The archaeological pirates


It’s cold, it’s wet and it’s muddy and you are wandering around a field with a pair of earphones on, waving a metal wand in your hand waiting for that special beeping noise that indicates that you may have struck gold...well metal anyway. This is the life of a metal detectorist, searching for the “holy grail", though not literally, of course. On Monday night a Time Team programme on Channel 4 shone some light on the trials and tribulations that the metal detectorists face.

The show was advertised as a, “report on a secret archaeological investigation into the site of a possible Viking boat burial in Yorkshire following a major discovery of coins, silver and swords." The discovery was made by a pair of humble detectorists, who, it transpired, had been detecting on the site for a number of years but had only reported a small proportion of their finds. They wished for the site to remain a secret so as to protect their “hunting grounds" and also any undiscovered artefacts. It became evident as the programme progressed as to why many detectorists act as they do towards the authorities.

There are guidelines to a code of conduct on the National Council for Metal Detecting that explain that all “unusual historical" finds are to be reported to the landowner, and the authorities. But as was witnessed last night there is little incentive to do so when the DCMS undervalues finds that come under the Treasure Act of 1996 to the tune of 800%.

Once a landowner has given permission to others to search his land, then those involved in the contract should be able to sell any finds on the open market. Whilst there should be some duty (self-regulated) to pass information to archaeologists to allow them access as well, so as to increase historical knowledge. There should be no room for the government, unless the find occurs on common land. All parties involved need to disconnect with the archaeological pirate that is otherwise known as government, and free up the market so that it runs more efficiently.