Wednesday, 25 June 2014

In praise of metal detecting. 8. What's next?

public domain photo

I always hold in having it if you fancy it
 If you fancy it, that's understood
And suppose it makes you fat?
I don't worry over that
A little of what you fancy does you good
Chorus from  A little of what you fancy does you good, lyrics by Fred W. Leigh, 1915

 My grandmother used to say "A little of what you fancy does you good" as she brought out the treats. As a small boy, I thought this was grandmotherly wisdom and  didn't know that it came from a British music hall song. From the songs she sang, I now know that she must have been a Fred W. Leigh fan in her younger days.

The boy made his usual rounds of the London junk shops. He knew he would find some ancient coin for his collection, but he was always hoping for that rare coin to appear that he could sell to the British Museum. That could have been me when I was young, but I'm writing this about Sir William Flinders Petrie before he became an Egyptologist and one of the fathers of modern archaeology. A few years before William was born, a young man was searching the shops for Celtic coins for his collection. He didn't have a lot of money to spend. Although his brother had gone to university, he was working in the account department of one of his uncle's paper business, and the uncle had not been keen to give him the lowly job in the first place. Mother had worried that if he had gone to university he would just end up as a clergyman like his father. We know that young man today as Sir John Evans, the father of British Celtic numismatics and also another father of modern archaeology. From little acorns...

I have spoken to a few metal detectorists, collectors, and small-time dealers who, after some years of pursuing their interests, began to gain a deeper understanding of those things and wished they could do more. One of the detectorists told me that he regretted not being able to write about all, but he wrote fairly well in his email messages to me so I think it was just his perception. The best way to become a writer is just to write. It helps if you know someone willing and able to edit your first things, but after a while (and a few arguments with your editor) you not only welcome the corrections, but need far fewer of them. Some people think, "I'm just a ..." and don't try, but if you have a passion for something then the chances are that you will become very good at writing about it if you just give yourself the chance.

If you go to university in order to get a good career and make lots of money, and you pick some subject that is not going to be terribly difficult  and might be bit of fun then don't expect to be overly passionate about it later, and above all, don't expect to father much except children. With the passion, though, it doesn't matter at all where you go to school, how long you stay there, or what menial jobs you might have to start with. Perhaps even Einstein wondered if he would amount to much as he trudged to his job at the patent office some mornings. You will meet others with that same passion that are always willing to help you along. Passions can sometimes be a lonely place and you are always hoping for company and that requires no qualifications other than the shared passion.

 A little of what you fancy does you good.

Now, there are those who will always be telling you what you should be doing and that certainly has nothing at all to do with fun.  They might criticize you as a detectorist for not reporting things to the Portable Antiquity Scheme. Perhaps they do not know the meaning of "voluntary", but they certainly do not understand why it should be voluntary. If you are an "outsider" of any sort, you probably don't like being ordered around much. It is only the outsiders, though, that ever do really great things. If you are an explorer, you will get better at it over the the years. If you are a follower, you will get better at that too.

Some of these advisors, followers all, don't like the idea of you getting full retail price for something you find that is declared "treasure". Well, it was Sir John Evans who originally pushed for that reward. He knew that if people were not given full value for what they found, then many of them would not report anything at all. I'm sure that both Evans and Petrie really loved getting coins that had a recorded find spot -- I mean, who wouldn't? But they were experienced and steeped in realities. They both knew that most coins have no provenance. They still don't.

They also knew that if you limited yourself to buying things that only had recorded histories then you would not end up with any sort of real collection, just a few souvenirs of other's collections. Not only that, but you will never learn the subject either. Even the British Museum has a great number of coins where they only know where they obtained them and nothing of where they were before. But those advisors have had no experience at all and they don't know that they are wasting their breath. Doing something original is something they just know nothing about at all -- being followers, they hardly ever even witness the process of discovery, they just read of the results and never wonder why. It's all a black box to them.

I have heard from  few detectorists who seem to have listened a bit too much to these followers, because they also condemn trade. Think about it. Do you hate the person who sells you a pair of shoes? Do you always check to see if those shoes were not made in by children in some far-off sweat shop. Is your butcher just greedy when he asks you to pay for those chops? Should great books just be read in public libraries and never bought in bookshops because they are "cultural heritage". I like trees and I prefer to pay my bills online and get emailed invoices. It saves paper. But I'm not going to stop buying books.

I don't believe much in sacred objects, and have no personal fetishes or talismans about the place. I also think that it is admirable to reuse, repurpose and recycle. In fact, I'm thinking about making a few sculptures out of various fragmentary metal detector finds. I hope this does not offend anyone's religious sensibilities, but that is what our forefathers did with stuff. It is history. It is what comprises many archaeological objects: a stone in a wall came from an earlier building -- even the decorated stones of Newgrange. Why is a broken fibula now a fetish object, fit only to be hidden away in a storage cabinet in some university in some box with other bits and pieces from an excavation by one of the high priests of the archaeology department? I'm an iconoclast who studies iconography. How funny is that?

The funniest thing of all is that here are  few people who think that the only British antiquities sold on Ebay should be those that have a Portable Antiquities Record, yet not one of these same people ever sell such recorded objects on Ebay! I happen to think that people should practice what they preach, but followers want to make other followers and think that this will make them leaders. It never does.

You might be familiar with Richard Hatttatt's excellent books on ancient brooches. They are better than what had been published before on the subject. He was a businessman and a collector. Once he had recorded his collection with one of his books, he would sell all of the brooches and then buy more brooches and write another book.

Sooner or later, metal detectorists will get various insights about things, it might be about certain types of things that they find; it might be the history of a place; it might be an interest in a particular period: it can be anything. It might even be an interest in archaeology. For those people, find yourself someone with the same passion and go where it takes you. Don't ask a follower for advice, though. That would be silly. If it is an interest in archaeology, then become a member of the Council for Independent Archaeology. There are no followers there, or wagging fingers, just friendly people with a passion just like yours and it's infectious.

Wherever it takes you, go there, and don't worry about "not being qualified". As Joseph Campbell says: "Follow your bliss". That is the only sort of following that can end up making you a leader. I'm not going to tell you where to go, you will discover that for yourself on the journey. Bon voyage, and bonne chance!


  1. Good stuff as usual John...thanks again. Will be sure to share this series on my blog.

    1. Thanks, Dick, much appreciated. There will be one more post in the series today, and I will wrap it all up tomorrow.

  2. Aaah! The wafting aroma of commonsense and balance. Intoxicating stuff!

    Best regards

    1. Thanks John. I took a chance with the commonsense stuff -- I know there are a few critics who have inabilities in that area, but hopefully they will know someone who can explain it to them ;-)