Restrictions on the use of metal detectors vary from country to country. In England, they are too lax. In Sweden, they are too strict. In Denmark, they are pretty much just right. As I’ve written before, I think everybody would stand to gain if the Swedish restrictions were eased. My idea is that we should treat metal detectors as hunting weapons: anybody who can demonstrate sufficient knowledge of rules and best practice should be licenced by the county authorities to use the instrument, and then allowed to continue doing so until they prove unfit. (Currently, all amateurs are considered unfit by default).

In the forthcoming summer issue of Fornvännen, I’ve got an opinion piece on this matter. Andreas Hennius tells me that the Swedish National Heritage Board is hosting a workshop on crimes against cultural heritage law in Gothenburg next week. So I’ve decided to put a pre-print of my piece on-line (in Swedish) to offer, perhaps, some food for discussion.

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Comments

  1. #1 Tobias
    April 21, 2008

    Right on Martin! I would like nothing more than to be able to help salvaging the material remains of our Swedish history, while there is something left to salvage. Things being the way they are, however, my efforts in this respect are confined to a few instances every year assisting archaeologists on specific digs or on research projects.

    On the other hand, I am very fortunate to live in Helsingborg in the south of Sweden since that puts me very close to Denmark. Since a while back, I am a member of a local amateur archaeologist club in Helsingör that has a great relationship with one of the local museums. Everyone are winners in this deal since the museum can call upon the detecting group to get interesting sites investigated and we can enjoy our hobby to our hearts’ content. The archaeologists at the museum have actually commented that Sweden’s loss is their gain, since they get about 250-300 hours of free labor from me each year.

    So positive and fruitful cooperation is very much possible, even probable, if one is willing to give it a try.

  2. #2 Martin R
    April 21, 2008

    Public ownership and stewardship of the cultural heritage is a huge deal these days. Kind of surprising that this mode of thought hasn’t reached the metal detecting arena in Sweden.

  3. #3 Jonathan Jarrett
    April 21, 2008

    I’m interested to know why you think the British laws are too lax? The amount of stuff that gets found and reported by amateurs is fantastic. The downside is that vast amounts is not properly reported, of course, but I think the extra volume of evidence is worth the `dark matter’. Also, there’s the factor that projects like the Portable Antiquities Service and my workplace’s Early Medieval Corpus of Coin Finds really couldn’t cope with much more being reported than already is, and just have to hope it’s representative… but would less stuff being found really be better?

  4. #4 Pierre
    April 21, 2008

    Very good piece, I can only hope that people will listen to you. I agree with you that there are much more to win than there is to lose if the rules are eased up. But I´m also sure that many bureaucrats in the Regionla adminstrative boards don´t wnat this to happen. This is surely based on lack of knowledge, misstrust and strange personal opinions stressing that neighter present scientists nor present public has the right to know more abot their past, it shuld all be preserved for the future. And surprisingly few people working in the antiqarian or archaelogical field care about the fact that most of the archaeological material will be gone before the future ever can use it. This is to my opinion very sad.

  5. #5 Martin R
    April 21, 2008

    Jonathan, I think the British rules are too lax because a) detectorists are not required to report their finds, b) they are not required to offer their finds to the authorities before putting them on the market.

  6. #6 Jonathan Jarrett
    April 22, 2008

    Thanks for the answer. Your point (b) is slightly askew; they are obliged to report the finds if there is good reason to believe that they are “treasure”, and if they are declared such the state can claim it (though it pays compensation). If they don’t report such a find, of course, little will happen, but some policing of illegal sales is done, and they could in theory get into trouble. The definition of “treasure” for this law is quite narrow, though; only gold and silver, and only if it seems to a coroner that it was hidden, not lost. So we get people dispersing coin hoards into the market a couple of pieces at a time over years so that they look like single finds… until we add them up on our database. But would we get so much data if the restrictions were tighter, I wonder?

  7. #7 Martin R
    April 22, 2008

    In my opinion, the British treasure rules are not just “quite narrow”, they’re bloody useless. What kind of archaeology can be done if the only source material you can access is deliberately deposited precious metal objects? Research into 1st Millennium central places is almost entirely about casually lost copper-alloy small finds.

