Wednesday, 18 June 2014

In praise of metal detecting. 3. How things are discovered

Volvo front end loader
photo: Jason W. Edwards, U.S. Air Force
As there can be conflicts between metal detectorists and some archaeologists regarding the discovery of artifacts, I thought it would be a good idea to present some statistics about how artifacts are discovered. One might get the impression from such sites as the Portable Antiquities Scheme that apart from a few accidental surface finds such as through gardening etc., most other finds are either through metal detecting or through archaeological excavations (that are not included in the PAS).

Information on the subject is not easy to find, but thanks to Colin Haselgrove's Iron Age Coinage in South-East England: The Archaeological Context, Oxford, 1987, p. 104, there is information about British stray finds of Celtic coins. As coins are very small objects, they seemed to me to be an ideal subject as one would think they would be easy to miss and that most finds would be made through prospecting (metal detecting or archaeologists' field-walking). After all, what are the chances of the driver of a front end loader on a construction site spotting a patinated Atrebates silver minim while at work? The answer might surprise you. Haselgrove gives the following figures:
Mode of discovery Total %
Large-scale earthmoving eg.
extractive industries, railway cuttings
11 4%
Building and construction works 39 14%
Cultivation and ploughing 46 16%
Digging eg. allotments, drainage
trenches, pits
38 13%
Gardening in grounds of house 30 10%
Finds dislodged through coastal or
riverine erosion
56 20%
Finds dislodged through erosion or
other disturbances to the ground
36 13%
Archaeological prospection and
metal detecting
30 10%
Total: 286
These percentages today will be slightly different, of course. However, there is no easy way to calculate them apart from duplicating Haselgrove's study as it will depend on too many factors. A critic might say that metal detecting has become more popular than archaeological field-walking, but as these are grouped together anyway, we cannot differentiate these agencies even by the 1987 figures. Archaeological field walking certainly was carried out long before the first metal detectorist appeared on the scene. Similarly, we would have to know the current figures for various sorts of construction, and even the popularity of gardening. The exact means of discovery, apart from MD finds is not recorded in the Celtic Coin Index, but the latter also includes coins seen in the trade that might or might not have a recorded find-spot. There is only a very slightly greater percentage of Celtic coins in museums with recorded find spots but this is mainly due to the fact that many hoards of similar coins often end up in museums while a miniscule percentage of collectors collect by die varieties instead of by type.

Erosion and other natural ground disturbances account for 28.67% of the finds and this is nearly three times that of any sort of prospection. Gardening (apart from that done on allotments) shows the same percentage as archaeological field walking and metal detecting combined, but of course gardening has been taking place far longer than archaeology. I say this for the fear that a few anti-MD archaeologists might start trying to ban gardening! When I was eager to buy some Celtic coins at the age of fourteen, the only find that I was ever told about was from a school friend whose uncle had found a small hoard (8 or 9) of gold staters while removing a tree stump in his garden. To my horror, I learned that he had four holes drilled in each of them to be made into a bracelet for his wife. I told my friend that what would have been a very financially valuable find that he would have obtained full retail value for because of the Treasure Trove laws of the time was now little more than scrap gold. Of course, the find was not reported at all. From the description, the location of the find and the relative rarity of types, they were most likely Gallo-Belgic C. Gold coin finds are reported far less than coins of other metals, of course.

I would be remiss if I did not finish with giving you an example of the sort of thing that can happen when archaeologists and metal detectorists can work together with mutual respect. It comes from Ian Liens, Coins in context: coinage and votive deposition in Iron Age south-east Leicestershire:
"In November 2000 a community fieldwork group, one of many set up in the last thirty years by Leicestershire County Council, began finding late Iron Age pottery whilst field-walking on a hilltop near Market Harborough, in south-east Leicestershire. Although the pottery was not unusual for the area, the discovery of a quantity of animal bone aroused the interest of one member of the group, Ken Wallace. A keen metal-detector user, he sought the farmer's permission to return to the site with his detector and over several days recovered more than two hundred coins. These were subsequently identified as late Iron Age silver coins, of types traditionally attributed to the Corieltavi 'tribe', and contemporary Roman Republican and early Imperial silver denarii. Wallace reported his finds to the Leicestershire County Council heritage team, the Coroner and the British Museum, commenting there were plenty more coins still in the soil. English  Heritage agreed to fund an archaeological evaluation, which was conducted by the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) in 2001. Only now, however, after more than four years of excavation and many hundreds of hours of conservation and identification work at the British Museum, is the unique nature and significance of the site and its finds assemblage beginning to emerge."
Tomorrow, part four in this series.


  1. A very interesting blog and being a metal detectorist myself I'm enjoying your 'In Praise of Metal Detecting' topics.

    1. I'm glad to hear that, thank you!

      I just took a quick look at your blog, and have to say that what you are doing with that is one of the things that I will be praising and recommending to others in Monday's post, so keep up the good work! In fact, you mentioned an important point about the farmer's attitude that I had not thought about:

      with regard to "finds agreement". It is this practical knowledge that is noticeably absent in the "ivory tower brigade" so well done on that.

      If you ever have any difficulty identifying anything Celtic, I'll do my best to help out out and you can reach me best at It would be my pleasure to help.

  2. Many thanks for your reply and kind words, I really appreciate it.