1.2 Background: the history of portable antiquities research

Metal-detector users and archaeologists have always had an ambivalent relationship. Metal-detecting probably reached the peak of its popularity in England around 1980, although the equipment is now more refined and the users more proficient. By the time of the first comprehensive survey of metal-detecting in England in 1995 it was estimated that there were still perhaps 30,000 detector users, of whom about 12,000 belonged to clubs affiliated to the National Council for Metal Detecting, and a further 3,000 were members of the Federation of Independent Detectorists (Dobinson and Denison 1995). It has been estimated that there are still some 8,000 or so metal-detector users active in England and Wales (Paynton 2006).

The effects of detecting are difficult to quantify, but it is clear that tens of thousands of artefacts are recovered annually. The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) database has records of over 200,000 archaeological objects, but this largely reflects only recently reported finds, and it is probably the tip of the iceberg (Paynton 2006). At the British Museum, for instance, about two-thirds of all Anglo-Saxon, medieval and post-medieval metal artefacts seen between 1988 and 1995 were found by detector users, together with nearly nine out of ten hoards and about half of all coins (Dobinson and Denison 1995). These finds have the potential to transform our knowledge of past material culture and, if find spot information is recorded, to revolutionise our knowledge of settlement and trading patterns as well (see e.g. Naylor 2004; Ulmschneider 1999; 2000a).

Initial archaeological reactions to the growth of the hobby were largely negative and many archaeologists accused so-called 'treasure hunters' of looting archaeological sites, destroying the nation's past without proper record. Nowadays there is wider acceptance that, apart from a small number of illegal nighthawks (despised as much by other detector users as by archaeologists), the majority of detector users in England operate responsibly, with a genuine interest in the past and detailed knowledge of artefacts and archaeology (Paynton 2006). It is recognised that the real culprit is modern agricultural practice and that most finds are recovered from the ploughsoil, in which they are being abraded with each new ploughing and would eventually be destroyed without record if it were not for the activities of detector users. Nonetheless, the subject still gives rise to strong opinions, as a scan of britarch, the online discussion forum for British Archaeology, quickly reveals (see also papers in Stone and Thomas forthcoming). From an early stage, however, some archaeologists recognised that it was important to try to work with metal-detector users. The late Tony Gregory in Norfolk, as well as Kevin Leahy in Lincolnshire, encouraged responsible metal-detector users to report their finds and to record their provenance. In East Anglia, where many Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Scandinavian sites are known solely from detected finds the tradition of cooperation has been maintained by John Newman in Suffolk, Andrew Rogerson in Norfolk, and by the late Sue Margeson and her successor, Tim Pestell, at Norwich Castle Museum. However, in the 1990s, during discussions leading up to the passing of the 1996 Treasure Act, it was recognised that there was a pressing need to establish a national scheme to record artefacts recovered by members of the public. This led to the establishment of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

The value of metal-detecting for our understanding of the period AD 700-1000 is particularly acute. The bleak picture painted by David Hinton over 30 years ago (Hinton 1975), when the limited corpus of Anglo-Saxon artefacts could only provide very broad chronological, cultural and regional trends, has been replaced by a wealth of data. By the time of the survey of metal-detecting by Dobinson and Denison (1995) 69% of Anglo-Saxon metalwork finds discovered between 1988 and 1993 had been metal-detected. There is an analogous situation on the Continent. Pedersen (2005) and Henriksen (2006) have discussed the information gained from Viking Age finds reported in Denmark, and there have been similar advances in Sweden (Hårdh 2005) where 20,000 finds were recovered from Uppåkra between 1996 and 2003. In lowland England early medieval settlements have been particularly unresponsive to traditional survey methods, but the large quantities of copper alloy objects in circulation have meant that Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Scandinavian objects are well represented, and that many hitherto unknown sites have been discovered. Indeed, the only known Viking inhumation cemetery from England, at Cumwhitton in Cumbria, was discovered by a metal-detector user (Brennand 2006). The use of the metal detector has even given rise to a new category of site, referred to as the 'productive site' by detectorists, a term that has now entered the academic vernacular (see Section 4). It is, however, argued that these are simply a product of the means of recovery, and that many excavated sites are similarly 'productive', if the number of non-ferrous metal objects is quantified (Richards 1999a).

Nonetheless, Cottam, East Yorkshire (Richards 1999b), remains one of the few excavated and published 'productive sites' where occupation extends into the Anglo-Scandinavian period. Many more sites are known only from concentrations of objects and coins. With the extension of the Portable Antiquities Scheme into a national database, there is huge potential to exploit the research value of this data. There is also an existing corpus of early medieval coin finds, maintained at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, but archaeologists and numismatists have tended to study the coins and the other metal finds in isolation from each other. In a study of the productive site at South Newbald, Kevin Leahy (2000) has demonstrated the potential of producing graphs of coins and proportions of other object types to date the range of sites and distinguish between types of settlement. Comparison of Cottam and Wharram Percy (Richards 1999a) has revealed that the 'productive site' term is misleading and that sites have been artificially separated by their mode of discovery and excavation. Nonetheless, statistical analysis can allow categories of rural site to be defined, and compared with urban assemblages. It is also important to compare coins with other artefacts; at some sites, for example, it is apparent that coin usage ceases in the 10th century while other metalwork demonstrates that activity continues. When studied together, coins and metalwork can act as controls for each other.


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