Tom Dempster - In What Direction Are We Heading?
Tom Dempster - In What Direction Are We Heading?
For those of you who follow my reviews, you will know that most of my writing relates to testing out new and exciting metal detecting-related equipment. However, this article is not a look at the latest item of detecting tech, but it is in fact a look at metal detecting itself.
This wonderful hobby that we all enjoy so much established itself in the 1960’s, then as the technology evolved so did the number of people taking part. In the past 10 years and possibly more so in the last 5, metal detecting has exploded in its popularity. The increase in popularity can be traced back to several factors, firstly the use of social media has allowed metal detectorists to instantly share their finds to a worldwide population. For the most part, these finds can at a glance look like a museum quality collection of extraordinary gems of history. But I am sure that most of us are guilty of only posting up photos of the artefacts that we are most proud of. In turn this can appear to the lay person to be the norm, it could seem to those who are looking in from the outside that each time we turn on our metal detectors we are simply tripping over stunning pieces from our past. But for those of us who have spent even the shortest amount of time hunting for history, we are all too aware of the stark reality!
Metal detecting in is rawest form is quite simple, it is one person and their metal detector quietly wandering the UK’s stunning countryside, digging up many items of rubbish and scrap. But with each signal we all hope that it could be the one, we hope that when we turn over that clod of earth, we will be greeted by something that will make our hearts race. Sadly, this is a rare occurrence, but true to our hobby we continue, and that perseverance sometimes pays off. On those rare occasions when we find that perfect piece of history, we are reminded why we do what we do.
Being the first person to hold a Bronze Age axe head that was last seen over 3000 years ago is a feeling that cannot be described. Or to find that perfect silver hammered coin that was dropped and lost some 800 years before our time but still looks as perfect as the day it was struck, still makes me smile. Nothing can beat that amazing shine there in the hole as you see that ancient golden artefact.
So, with that said it is little wonder so many of us decide to take up this truly inspiring and wonderful hobby.
But sadly, it is not all that easy.
One event that I consider to be a catalyst to the surge in the popularity of metal detecting was the release of one of the finest TV comedies to date. The series in question is none other than the wonderful creation of McKenzie Crook, “The Detectorists”. This TV series appealed not only to the metal detecting enthusiast, but to a much wider audience. The beautiful cinematography and the warm, bumbling, enchanting script had us all coming back for more. As a result, a vast number of people decided to look toward metal detecting, this along with the upsurge of affordable high end metal detectors meant that the newcomer could not resist.
Regardless of the type of metal detector you buy, the buying of your first machine is the easy part. What is often overlooked is the prickly subject of gaining the permission for somewhere to detect. It seems as more and more people enter this hobby land has become a premium commodity. There are countless tales of people being turned away by farmers and landowners, or it seems that their local area already has a tenant detectorist occupying the available land. Then there are those who bring our hobby into the media for the wrong reasons, it seems that all too often the press are reporting on people illegally detecting land and national monuments. Or there are the high-profile cases of detectorists striking it lucky, finding a hoard or an item of historical significance but choosing not to follow the correct path of reporting it to the relevant agencies, instead trying to sell their finds on the black market. This negative press has not gone unnoticed by the farmers and landowners, the result is that most landowners are reticent to allow strangers onto their land. This is of course completely understandable, as the land is their livelihood, they are busy enough without trying to manage potential unscrupulous treasure hunters too.
All these factors can only result in one conclusion, that conclusion is that this wonderful hobby will eventually become governed and controlled. With the production of reality television programs with titles like “Treasure Hunt” that focus not on the historical relevance, but sadly concentrate and promote the monetary value of finds, it has possibly set-in motion the beginning of the end.
Very recently, an attempt to unnecessarily regulate our hobby was undertaken. This proposed governing body has been supported by the Portable Antiquities Scheme, including the archaeological community, but it was met by an unprecedented boycott and stand against its creation by the metal detecting community. This united stand against an unwanted intrusion into our hobby stemmed from our love and passion for what we do.
We do not take part in this hobby for monetary gains, we do it because we are enthused and passionate about the rich history beneath our feet. It is a hobby that allows us to be insular when we require it, or we can embrace the friendships and socialisation that it can provide. I personally can think of nothing I would rather do than wander through stunning scenery with my trusty German Shepherd and my metal detector. It offers a time to think and contemplate, it allows us to unwind and forget our troubles and if we are lucky, every now and then the land offers us up an artefact that makes us smile.
Another contributing factor that has highlighted our hobby to the PAS and archaeological world is the growing number of large, organised metal detecting events.
