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Metal Detecting-Very good (seriously!) and very very bad

I'm not anti detecting as such. I was once, though not fully, but I've learned from constantly reading the other side.

I'm a late developer, but I now have a real love of the past. It started with ancient monuments. They're great. Top of the pecking order in terms of age, which is important to someone who lacks the palette of people who've studied history longer, and who's therefore a sucker for bling. Better still, sometimes, a knock-you-dead atmosphere and the option for spiritual wonderings, should you care to. Yep, a just-maybe portal in a world that never showed others, certainly not the ones that had lych gates. Ancient Cathedrals is right, if you want to play.

But that morphs. If in-your-face bling appeals, you soon keep an eye out for almost-invisible bling. Humps 'n bumps, the subtler the better and soon you're in love with the whole of the landscape, the archaeological and "spiritual" landscape of Britain, etched and re-etched and drenched as it is with the faint marks of our ancestors to an extent that's unmatched. We're blessed. Hope that doesn't sound too nutty or drug induced. I'm trying to keep the lid on.

For me, something else happens as well. If it's so great it's not just for then, it's for now and for now-tomorrow. We aren't just us; we're us then and us-to-come. For me, it's a "sacred" bequest to be given to the future - again in a not nutty way. Artifacts don't much turn me on, it's the humps and bumps and the faintest of crop marks - so many as yet undiscovered or unidentified. As an adjunct, knowledge of horizontal scatters that give further clues about these delicate and irreplaceable footprints of people who are gone but not quite are all in this mix of what I think should be gathered and nurtured and valued like national jewels and yet are going one by one, now and now and now.

So digging holes and not telling anyone strikes deep into my sense of rightness. I probably feel it more intensely than is sensible, given the way the twenty first century is going. This progress-driven society has little time for archaeo snivellers or dreamers, not when there are houses to be built and money to be made and manifestos to tick so someone testosterone fuelled can calm a rage to step up one rung of a ladder to false relief. Much better to swallow the line that the past is well cared for by the government, like most people do. It makes for a happier life to live in the present and guzzle cheap petrol and let the future be a time when you're dead. I can't do it. I'm cursed with futuralgia, and actually care about what we're doing to the future today.

I thought, maybe, the law would be best on the subject of hole digging and artifact recovery. Nationalise the lot then people can do stuff only on society's terms. But six months ago I had what I thought was a better idea. It involved an irrevocable change in my mindset. The law isn't the only way. The better way is for reporting detectorists to be what they are, what they want to be and what they can be - people who enjoy their hobby AND help society - even encourage society - to live up to it's obligations to keep it's trust with the past and the future. Why shouldn't reporting detectorists exploit, nurture and inherit the earth? Who better to do the job?

But they are so few. All talk is so replete with kidology. There needs to be far far more of them. The Portable Antiquities Scheme has to be a rip roaring success to the point of embarrassment. But it's not. It's grown, but not a lot, though people say it'll be OK. More kidology. All sides pretend stuff, everyone pretends that there's a coming together, that round the corner there's a promised land where understanding will reign and ordinary folk, some good, some selfish will be persuaded in droves by logic to take to spending much more of there hard earned leisure time filling in forms and drawing maps for people they don't know, and society will benefit enormously from the hobby instead of benefiting from a few and suffering from many. I cannot bring myself to believe that. It's an age thing. I know people aren't like that.

There are detectorists whose attention to detail in their reporting is breathtaking. Few will aspire to or be capable of that, it's a personality thing. There's another group whose reporting is OK up to great, and they're fine. Then there are the others, who don't report, and they're many. Try as I might I can't feel other than complete contempt for what they do. It's our knowledge. How dare they?

Yet those are the ones from which the great surge in reporting must come. Six months ago I triggered the multi forum debate on how the hobby could progress towards this. Great things about appropriate ways to detect and report came out of it, thanks to the efforts of huge numbers of people on all sides. But one thing didn't, and it upset and depressed me. I knew that persuasion wasn't enough when you're talking about human beings. And I knew that compulsion wasn't an option and I had anyway rejected the law as an answer.

So I'd assumed that it was common ground that my Big Idea would be part of the process: public disapproval of moral wrongdoing. I'd seen it as indispensable that the PAS would shout it from the rooftops that good detecting was good but bad detecting was bad, VERY VERY bad, and the public, once they properly understood, would do the rest for our heritage.

"Can I detect your land?"
"Are you good? Prove it. Can't? Then no."

