Record year for UK’s amateur treasure hunters
Britain’s amateur metal-detector enthusiasts had a golden year in 2016, with a record-breaking number of finds including Roman silver hoards, Bronze Age axe heads and an inlaid Anglo-Saxon gold cross pendant.
There were 1,120 treasure discoveries last year, the highest annual figure since the Treasure Act came into force 20 years ago, bringing in rules that allowed museums to protect archaeologically valuable objects that are dug up.
Harry Bain, editor of The Searcher, a specialist magazine on metal detecting, said more people had taken up the hobby in recent years because the most eye-catching finds made under the Treasure Act were now much better publicised in the media.
BBC television show The Detectorists, starring Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones and now in its third series, had also helped raise interest in spite of its gentle satire of “nerdish” metal-detector enthusiasts, she said.
The technology behind detecting machines has improved substantially over the past decade. But Ms Bain warned that it took experience and skill to correctly interpret the signals they produce. “It’s hard graft if you’re not finding anything.”
Archaeologists and detectorists — some displaying their finds — were present at a British Museum event on Monday to mark the publication of the annual Treasure Report and data from the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which encourages detectorists to work with archaeologists to record sites accurately.
The most striking artefact on display was an exquisitely wrought Anglo-Saxon gold pendant found by Thomas Lucking, then a mature student, in Winfarthing in Norfolk. The object, inlaid with hundreds of minute hand-worked garnet stones, formed part of a gold necklace worn by a woman of high status in about 650-675 AD.
Tim Pestell, senior curator of archaeology at Norwich Castle Museum, said it was “the best thing I’ve seen” in 15 years of assessing finds in one of the most fruitful areas of the country.
“The workmanship is absolutely exceptional,” he said, pointing to tiny figures of animals in the jewelled design, which has yet to be properly cleaned but has been valued at £140,000.
The object challenges historical assumptions, since such valuable finds have until now been confined to wealthy south-east Suffolk or north-west Norfolk, areas of rich agricultural land. “It’s in the wrong place archaeologically. The archaeological models for where we should see these people buried are wrong. It’s rewriting history,” Mr Pestell said.
Another important find was made by Dave Haldenby, 68, a retired social worker from East Yorkshire, who came across two groups of axes and ingots — weighing 80 pounds — as he detected near Driffield in March last year. “It’s the first hoard I’ve ever found,” he said, after more than 30 years of detecting.
Alerting an archaeologist who could not come to the site until the following day, Mr Haldenby spent a chilly night under canvas protecting what he knew was a substantial find. When the late Bronze Age items were unearthed, some still carried a gleaming bronze patina, preserved for almost 3,000 years.
Also striking it lucky in 2016 was Brian Read, 78, a retired firefighter from Somerset and a veteran detectorist who picked up his first detecting machine in 1978. Asked to describe how he felt when he discovered a hoard of more than 2,000 silver Roman coins from the 3rd century AD at Piddletrenthide, Dorset, he said he was “not overexcited”.
“I’m not really a coin person. I prefer artefacts. But it is an interesting find,” he said, adding that some of the coins included rarities not previously accounted for in the British Museum’s coin collection.
Mr Read, who is the author of reference books on metal artefacts, said a further aspect to successful detecting was the ability to spot patterns and anomalies in the landscape. “You can smell it,” he said. “You can look at a piece of land and know you’re in with a chance of finding something.”