Irish Metal Detectorists: Saints or Sinners?


At present, in Ireland, it is illegal to use a metal detector without a license and these licenses are very difficult to obtain + very restrictive in terms of where one can use a metal detector.  At face value, it is a common sense law designed to protect Ireland’s rich archaeological heritage from vandals, looters and thieves.

Allegedly, this new law is driving detectorists underground, with many secretly selling their finds in Northern Ireland and England.  A thriving black market exists for these artifacts – coins, tokens, buttons, pottery, bronze weapons and tools, gold jewellery, etc.  Irish auction houses have a good reputation in terms of refusing to sell goods on behalf of people they suspect of looting or theft but auction houses in London have a long history of selling archaeological treasures smuggled out of foreign countries for the London and international antiquities markets.

Gold Lunula (2010:246) and Gold Discs (2010:247, 2010:248), Coggalbeg, Co. Roscommon. In 1947, for reasons still uncertain, Hubert Lannon handed these golden objects over to Mr Patrick Sheenan, a pharmacist in the town of Strokestown, Co. Roscommon. It appears that neither man fully appreciated the value of the artefacts and the National Museum of Ireland was not notified of their existence. Instead, Mr. Sheenan placed the artefacts in his family safe where they were to remain hidden for the next 50 years, only occasionally being brought out and shown to curious visitors.

Gold Lunula (2010:246) and Gold Discs (2010:247, 2010:248), Coggalbeg, Co. Roscommon. In 1947, for reasons still uncertain, Hubert Lannon handed these golden objects over to Mr Patrick Sheenan, a pharmacist in the town of Strokestown, Co. Roscommon. It appears that neither man fully appreciated the value of the artefacts and the National Museum of Ireland was not notified of their existence. Instead, Mr. Sheenan placed the artefacts in his family safe where they were to remain hidden for the next 50 years, only occasionally being brought out and shown to curious visitors.

Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) in the UK

The British Museum, in conjunction with academics at Oxford, Cambridge and other educational institutions came up with the idea of a voluntary scheme whereby finders of treasure could record and report their finds in a scientific way – thus not losing valuable contextual information.  They developed a process whereby :-

  1. All finds are reported, geo-located and described
  2. There is a process whereby important finds are quickly ‘flagged’ and acted upon
  3. All information is made available
  4. Additional information, when known, is added later, e.g. archaeologist(s) opinions

Early critics of PAS opined that it would “open up the floodgates to organised gangs” of thieves, looters and vandals of archaeological sites.  The actual outcome is very different.

  • Firstly, the small number of thieves and looters remains small
    • It seems that there will always be a small criminal element within the antiquities marketplace
    • The evidence suggests that this criminal element of thieves and looters remains small
    • The evidence also suggests that detectorists actively self-regulate and even ‘self-police’ their find sites
  • A big growth in numbers occurs in organised metal detecting clubs, who do not steal or loot
    • These people are local historians, numismatists and amateur archaeologists
    • They are there to add to their own knowledge + add to local and national knowledge
    • Many of them undertake academic courses to help their further their knowledge
    • They also seem to be very generous about sharing their knowledge – something some academics are not good at !
  • The number of recorded finds has increased dramatically
    • This has great benefits for academia, i.e. a vast, completely new database to analyse
    • Many of these finds were of national importance
    • Most of the finds were not in the vicinity of national monuments
    • Most of the sites were not previously known to archaeologists
  • All of these finds are now recorded and can be analysed
    • The PAS database can be accessed by both professionals and amateurs alike
    • Irish numismatic knowledge has also benefited from hundreds of Irish coin finds in England
    • Irish archaeology has likewise benefited (just login and view the Irish artefacts)

More than a million archaeological objects recovered by members of the public from across England and Wales have been recorded on the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) database since 1997.

  • 26th September 2014 – Portable Antiquities Scheme records one millionth find
  • Some 87 PhDs and 15 major research-council funded projects are known to be using this data set
    • 422 Masters or Bachelors dissertations are also known to be using the data
    • Currently 815 people have full access to PAS data for research purposes
    • This is a massive ‘win’ for academia
  • Professional and academic archaeology has benefited greatly from their finds
    • There are now more ‘eyes and ears’ out in the courtryside reporting to academia
    • Once an important find has been ‘flagged’ a site can be ‘locked down’
    • Professional archaeologists can then move on to the site in a timely manner
    • These ‘new’ sites can now be protected, instead of ‘robbed out’ by the criminal elements

Many of the amateur archaeologists of the 19th century are quite rightly viewed by modern archaeologists are bunglers at best and looters at worst.  Many of their finds were undocumented, dug without any due regard to context and often ended up as trophies in wealthy landowners’ cabinets.  Worse still, many hoards were broken up before any scientific enquiry could be made and are now lost to archaeology. The academic literature is littered with such references.

