In Britain, Guys With Metal Detectors Find Respect Along With History

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.

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.

Stout, a Texas resident, said that on his side of the Atlantic, "too many people associate the pastime with the old guy at the beach searching for pennies and dimes."

Eveleigh's 5,913 copper coins were found to date from A.D. 260 to 269 and valued at $83,000. "If they were gold or silver, they would be worth much more," said Eveleigh, an optimistic man who likes to be alone. He will split the money with the landowner, as is customary.

He is delighted his find will be displayed at the National Museum in Cardiff, five miles from his home in Penarth. "One day I'll be gone, and my grandchildren will go to the museum and say, 'My grandfather found that,' " he said.

His 17-year-old grandson remembers the one and only time he joined Eveleigh on a search. "I ended up staying in the car eating a sandwich. It was pouring but he was out for hours, even jumping over fences," he said.

Eveleigh, a retired watch repairman, said only now is he really getting into his hobby, as he nears 80.

"When I rubbed those coins in my hands, I couldn't believe it," he said.

As he walked through a neighbor's horse farm on a recent cloudy day, the signal on his detector grew stronger. He shoved his spade into the soft ground. He found an inch-long piece of metal, encrusted in dirt, that he held close to his pale blue eyes.

"Looks like shrapnel," he surmised.

Bombs were dropped here during World War II, he said as he put his newest find in a worn blue plastic bag, just as he has with 19th-century coins, brooches and shoe buckles on days past.

"I like walking in the country," Eveleigh said. "Sometimes pheasants walk beside me. Sometimes there are rabbits or a view to the sea. It's fantastic. "

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