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In Britain, Amateurs With Metal Detectors Win Archaeological Respect
British authorities estimate there are about 10,000 metal-detecting enthusiasts and say the vast majority are responsible people who obey the law, seek permission to go on private land and even watch out for thieves. Also, by working with detectorists, offering to authenticate objects and paying market value for those declared treasure, British museums aim to minimize the number of antiquities quietly dug up and sold on eBay.
In many European countries, buried treasures recovered from the soil and not traced to any family are deemed state property; often a relatively small fee is paid to the finder. That is also seen as a reason many finders choose to keep secret their discoveries and sell them privately.
Since the 1996 Treasure Act became law, finders in Britain are offered market value for their discoveries, and museums have the first option to buy official treasures.
Mark Lodwick is an archaeologist at the National Museum Wales who works out of the back room of the grand museum in Cardiff.
He is part of a network of "finds liaison officers" -- archaeologists throughout England and Wales who regularly attend metal-detectorist club meetings so people know to call them when they hit a relic.
"Every day the phone rings," Lodwick said.
His office is cluttered with labeled plastic bags full of items brought to him by collectors, most of whom are men, he said. He visits sites where significant artifacts are found, such as the field where Eveleigh unearthed his hoard of coins in two broken pots.
The overwhelming majority of items turned over to museum archaeologists are returned to the finders after their information is recorded.
Rare discoveries -- such as the million-dollar 10th-century Viking treasure trove a father and son discovered with their metal detectors two years ago -- receive extensive publicity. But most have little commercial value -- cracked pieces of medieval pottery, for instance -- though archaeologists and enthusiasts still cherish what they tell of life centuries ago.
"If you want to get into metal detecting to make a profit, forget it," said Trevor Austin, general secretary for the National Council for Metal Detecting, a body that represents those in the hobby. "As a general rule, people get into it for the historical aspect, to find a Roman or medieval coin -- that's the interest."
Americans come to Britain to pursue the hobby here because of the liberal laws and the richness of the country's buried bounty.
Dick Stout, founder of the Federation of Metal Detector and Archaeological Clubs in the United States, said there have been only rare examples of U.S. archaeologists working with detectorists. After a fire swept through the Little Bighorn Battlefield in eastern Montana in 1984, a team of detectorists helped find remnants of battles where George Armstrong Custer made his famous last stand.