3. Defining Metal Detecting as an Activity

The activity of metal detecting may be associated with a myriad of terms, all of which reflect the different ways people perceive and interact with it, whether from a social, academic or professional standpoint. Throughout this article the author will highlight terms such as looter, treasure hunter, hobbyist, volunteer and professional, all of which are used on a regular basis in both positive and negative lights to describe metal detecting activity. As will be demonstrated in the examples discussed, failure to recognise the complexities of metal detecting as an activity and its propensity to transform and adapt itself may, in certain circumstances, have direct consequences on our ability to manage battlefield heritage effectively in the UK.

The term 'treasure hunter' was in common use in the UK before the 1980s; however, it is now regarded as a derogatory term synonymous with looter, as accentuated in heritage protests such as the STOP! campaign organised by the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) in the 1980s (Addyman 2009, 53). In many quarters the term is used to generate the perception that metal detectorists search only for valuable objects to sell rather than pursuing an interest in, or contributing to, an understanding of the past. Although finding objects with the aim of selling them may be the motivation for a minority of metal detectorists, the vast majority regard the activity as a hobby that they undertake in their spare time.

Research carried out by Stebbins (1992), which aimed to map the dynamics of work and leisure, provides a robust framework with which to understand the motivations of those who engage with metal detecting. Stebbins describes a hobby as a leisure pursuit and one that 'bears no resemblance to ordinary working roles' (1992, 10). He goes on to identify those who practice a hobby to be 'serious about and committed to their endeavours, even though they feel neither a social necessity nor a personal obligation to engage with them' (1992, 11). This provides an apt definition of the activity of metal detecting and one which the metal detecting community recognises, with Trevor Austin, General Secretary of the National Council for Metal Detecting (NCMD), describing it as a 'legitimate recreational hobby' (2009, 119). The vast majority of those who metal detect choose to do so out of an interest in history and archaeology; to socialise and to keep active. Other uses of a metal detector occurring outwith the hobby i.e. the looting of archaeological sites deliberately for the purpose of later sale of recovered artefacts, may be described as nighthawking and represents illegal activity (English Heritage 2009; Campbell and Thomas 2012). The description of metal detecting as a hobby should not be regarded as demeaning, as it does not reflect negatively on the level of skill and expertise that may be achieved by individuals, or the time and effort given over to it; they are, as Stebbins highlights, 'serious' and 'committed'. Hobbyist metal detecting, together with martial arts training, dog showing and bird watching, may be further understood as 'serious leisure', defined by Stebbins as

'the systematic pursuit of an amateur, hobbyist or volunteer activity that is sufficiently substantial and interesting for the participant to find a career there in the acquisition and expression of its special skills and knowledge' (Stebbins 1992, 3).

'Serious leisure' recognises that although hobbyist metal detecting may be a rewarding and enjoyable experience with 'durable benefits' such as social interaction, personal enhancement and knowledge, it requires a great deal of personal effort and perseverance. This includes travelling long distances to events, money on equipment and spending time in the wet and cold, sometimes with little gain. The need to communicate with external bodies such as archaeologists and landowners may also be regarded as a stressful experience leading to anxiety about further interaction. Interestingly, 'serious leisure' also recognises that pursuits of this nature generate a 'unique ethos' developing into broad sub-cultures with their own exclusive events, values and traditions with which they identify strongly; metal detectorists often define themselves as a 'community'. Metal detecting as a hobby is therefore 'identity intensive', and may in some circumst ances eclipse the 'real world' experiences of family and work (Gillespie et al. 2002, 286).

'Serious leisure' allows us to explore in detail the nuances and complexities of engaging with a hobby like metal detecting. Importantly, it allows us to understand the motivations of those who engage with it by appreciating the level of time and effort invested, as well as identifying sources of stress and frustration. For example, when engaging metal detectorists as skilled volunteers within battlefield archaeology projects an alternative approach is required, because when assisting in a metal detector survey they are often required to adapt, and in many cases alter, current modes of practice; modes that are defined within a recreational or hobbyist environment and are therefore personal to the individual. Imposing margins, such as working in transects or using 'all metal' settings to pick up iron signals, may become a potential cause of conflict if it is not understood or accepted why such adaptations are necessary; particularly as it must be done within an environment they are already familiar with (i.e. recovering artefacts suspended in the ploughsoil). The need for archaeological supervision and a robust methodological framework may be regarded as restrictive and unnecessary, especially as many metal detectorists feel that they can achieve the same, if not improved, results without it. This idea can be further compounded if the project aims are not adequately explained or if members of the metal detecting team feel excluded from the decision-making process. At a more personal level, there may also be the perception that their recreational activity has been transformed beyond their control into something unrecognisable as a hobby and, importantly, as a source of enjoyment in which time and effort are invested. Essentially, both archaeologists and metal detectorists are interacting with the same resource, but often with contrasting aims, motivations and methods.

The issues raised here may apply to any form of interaction between hobbyist metal detectorists and those within the heritage sector. In particular the formation of heritage policies, however necessary and important, are regarded as restrictive or threatening to the survival of their hobby. The ability, therefore, to achieve effective mutual co-operation is dependent on a shared appreciation of the knowledge and skills each party can contribute; a balance often requiring constant mitigation and compromise.


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