4. Metal-detector users in France: impact on archaeology and psychological profile

Although volunteer archaeologists may be users of metal detectors, not all metal-detector users are volunteer archaeologists. This distinction is fundamental because it serves to distinguish between very different populations.

4.1. UMDs as seen by the French public sector

Apart from the legal documents previously referred to, there were no documents explicitly stating the position of the administration regarding UMDs or volunteer archaeologists until a recent report by the Conseil National de la Recherche Archéologique (CNRA). This council is a consultative service responsible to the Minister of Culture and Communication, which appoints experts based on proposals from the various participants in archaeological research. The CNRA has jurisdiction over issues relating to archaeological research within the national territory and is also contributing to setting up planned interdepartmental policies within the field of archaeology.

During the night of 8 to 9 February 2010, looters equipped with metal detectors entered an INRAP archaeological survey site at Noyon (Oise). They dug around a hundred holes, which enabled them to leave with coins and antique fibulae, as well as strapping copper and shrapnel from the First World War. Following the plundering of this site, Frédéric Mitterand, the Minister of Culture and Communication, asked for a report from the CNRA on the impact of metal detector use in France. This report, entitled 'Metal Detectors and Pillage: national archaeological heritage in danger' was delivered in February 2011.

In the absence of any real statistical data, the report's experts were limited to figures supplied by the association Halte au Pillage du Patrimoine Archéologique et Historique (HAPPAH), which exists to fight against looting, degradation, destruction and theft of archaeological and historical heritage in France and abroad. The number of UMDs is officially estimated at around 10,000 prospectors, as a conservative estimate (HAPPAH n.d. a). The number of objects pillaged each year is estimated at over 10 million, despite the publication of decree no. 91-787 of 19 August 1991, which relates to the protection of public collections against malicious acts involving the use of metal detectors. This last figure does not only apply to the pillage of identified archaeological sites, whether during survey or during rescue or programmed excavations, but to all metal detector use carried out without official authorisation. On this point, the report states that unsupervised metal detector use is responsible for the destruction of much French archaeological heritage.

This condemnation of metal detector use and, by extension, of UMDs, is, however, tempered by the CNRA experts themselves. They recognise two major flaws in the French system: shortcomings in applying the law and a lack of awareness on the part of both the wider public and heritage professionals (including archaeologists, whether lecturers, researchers or other, as well as historians, curators, scientific investigators, local authority representatives etc.) about these issues. From ArkéoTopia's point of view, the major problem in France is not so much the current law's clarity but the absence of a real application of the law. This problem is easily explained by the gap separating the evolution of the position of archaeologists in relation to their object of study and politicians' understanding of it. As a result, hobby detection continues, a situation that was formerly tolerated, but can no longer be today. These shortcomings stem notably from a lack of evolution of educational practices within a discipline undergoing constant evolution. Similarly, it can be added that illegal prospection, which is here singled out, has had the merit of bringing to light two things: on the one hand the shortcomings of the executive and on the other a reconsideration of the often-disparaged place of voluntary archaeologists and of archaeology in our daily life. The demotion of History and Geography from being core subjects to optional subjects in the final year of school for those preparing for the scientific Baccalaureate is a recent example as is the attitude of some professionals towards voluntary archaeologists.

The CNRA's experts distinguished between UMDs and voluntary archaeologists. Indeed, among other solutions, they suggest educating those 'curious about history and passionate about the past, currently equipped with metal detectors [so that they renounce] using metal detectors freely wherever they wish, following the example of archaeologists (professional or amateur) who cannot intervene freely or without authorisation' (CNRA 2011, 5). The report thus officially recognises the existence of voluntary archaeologists and even associations of volunteers, which is a first. While some unions and professionals are trying, for various reasons, to silence this fringe of the archaeological community (from which nonetheless professionals originate), the CNRA experts display an innovative approach, which respects the history of archaeology. The report opens a channel for reconciliation showing that the authorities are aware of a need within the general public, which is not in opposition to scientific interests. On the other hand, it criminalises a desire to collect or to make a fortune, which is considered by the experts as being the motivation behind metal detector use without authorisation. Voluntary archaeologists rarely complain publicly about how they are denigrated or dismissed. This is why the text written on the web site of the Legio VI Victrix association by Philippe Ferrando, a voluntary archaeologist known for his work on numismatics is so valuable. Referring to Xavier Deslestré, the Regional Curator of Archaeology for the Provence-Alpes-Côte-d'Azur region within the heritage department of the Direction Régional des Affaires Culturelles (DRAC), he notes that 'the current curator, in place since the 1990s, [has] not understood the importance of amateurs'. Another example was when Jean-Pierre Houdin's internal ramp theory for the building of the pyramid of Khufu was called far-fetched by Jean-Claude Golvin in the magazine Le Point (2007, 83).


Internet Archaeology is an open access journal based in the Department of Archaeology, University of York. Except where otherwise noted, content from this work may be used under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (CC BY) Unported licence, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided that attribution to the author(s), the title of the work, the Internet Archaeology journal and the relevant URL/DOI are given.

Terms and Conditions | Legal Statements | Privacy Policy | Cookies Policy | Citing Internet Archaeology

Internet Archaeology content is preserved for the long term with the Archaeology Data Service. Help sustain and support open access publication by donating to our Open Access Archaeology Fund.

File last updated: Tue Mar 5 2013