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Over the last few hundred years, the discovery of many ancient artifacts has helped to uncover the stories of our past here in the United Kingdom.
Stunning finds—such as the infamous Saxon treasure of Sutton Hoo discovered near Woodbridge, Suffolk; the Staffordshire hoard discovered in a field near the village of Hammerwich near Lichfield in Staffordshire; and the more recent golden Roman ring found in Crewkerne, Somerset—have all given us a magnificent insight into the past.
The above-mentioned finds were all discovered by metal detectorists acting in accordance with the law and the code of practice set out by the PAS (Portable Antiquities Scheme).
Metal detecting is an important part of archaeology, and, although it is usually undertaken by enthusiasts and those who treat it as a hobby, the discoveries that are reported to the PAS give us more information about the history of a location than most books or documents do.
Coins will provide us with dating evidence, providing the coin is in identifiable condition; items such as rings, bracelets, or cloak pins give us information on the wealth of the people who lived or worked in locations, whereas iron objects such as knife blades and other weaponry will tell us about a person's status or profession.
Of course, when it is all done above board and legally, the stories these artifacts tell help us to build up a bigger picture of life in the past, but unfortunately not all of those who use metal detectors do so within the guidelines of the law and PAS.
These people are referred to as "night hawkers." They always enter land without permission, often detecting on national monuments or protected sites while searching for items of value to sell on the black market.
They have no regard or respect for the history or the land they are digging up. They leave holes unfilled and locations robbed of any artifacts that may hold information that could give important updates or previously unknown information about the site they were dug up on.
Night hawkers don't care about the law and some probably don't even realize what they are doing is a criminal offence; however, the legislation on this is very clear:
Removal of any object from land without the landowner’s permission may amount to an offence of theft. Travelling to a potential site with metal detecting equipment may amount to an offence of going equipped to steal. It is also an offence to damage a protected archaeological site, known as a Scheduled Monument, or to use metal detecting equipment on a Scheduled Monument without a licence from Historic England or failing to report objects that are potential Treasure.
Night hawking takes place all across the UK; sites such as Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland have been hit, along with lesser known protected sites like Newlands Preceptory and the abandoned village in West Yorkshire.
The British Museum, National Trust, and Yorkshire Archaeological Services were all informed of the illegal activity at Newlands, which was once a preceptory of the Knights of St. John (Knights Hospitaller), and which stands on the edge of another protected site, the ancient ring-boundary ditch of Normanton.
Despite the landowner, the above organisations, and the police visiting the location and being provided with photographic evidence, the culprits were not found and neither was the location they had been digging. Who knows what they may have found and sold? Any information the discovered artifacts may have held is now long gone and lost forever.
The crime, however, does not go unpunished, and in 2012 two men were given a 24-month conditional discharge and forfeited their metal detecting equipment after they admitted taking Roman artifacts from a site in Suffolk; this was probably the lowest sentence, and the maximum penalty to date is three months in prison, a fine of up to £5,000, and a possible lifetime ban from owning and using a metal detector.
So what do you do if you want to go metal detecting but don't know where to start?
Firstly, I will admit that I am no expert and have only been detecting for around four years. I still use a low-end machine, but it is adequate for my requirements. A good beginner detector will set you back around £150–£200 new, and you will also need a good lightweight spade for digging and a pinpointer (small hand-held detector), which will help to find smaller items. I paid £5 for a small wood-handled spade from Ebay and £25 for a cheap pinpointer.
The next thing you will need to do is either find a site to detect or join a club. There are some very good metal detecting clubs that are friendly and informal and who hold regular rallies on well-researched locations. These are a good place to get advice and detect without having to seek out permissions for yourself.
Gaining permission is a lot easier than it sounds, and approaching the landowner in the correct fashion is often the deal or deal breaker when trying to gain permission. I like to contact them with an informal phone call, as I don't like to "cold call," whereas other detectorists find the hands-on, face-to-face approach works best for them. You should also make a written agreement with the landowner on how finds of financial and historical importance are to be shared; this is usually on a 50/50 split between the finder and the landowner depending on the value of the item.
Once you have found a permission or gone on a club dig, be prepared to dig a lot of trash, and, when I say a lot, I mean a shed-load of bits of tin can, iron plow blades, nails, screws, bottle tops, ring pulls, and buttons—lots and lots and lots of buttons. This is all your responsibility, once dug, to remove it from the site and take it home or dump it in a trash can.
When you do find something of interest like a coin, ring, or artifact, it is your responsibility to report the find to the PAS, the landowner, and the club (if you are on a club dig), although this is usually only required if the coin is over 300 years old or a find is classed as treasure (see PAS guidelines).
Personally, I prefer to record everything I find of interest. I will take all my finds for identification and recording at my local museum finds surgery with the Finds Liaison Officer (most club digs will have an on-site FLO). This way, I can be sure that anything of historical or monetary value is reported through the correct channels. Even if I am unsure of the items use or identification, having an expert look at it will usually confirm if it is something or nothing.
Coins tend to come up a lot on fields, along with buttons and other personal items. If a site has a lot of Victorian finds on it, this is generally because of what is known as "green waste"; many fields were plowed using ash from household goods/clothing that were burned in a factory and transported to the fields.
Although green waste can sometimes turn up nice and interesting finds, such as the modern ring and silver sixpence pictured above, it is imperative that the site is reported, as this contaminates archaeological sites and can confuse the information held within the sites.
More information on green waste and how it affects archaeology and historical sites can be found here.
In conclusion, when metal detecting is undertaken responsibly and within the guidelines and law, it can be a very fulfilling hobby and an important practice that provides a lot of information on our past. It can also be profitable to the detectorist and landowner, as items classed as treasure are usually of interest to museums who will make an offer after a valuation and decision on whether the item is classed as treasure has been made by the courts.
To end this article, I will also add that the exercise and fresh air gained whilst conducting this pastime will also benefit you; there is nothing more peaceful than eating your lunch at the side of a freshly-plowed field, watching birds of prey hover above, listening to the wind through the leaves of trees. Even if all you have dug up all day is trash, the buzz you feel when you do find something of value or significance outweighs the trash.