Modern-day detectorists seem to be a different breed, with different motives and a much more responsible attitude. 

  • Many new sites of national and international importance have been discovered by this new breed of amateur archaeologist
    • Metal detecting clubs are thriving
    • They have rules + recording procedures + codes of conduct
    • Landowners, too, are better informed and better treated by both detectorists and professional archaeologists
    • There is now a place for ‘honest’ metal detecting enthusiasts to go
    • They organise group activities, educational initiatives and liaise with professionals
  • Local museums now have huge amounts of ‘local archaeology’ to display
    • A large percentage of these finds have been handed over ‘free of charge’ to them
    • The National Lottery also partially funds acquisitions

Major Finds by PAS

  • The Staffordshire Hoard, dating to the 7th century – the largest ever Anglo-Saxon hoard of gold and silver, mostly consisting of war-gear, including some object-types that continue to puzzle archaeologists.
  • The Frome (Somerset) Hoard – the largest ever Roman coin hoard found in a single vessel, consisting of 52,503 coins, deposited in in c.290.
    • This is one of 500 Romans coins hoards discovered since 1997
    • Their deposition is leading archaeologists to rethink why hoards were buried in Roman times
  • Two of the largest ever Viking Age hoards found were recorded through the PAS.
    • The Vale of York Hoard (682 objects)
    • The Silverdale, Lancashire Hoard (201 objects)
    • Both hoards, of early 10th C date, highlight the extent of Viking expansion across England.
  • Two of the largest ever Bronze Age hoards were recorded through the PAS.
    • The Langton Matravers (Dorset) Hoard (777 objects found in 2007)
    • The Boughton Malherbe (Kent) Hoard (352 objects found in 2011).
    • Such hoards were once thought to be metalworking scrap, but archaeologists now believe they were deposited ritually, perhaps as offerings to lost gods.
  • The PAS has revealed three hitherto unknown rulers who have come to light through coin finds recorded by the scheme:
    • Anarevito (an Iron Age chieftain, c.20 BC-c.AD 10)
    • Domitianus II (a Roman emperor, c.271)
    • Harthacnut (Viking ruler of York, c.900)

Could Ireland benefit from a similar scheme ???

Critics of such a move point out that PAS costs over £1,000,000 sterling to run per year !

But, are we (in Ireland) missing out on valuable finds and information?

By closing the gate on the genuine detectorists, are we leaving the field to the thieves and looters?

Is Irish archaeology losing important (unknown) sites to the criminals, while they smuggle their ill-gotten gains out of the country?

  • Every new site discovered by a genuine detectorist = 1 less site for the looters to exploit
  • Every new site discovered by a genuine detectorist = 1 new site for professional Irish archaeologists/academics to study

If we had a similar system to PAS, would Irish archaeology benefit?

Yes, I believe it would

I also believe we should have a new system to ‘categorise’ finds + fund their preservation and/or further research into the artefacts and/or the find site.

  • Type A = finds of international importance
  • Type B = finds of national importance
  • Type C = finds of local (county council / urban district) importance
  • Type D = finder/landowner keep the find(s)

There is a huge interest in local history throughout Ireland and many libraries have a local history section with online databases, shared photographic archives and a thriving local scene in local history socieities, local photography clubs and other ‘local’ initiatives.  I believe a local detectorist club would sit nicely alongside these other ‘local’ interest groups.

  • It would be a huge deterrent to those involved in criminal activities
  • It would, I believe, also result in local fundraising for local museums and local history education grants

This is what has happened in England & Wales since the inception of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. 

—————————————————————————————

By way of achieving a balance, the following is a post to a numismatic forum on Boards.ie

  • It delivers a rebuke to the notion that PAS would work here in Ireland
  • It is written by a professional archaeologist
  • Although it is the opinion of one person, I think it clearly expresses their profession’s viewpoint

Further reading:

Advertisements

One thought on “Irish Metal Detectorists: Saints or Sinners?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s