These events can often see hundreds of metal detectorists travelling from all over the UK and often other countries, to hopefully find their coveted bucket list items. These events have in some cases become huge corporate affairs, they can and do generate huge sums of money for the organisers. Regardless of your opinion or stance on these events, there are some factors that need to be considered. Firstly, there is the topic of the finds themselves, the fact that someone can travel from a different country, potentially find a historically significant artefact, potentially return to their country without the item ever being recorded, is what the archaeological world is most concerned about. Now I do understand that in most cases these large, organised events invite Archaeologists and Finds Liaison Officers to attend, and in doing so represent themselves and us in the correct light. The job of these FLO’s and Archaeologists’ is to record, log and photograph any finds of interest, but sadly this is not the case at all events. This is one of the main reasons why the archaeological world are pushing for tighter regulations for metal detecting. Another important consideration is that the large events can all too often mean that the smaller local clubs, or individual diggers are literally priced out of the area. The large sums of money that can be generated by these events mean that the organisers can pay the farmers healthy sums of money. This land rental often comes with rights of exclusivity, meaning that only the large events are allowed access to the land, and as a result the smaller clubs and other detectorists are turned away.
So, where do we go from here?
Well firstly I strongly believe the answer is not to regulate the individual detectorist, I have thought for some time that it is the organised events that should be regulated. If the attendance of Archaeologists and FLO’s were mandatory at these events, it could manage and control the recording of artefacts. This control would in turn appease The Professionals and ease their concerns regarding finds. Equally the effort and funds that have been placed into the attempt to regulate metal detecting would have been better spent assisting the PAS and Scottish Treasure Trove to process finds more efficiently. I know from experience that the TT is understaffed, their system is clunky and barely functioning. More funding, staffing and other changes could allow their process to be smoother, more efficient and in turn encourage more people to report their finds. The frustratingly slow turnaround times, the poor communications with the finder and often unfair rewards for claimed artefacts, all serve to make the finder less likely to report their finds. A thorough shake up of this system would without doubt improve relations between The Professionals and the detectorists.
The reality of metal detecting is this, the land underneath our feet does not have an infinite supply of ancient artefacts, the history we find is not like a crop of vegetables that can be replanted for the next year. So, with that in mind we need to be grateful for the artefacts that we do find, we need to embrace and enjoy this hobby for as long as we can. We do not need any governing body; we certainly do not need to be licenced or regulated. What we need is to be allowed to continue what we are doing for as long as we can. We will continue to report our significant finds, we will continue to abide by the code of conduct because to enjoy this hobby fully we all need to be enthusiasts of history, after all that is why we do it.
Setting aside the few, those who are in it for money, or those who do not abide by the rules, the rest of us take part in metal detecting for many reasons. For some it is the excitement of the unexpected, for others it is their deep founded passion for history, some of you may even use it as an escape from your daily grind. Whatever your reason for stepping out into the fields and countryside with your trusty metal detector, we must accept that there will be change. There are many other hobbies and sports that were once relatively unheard of, open water swimming and fellrunning are good examples. These two sports were at one time enjoyed by just a handful of people, there were no regulations or controls. But as they grew in popularity so did the awareness of the sports, and with that awareness came regulations, these regulations were essential to control those who did not have the sports best interest at heart.
Did those regulations frustrate those that had been there from the start? Of course!
Fellrunning is a prime example of the evolution of a hobby. It was not that long ago that each race was attended by just a handful of the same dedicated people, these were experienced mountain runners, they knew how to take care of themselves and those around them. But as the sport grew in popularity it meant that runners from cities wanted to try their hand at running in the mountains. Some of these people had no experience of the environment that they were running in; they had limited navigational abilities and were unaware of what equipment they needed. Inevitably there were accidents and sadly deaths, that started the ball rolling for regulations.
The result of this is that now there are entry fees, kit inspections, marshals and hundreds of people turning up to one race, meaning that the once quiet fells are now something akin to the M25 at rush hour. But do the original people still race? Yes of course they do, but they must now run and race in a hobby that has changed.
So where am I going with this tangent?
Change is coming, like it or not there is nothing we can do about it, but we can to some extent control the outcome. If we continue to self-regulate in the same way we have been doing for all these years, if we abide by the codes of conduct and if we continue to show our hobby in the best possible light then hopefully the change will be slow and progressive, but change will come. We all play a part in its outcome, so it is up to us all to make sure that we make that change as painless as we can.
I truly hope that we can all continue to enjoy our hobby for many years to come and that we can all continue to be amazed by the finds that are still yet to be unearthed. After all, the UK is one of the most history packed places on our planet!