Not rocket science. Not chatter chatter, education, time will sort it, let's be friends, give it five years, crap crap crap. Not legislation. But an application of something more Righteous as Mr Cope would say. Righteous People Power, the most all seeing and persuasive and morally indignant thing going! And very, very effective.

Even if a landowner hasn't heard, or doesn't understand, there are others. A tweedy lady from the Parish Council who happens to see someone detecting in the archaeologically rich field on the edge of the village is quite capable of doing the busybody thing. And how! No legislation needed. No liaison offered. Middle Britain, people who might actually give a stuff, are more vigilant and better arbiters of what's good and what's very very bad than anyone else. They just need a steer.

Suddenly, everyone wants to be a Reporting Detectorist. Non-reporters, by and large, give and take, ain't got nowhere to do it, and reporting ones, suddenly, have inherited the earth. Everyone's happy – the hobby's no longer at risk of legislative oblivion, detectorists are starting to get the public and professional approval so many of them crave, the PAS is a runaway success and they're screaming for extra staff with a credible voice, the taxpayer's thinking it's a good investment after all, the past is being treated as it should be, and most of all I'm ecstatic. Not bad, for just mounting a strong media campaign to say if you see a bloke in a field he's either a very good friend of our heritage or an utterly contemptible foe.

But the progressive detectorists baulked at it, on behalf of their non-reporting colleagues,
who were their friends, and couldn't possible be inconvenienced, only persuaded. Oh yeah? And have you managed it yet?

And so did the PAS. "Our job is to liaise and persuade, not antagonise. We can say it, and
we really do, honest. You and the public might not have heard it as we have to do it gently and quietly, else we'll breach a trust with our persuadees". Yep. And you've achieved precisely what? Why not have your head office do it, not you local liaisers – it's their moral duty to tell the public the realities of who's in their local village field after all – if they did that, as official government spokesmen, no-one could say you'd broken any trust on a local level. "Ooooo! We never thought of that. Maybe we'll get back to you". My inbox is empty. Unless they were Mr Umbele who craved the kindness of my bank account number.

I guess for both sides, it's hard to think outside the box when you've made it yourself.
So, unless PAS have a moment of clarity and say "Yes, we'll do it" – then that's it. The great experiment has foundered, and we're back to vague hopes the PAS will grow slowly and the plug won't be pulled by the Treasury on the grounds that millions of pounds is too much to spend to harvest the knowledge of 1736 detectorists per year while tens of thousands can't be bothered.

Not that the government isn't fully supportive. They say. Estelle Morris has just said "The PAS has been a huge success so far……I salute the thousands of enthusiasts up and down the country who, thanks to the scheme, can now register their finds" PantsOnFireTwice Estelle. NOT a huge success. And you salute those thousands because they CAN register do you, even though they don't? Cool wording. What's your profession?

Put yourself in the government's position. Better still, think of yourself as a taxpayer. You're supplying far more Finds Liaison Officers per reporting detectorist than you're supplying doctors, nurses, firemen and policemen COMBINED per person. Now we all like a nice Roman coin, but that's nuts! The PAS has GOT to grow, and fast, else it'll be gone, and serve it and the bulk of detectorists right. Tough love. They don't like me – in fact they think I'm a monster – but I'm their best friend.

So that's where we are. Statistically, beyond all hope of rational denial, the hobby steals far more knowledge from society than it gives to us. It gives us trinkets, many, sometimes of huge importance – you'll have seen the gushing press releases. But for every one of those, there is, in some unseen display cabinet or dirty little garden shed or on Ebay – how many? And all the contextual knowledge pissed into the wind for all eternity, knowledge the lack of which renders the find a mere parody of itself.

If the last remaining mark that I'd left on the earth had been scratched away by someone in pursuit of what turned out to be a coke can, my dust would be miffed. If that mark had been the last mark of my village or my whole culture, my dust would rise in a cloud of righteous fury and charge him with ethnic annihilation, along with the society that let him. Why the hell didn't you tell someone? I'd scream. "Can't be arsed" is what someone said recently. And so, I'd be utterly gone, and all of my people, forever and ever.

You might ask though, is this a subject that's central to TMA? Isn't it primarily an artefact thing? By no means.

Most detecting is done in disturbed ploughsoil so the vertical context has gone, fair enough. (How much some detectorists dig deeper into the archaeological levels is a matter of speculation. An exciting beep never gets pursued downwards, is that right? I'm afraid I'd be very tempted. Are we talking about superhumans here? Archangels perhaps?)

