In Britain, Amateurs With Metal Detectors Win Archaeological Respect

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, May 11, 2009

PENARTH, Wales -- Derek Eveleigh walked carefully, searching for buried treasure.

"It's such a thrill when I find something -- and I often do," Eveleigh said as he listened to the steady beeps of his metal detector. Not far away from this Welsh seaside town, he recently found 6,000 copper coins dating to the Roman Empire.

"It turned out they were 1,700 years old! Many emperors ago," said Eveleigh, 79, one of thousands of British "metal detectorists" who search for history as a hobby.

While archaeologists in many countries, including the United States, disparage amateurs like Eveleigh, Britain embraces them. Last year alone, 4,300 metal detectorists reported tens of thousands of finds: Bronze Age axes, Roman brooches and hairpins, medieval candlesticks and swords, and thousands of other relics.

Before museum archaeologists began working with metal detector enthusiasts a decade ago, only about 25 reported discoveries annually met the official definition of "treasure" -- the most rare finds, which include gold and silver caches more than 300 years old. Every year since, that number has soared, hitting 802 last year.

"The collections in our museums would be thinner without the detectorists' finds," said Roger Bland, head of Portable Antiquities and Treasure at the British Museum in London, as he pointed out jewelry, coins and other displays found by weekend warriors combing fields for fun.

All around the world, long-buried antiquities are turning up as modern farm machinery plows ever deeper into the soil. At the same time, more sophisticated detectors can pinpoint coins, swords, necklaces, knives and other relics hidden deeper underground.

This has alarmed many.

Looters are sneaking onto protected historical sites -- Civil War battlefields in the United States, archaeological sites in Thailand, cemeteries in Italy -- and finding objects to sell privately.

In England, these thieves with metal detectors are called "nighthawks." People are prohibited from bringing detectors onto protected historical sites and monuments, but many holes in the ground have been discovered where items have been removed.

In Ireland, as in many countries, the use of metal detectors is restricted.

Nessa O'Connor, archaeological curator at the National Museum of Ireland, said there is concern that treasure seekers will "dig a hole through an Iron Age burial" to get a brooch and destroy the historical information that could be gleaned from a careful unearthing.

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