  8. #8 Ny Björn
    April 22, 2008

    I generally agree with Martin – Swedish archaeology would benefit greatly from a regulated use of metal detectors by non-professionals (these days it seems like every other “amateur” actually have a degree in archaeology so a good few would probably be quite skilled, if not employed in the “game” itself). An interesting take on the British situation was BTW presented in a “Time Team special” earlier this year – it’s called “Codename: Ainsbrook” and really show how complicated things CAN get even when metal detectorists and archaeologist are (supposedly) working together…

  9. #9 Jonathan Jarrett
    April 23, 2008

    The British treasure laws are of course being asked to do a job for which they were never designed, and I quite agree that we do need laws that actually deal with archaeological conservation rather than royal wealth protection! But all the same, the detectorists I meet in the Museum are as keen to make big discoveries as they are to make valuable ones. Of course, we only see the ones who do report their finds, as opposed to the perhaps 90% (we’ve no way of telling of course) who don’t, but those ones want the archaeologists to be involved because it validates their skill and luck. They’re not all just treasure hunters, some of them would be hugely proud of finding something that started a big dig… So I do agree that we are losing masses of data, but if the laws were tighter, we still wouldn’t get much of that because there’d be less detecting. And meanwhile, lots more is being reported than just gold and silver treasure, because the Treasure process is not the reporting mechanism. That last bit is really what needs changing; the reporting mechanism needs the force of the treasure laws and the treasure laws need, well, retiring basically.

  10. #10 Martin R
    April 23, 2008

    One thing that sets the British and Danish situations sharply apart from the Swedish one is that we have no trespassing laws. I can go wherever I want in the landscape as long as I don’t damage the crops or bother the livestock.

  11. #11 M E Starr
    July 12, 2008

    That is way cool that you do not have tresspass laws,. better even than the English with their open trails. Here, all private property is “posted” no tresspassing.

    Not that that stops anybody with a metal detector, or poacher, or cracklab. Very very few of the millions with metal detectors have any affiliation with the professional community–they “know” their “stuff” will be “taken away” (“*” indicating that none is in fact true despite popular perception).

    The big sites suffering are mostly battle fields, which I don’t particularly care about myself, unless they happen to include an Indian mound ot early settler farmstead, but to some folk battlegrounds are a Big Deal.

    I see you find “cool” stuff, swords, coins, harness, etc. but what good are they out of context? Yeah, somebody did something in this field at an approximate date, but so what? Was the item part of manure? A building? Was it a temporary cache or a spill or purposefull deposit? I think the metal detector thing contributes hugely to public misperceptions that archaeology is all about find Cool Stuff, rather than looking carefully at the location, soil, cultural geography, associated artifacts, etc. that tell us something besides Cool Item A came from X Parish.

  12. #12 Martin R
    July 13, 2008

    An object found in ploughsoil which retains a set of GPS coordinates is not out of context. The question what the site is really about under the ploughsoil can be answered through excavation. Without the met-det, you wouldn’t know that there was a site there at all.

    As for cool stuff, there’s loads of interesting research you can do with small finds from ploughsoil. Of course, they’re even more interesting if they’re in untouched and well-recorded stratigraphy, but met-det finds certainly aren’t just entertaining knick-knacks.

  13. #13 Charles Butcher
    January 29, 2009

    Just to set the record straight about UK treasure law: the requirement for finds to have been deliberately hidden (“treasure trove”) was abolished in 1996.

    Now, anything over 300 years old and containing more than 10% gold or silver, however it came to be in the ground, is potentially “treasure” and must legally be declared.

    Exceptions are small finds of gold or silver coins (these are not treasure, but ten associated coins are). Multiple prehistoric base-metal finds are treasure, too.

    I’m a UK detectorist who currently has 300-odd finds of all sorts in for recording — they have been with the museums service for 18 months and I see no prospect of getting them back soon. Meanwhile, another 100+ items are accumulating on my shelf…

    So what the UK needs is better funding for the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and continuing education and involvement of detectorists. Most detectorists are keen to help, and those that aren’t would be hard to catch.

    How many Swedes are prosecuted for not reporting finds? The answer should not include those who are simply detecting without the landowner’s permission, if that’s required in Sweden: the UK already has perfectly good theft laws to cover that case.

    To find something that’s undisturbed enough to have vertical context is every detectorist’s dream. To me, the other 99% of detecting is about getting reasonable GPS data and reporting enough of the common finds so that — as Martin R wrote — someone can analyse the ratio of whole silver pennies to cut halves, or tell me what my medieval bronze “curtain rings” were for.

    I suspect that non-detectorists may not realise how much junk we have to filter through. I don’t mean the horeshoes, shotgun cartridges and veterinary ointment tubes, but the worn C18 copper coins, the “partefacts”, the scraps of bronze, the bits of lead. Last session’s prize find was a Roman copper alloy coin in such bad shape that I don’t think an expert could make much of it — but at least it’s one more dot on the map. We are poking around for silver farthings the size of your little fingernail, in ploughsoil that on a “proper” dig would probably be scraped off by machine and ignored.

    Apologies for the ramble, and keep up the fine work!

  14. #14 Martin R
    January 30, 2009

    How many Swedes are prosecuted for not reporting finds?

    None. When a detectorist here gets persecuted, it’s usually for a combination of detecting without a permit and selling finds without having reported them. Mind you, we have very few indigenous detectorists of either stripe. Our nighthawks tend to be Englishmen and Germans.