1. Introduction

Over the last 30 years the discipline of battlefield archaeology, or conflict archaeology as it is more accurately known, has been closely associated with one tool—the metal detector. The ability of a metal detector to pin-point the location of individual metal objects accurately in the topsoil has played a central role in the development of methodological approaches to the investigation of battlefields as archaeological sites. Inevitably, this direction has resulted in a unique relationship between battlefield archaeologists and those who participate in metal detecting as a hobby. Battlefield archaeology as a discipline has worked extensively with metal detectorists, and has arguably achieved more than any other area of archaeology in the UK, with the exception of the Portable Antiquities Scheme and Treasure Trove, in developing relations and encouraging dialogue. Rather than being consigned to the spoil heaps as a nod to community engagement (where they can do little damage) metal detectorists have played key roles alongside archaeologists within battlefield surveys. This relationship is, however, complex and often contradictory in nature. The methodological approach of battlefield archaeology regularly requires the experienced assistance of metal detectorists in order to recover and record artefact material effectively from sites of conflict for the purposes of understanding their character and form. Yet, over the last decade questions have arisen relating to the impact of metal detecting activity on sites of conflict in the UK. Addressing these issues requires striking a balance between recognising the right of those to conduct responsible metal detecting as a hobby and the need to protect battlefields as archaeologically sensitive landscapes.

Although increasing development and intensive agricultural practices may be regarded as a significant factor in the erosion of battlefield heritage, so too can the unrecorded removal of battle-related artefacts through the activities of hobbyist metal detecting (Foard 2008, 241; English Heritage 2012). This view has been prompted by events such as the large-scale metal detecting rally held in 2003 on an area of the English Civil War battlefield of Marston Moor, 1644. The rally involved over 300 participants and it was estimated that between 300 and 3000 unrecorded artefacts relating to the battlefield had been removed from the site (Sutherland 2004). Added to this are the thousands of battle-related artefacts on sale on the internet auction site eBay, many of which appear to have originated from both known and previously unknown sites of conflict across the UK (Ferguson 2011). It is this kind of activity that lies at the core of frictions between battlefield archaeologists and metal detectorists.

It would, however, be disingenuous to focus entirely on the negative impact of hobbyist metal detecting on battlefield archaeology when it is clear that a number of individuals within the hobby have significantly contributed to our knowledge of sites of conflict through systematic and responsible metal detecting. We must also, however, not be frightened to ask difficult questions even at the risk of threatening good relations. Questions such as, are we encouraging activity by involving hobbyist metal detectorists in battlefield archaeology projects, or teaching recording skills? Should we be looking to ban all metal detecting on sites of conflict, or is it enough to build awareness of their fragile nature?

Drawing on results and case studies from the author's doctoral research (Ferguson forthcoming), this article will explore the role of hobbyist metal detecting within battlefield archaeology, with an equal focus on both the negative and positive contributions of the hobby as a whole. The purpose of this article is not to divide the hobby as either having an impact or contributing, since these two processes are not mutually exclusive. Instead it will aim to consider the nature and extent of hobbyist metal detecting on UK battlefields and understand the motivations behind such activity. It will also consider the value placed on battle-related material by metal detectorists, and how this view may be influenced by the archaeologists' own inconsistent approach to valuing this important battlefield heritage. Firstly, it is perhaps necessary to reflect on the terminology in relation to battlefield archaeology and the activity of hobbyist metal detecting in the UK, as it forms the basis of much of the discussion that follows.


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