But the horizontal context can still remain, after centuries of ploughing, in the form of distribution patterns and that's all part of the picture of our much loved humps 'n bumps. And for the most part that picture is being ripped to shreds. No. Stolen. Removed so
we never even knew it was there.

There's more. But before I go on I must make it clear. Reporting detecting done well is on balance a good thing for our knowledge of the past. I'm in favour. Now, and finally.
So are many or most archaeologists and the official bodies. Many reporting detectorists are as pro-the resource as I am, far more knowledgable than I and are smart and witty and hate non-reporting and know it may bring down their hobby. No, their vocation, which is what it is for many of them. I now count some of them as my friends, and hopefully they reciprocate. Just had to say that.

But here's some fag packet calculations, starting from the only two facts that are known for certain, from PAS statistics: last year just 1736 detectorists reported, and on average they reported 17 finds each.

(An unguarded forum remark said – "I'd have thought the average active detectorist finds 17 finds a week, not a year" So you can apply quite a large multiple to my figures if you wish, though I'll leave it aside).

There are, say, 30,000 active detectorists so say 28,000 who don't report.

(There are maybe far fewer detectorists. PAS says 10,000. But maybe far more – 60,000 has been very recently convincingly cited by a senior detectorist who is much respected, including by me)

I make that 476,000 non-reported items a year.

So how many holes are dug? I don't know. They say they hardly find anything ever, so lets say 200 holes per find.

So now we have 95 million holes per year. Maybe 100,000 just in Blackburn Lancashire.
Always assuming, of course, that the unguarded moment was nonsense and the true figures aren't gulpmakingly higher.

It ain't looking good, for our delicate humps 'n bumps and crop marks is it? And all dug by people who scuttled away silently with whatever they found and claim the law's on their side, which it is.

Next: Is it making a difference?
Another blood curdling unguarded moment: "30 years ago I used to go out and come back with my pockets stuffed. Now, it's never more than half a dozen coins, from anywhere".
Depletion has spawned a new word. Fields are said to have been "hammered". A constant theme is "I have to travel; everything round me has been hammered".

Being remote or not on a right of way no longer offer reasonable grounds for thinking places are safe. Hammering has caused an ever widening search for fertile areas. Many are up to speed with online records, aerial maps, crop marks. A hump that you think might be something is fair game, as are cropmarks, even if the authorities haven't noticed since "it's not scheduled so it's legal".
Ah the law! What a convenience it is if you don't want to think or develop a conscience! Square crop marks are exciting as they may be Roman villas, the ultimate delight. Depletion has also pushed the boundaries of interest – IA and BA are sexy now. "Got me a bronze axe this affo".

Please understand: These aren't "the tiny proportion of nighthawking scum" that detectorist so love to condemn as thieves. These are otherwise no doubt nice people. "Honest hobbyists" they call themselves and I have no reason to think that most don't believe that. But they somehow have bypassed the need to feel any moral sensibility and understanding that detecting on an as yet unscheduled site that they've worked hard to discover is no different from detecting on a scheduled site. Looked at like that, for me – and I suspect you – someone who does that is doing precisely the same that a nighthawker does and the ONLY difference is the angle of the sun.

Please bear in mind, it's not just TMAers who are out on the moors looking for subtle and undiscovered humps and bumps with an educated eye.

The bargain between society and them is so unfair. Society tells them where scheduled sites are, and the likely fertile and "legal" areas that surround them, but when they go there and score a hit they don't tell society what objects they've found OR what was the context OR, often, that the place they've discovered even exists! Even their mates aren't told. "Don't want MY site hammered by others wanting to poach it, or nighthawking scum thieves!" This isn't a secret attitude. It's up front. Part of the prevailing culture. Responsible detectorists who remonstrate are met with complete incomprehension. Some people quite brazenly say they harvest "their" secret site, which they worked so hard to discover, annually each spring when it's re-ploughed. Only when they've got all they can, only when it has no more artifacts for them (and knowledge for us), only then will they reveal it's location to the world, and the details of what they've been doing. Maybe...

And always the PAS Finds Liaison Officers smile, and have a beer with them. Its liaison, you see. They've built up trust with the detecting community and that trust must never be broken.

Well no more. If the PAS won't protect the resource by publicising the difference between good and bad, and hugely expanding its own success, we bleeding can. Let's see what can be done.

nigelswift Posted by nigelswift
20th February 2005ce
Edited 20th May 2005ce

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