Proposed New Swedish Metal Detecting Law Misses Mark

As I've written before in a number of venues (e.g. Fornvännen and Antiquity), the current Swedish metal detector legislation needs to be changed. It is too restrictive in relation to honest amateur detectorists. It is keeping them from a) making valuable contributions to archaeological research, b) saving finds for scholarship that are slowly turning to a green verdigris powder in the country's ploughsoil, c) engaging constructively with their cultural heritage. We are decades behind the Danes on this. Metal detectors should be dealt with like hunting rifles: if a citizen passes a knowledge test on how to report finds etc., give him a licence to use the detector on ploughsoil provided the land owner and tenant give their permission, and then revoke the licence if he misbehaves.

Everybody despises nighthawk looters. Heritage management should encourage a strict division between honest daylight detectorists who report their finds on the one hand, and nighthawks on the other hand. Honest amateur detectorist associations like the detectorist section within the Gothenburg Historical Society and Rygene Detektorklubb should receive encouragement from all sectors of professional archaeology. They cultivate social norms among detectorists and teach newcomers to the hobby how to behave. Colleagues, invite them on your fieldwork projects! I could not have written my 2011 book Mead-halls of the Eastern Geats without them.

Now, the Eriksson heritage commission (spoken of before) has made a number of suggestions on how Swedish metal detector legislation should change. This is because frustrated amateurs have complained to the EU about the Swedish rules being a trade obstacle, and the EU has reprimanded Sweden. (Just like when Al Capone was sent to jail for tax fraud instead of organised crime.) And, as I've said, change is needed. Sadly, not the kind of change the commission advocates. Here's what they're suggesting.

The Eriksson commission wants to make it easier to get a permit for a piece of land if you intend to use the metal detector to search for anything but objects older than 1750. No permits will be issued in cases where there is reason to believe that the detector will be used to locate objects older than 1750, such as when the area in question has known archaeological sites or there is reason to believe that such may be found.

This supports the rare detectorist who haunts beaches and parks searching for modern coins and wrist watches. It still treats the majority of detectorists, who are explicitly interested in archaeology, the ones who are of any use to society, as crooks. All detectorists are in it for the fun. But the guy who trawls beaches doesn't perform any kind of public service or engage meaningfully with the cultural heritage. The people who discover, characterise and report archaeological sites do. In Denmark, that is.

If I understand the proposed legislation correctly, it would mean a drastic or complete curtailment of the slight opportunities the current rules give serious amateur archaeologists to use metal detectors on interesting land in Sweden. It would open beaches and parks to semi-casual metal detector use and thus remove the pesky EU trade obstacle. And it would in no way change the legal environment in which nighthawk looters currently operate.

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Father, forgive them; for they do not know what the hell they are doing!

Too bad this opportunity for a more constructive relationship between professional and amateur archaeologist was missed.

By David Haskiya (not verified) on 07 Jun 2012 #permalink

It wasn't the best way to introduce a change. A group who are generally negative about metal detecting was told that the rules needed to be changed so more metal detectors could be sold. No surprise they then tried to figure out how to change the rules without really changing the rules. Any real changes needs to come from within, from archeologists who see the need for changed rules, not from someone from the outside telling them to change the rules.

That said, it's a bit odd that unlesss I'm mistaken Denmark and the Danish law isn't even mentioned in the report. No argument is made about it not working in Denmark or why it might work fine in Denmark but won't work in Sweden. Surely such arguments could be made and then we could discuss if they were valid or not, but to invite a guy like Peter Vang Petersen to tell about the Danish experience and rules and then just ignore it later seems.... well, rude.

By Jakob Øhlenschlæger (not verified) on 07 Jun 2012 #permalink

I see the notification to the Eu as much as a desperate attempt by a couple of serious amateur detectorists who find it increasingly difficult to get permission. There are indications of a policy of some county councils to not process applications for metal detection, so that the persons in question should give up. The reason that the report does not mention Denmark, I think simply are that they can not handle all the positive feedback from there. Then, they choose to remain silent about the whole thing. Danish archaeologists shake their heads at us and wonder what we're doing.

It's really annoying for me as scholar to see distribution maps of 1st millennium AD artefact types where Danish stuff just ends at the Swedish border. And if there are a few occurrences of the types in Sweden, then sure enough, those are sites where the excellent Danish detectorists have been invited to work!

So it is. One problem with bringing in external amateurs is that the search is done only on a very small number of central places (like Uppåkra). The result is a few places with huge amounts of material and then nothing at all other sites (including excavated sites, because it is so rare with systematic metal detecting in swedish archaeology). It is curious that the artifacts are so important that no citizens may use metal detectors - but there is apparently no problem to dump the same artifacts in the archaeological spoil heap...

Partly I believe it is a question of control. Archaeology as a profession is used to e.g. a certain type of brooch showing up every 20 years when someone excavates a grave. It takes a new mindset to accept that a guy with a metal detector and some knowledge of the landscape can go out and pick up three such brooches in one weekend.

and if they by chance find a brooch in a post hole there is soon talk about this "being an important place" - for there is hardly ever metal objects on the settlements ...

Hehe, yeah... If we could only try to remember that the sunken features we excavate after stripping are only the lower preserved halves of features that were dug from a ground surface 20 cm above the trench floor!

Not We, They. Do not confuse me with the post hole enthusiasts!

As an spectator to this debet, i can only shake at my head, and wonder what the hell is going on in Sweden.. For nearly two decades, we has had the most exellent cooperation with the Danish national museum, and Kalundborg museum.. And we are " only " amateur-detectorists.. Until now it has resulted, in over 12.000 metal-artifacts, over an excavation period, for about 10 years ( and the excavations are still ongoing ) So as Shakespeare said for nearly 500 years ago " There are something rotten in the state of Denmark " ..Apparently he never visited Sweden.. Yours sincerely amateur metal-detectorist Flemming Nielsen, reporting from the banks of Tissø ;-)

By Flemming Nielsen (not verified) on 08 Jun 2012 #permalink

A question. If I do metal scanning on a farmers field, that is usually tilled once a year here in Scania and that area is not on the list of ancient remains, is that OK with the new proposed law? All kinds of remains from different periods are probably in the soil?

By Thomas Ivarsson (not verified) on 09 Jun 2012 #permalink

I guess it is so, but you must stop metal detecting if you find an older item... This type of metal detecting is not interesting to many and have no archaeological value at all. It is all so utterly stupid. Let's say you're a farmer. Then you are allowed to run your ten tons heavy tractor with plow and spread manure over any ancient site you want. But if you want to check if there are any artifacts in the plough soil, and in such case, save them from the destruction - you are not allowed to do it! Flemming, i agree in everything you say. I've talked to Danish archaeologists who just sighs and shakes his head at us, and rightly so.

Thomas, according to the suggested new wordings, you would only get a permit if the County Archaeologist believed a) that your purpose was to search for recent stuff, b) that the field in question did not contain any archaeology. And we all know that in Scania, all fields do.