). However, the authors note that the quality of many of the “amateur” metal detectorists and their reports “would be a credit to any archaeological contracting unit” (170), and in fact “the potential knowledge gain from working with detector users, facilitating their access and helping them record and publish their finds is worth all the trouble” (169).

This model has been used elsewhere as well. The contributors Cornelison and Smith show how detectorists can come together to study battlefields in the United States. Skilled operators of metal detectors can look for “unfired” and “dropped” bullets that can “provide the best basis for reconstructing troop positions because they mark the precise location of individuals” (35). These metal detectorists are often volunteers and

are able to work in places to which they would not otherwise have access and they are able to handle and photograph the artifacts ... they are willing to travel great distances, sometimes at large personal expense ... [archaeologists on the projects] would be unable to do this work without the skills that these volunteers bring. (46)

Against these positive examples are some detectorists who give responsible volunteers a bad name. These criminals also help account for the distrust and criticism many archaeologists have of metal detecting generally. A number of sites in Poland and England have been damaged and plundered by detectorists (18). Thomas discusses the damage done by those who dig illegally with metal detectors (known as “nighthawks”), dramatically illustrated by looting at Wanborough, England, where a Roman temple site was repeatedly raided. Many of the looters were prosecuted. Other damaged sites include Corbridge and Donhead St. Mary in Wiltshire (153). Such examples illustrate and justify the continued mistrust archaeologists have concerning metal detecting.

In summary, this collection offers new in-sights into the tension between segments of the public and archaeologists; it describes the damage metal detectors can do but also notes how they can enhance serious scientific study. The positive examples discussed may help change the widely held perception in the heritage community that all users of metal detectors are looters. Some certainly are—and this collection of essays acknowledges that fact—yet if we paint metal detectorists with too broad a brush, we risk losing the assistance of skilled and dedicated volunteers who can offer a better understanding of sites and their contexts.

Derek Fincham
South Texas College of Law
Houston, Texas 77002

Book Review of Metal Detecting and Archaeology, edited by Suzie Thomas and Peter G. Stone

Reviewed by Derek Fincham

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 1 (January 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1151.Fincham

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