4. A Brief History of the Relationship Between Battlefield Archaeology and Hobbyist Metal Detecting

Archaeological interest in the physical remains of battle, in the UK at least, did not surface until the early 1970s. This was in part due to the lack of recognition of battlefields and other sites of conflict as archaeological landscapes, coupled with a poor understanding, or even acknowledgement, of the artefact distributions that so often characterise them, possibly due to an absence of stratified deposits (Freeman 2001, 5). It does appear, therefore, that at this early stage in our understanding of the archaeological potential of battlefields, the recovery of material culture of conflict fell primarily within the domain of hobbyist metal detectorists and not archaeologists. This does not mean to suggest, however, that this would have had an entirely negative effect, as Foard acknowledges:

'The metal detector is a very valuable archaeological tool, but like many tools it can be used in a constructive or destructive manner, depending on the intentions and the knowledge of the user' (Foard 1995, 19).

We may lack the ability, beyond the anecdotal evidence or anonymous boxes of musket balls, to assess fully the scale of erosion of battlefield sites during these first forays of metal detecting. There are, however, several known examples of hobbyist metal detectorists from the 1970s onwards who have focused their interest and skills on the investigation of sites of conflict and therefore helped to enhance their recognition as archaeological sites. For example, Dr Glenn Foard's research on the battlefield of Naseby (1645) in 1995 was based on the initial work of innovative metal detectorists who had intensively covered the area and plotted their finds. Unfortunately, in this case the artefacts were not individually bagged, meaning the distribution plots they created did not correspond spatially to the recovered assemblage (Foard 1995, 19). Archaeological fieldwork conducted on the battlefield of Edgehill (1642), Warwickshire, by Dr Tony Pollard and Neil Oliver as part of the Two Men in a Trench BBC television series, and further research undertaken again by Foard for the Battlefields Trust, were supported by a series of surveys carried out by a Captain Scott in 1979. Scott, who was stationed at a Ministry of Defence (MOD) ammunition depot located on the site of the English Civil War battlefield of Edgehill, recovered a large assemblage of lead projectiles and other battle-related artefacts by metal detecting fields earmarked for an extension (Pollard and Oliver 2003, 111). Each artefact was accurately plotted on an Ordnance Survey map providing important evidence within the core area of the battlefield, later destroyed by an expansion of the depot (Foard 2005; Pollard 2009, 183). Another military service man, Major Tony Clunn, is acknowledged for his discovery of material relating to the Roman battle of the Teutoburg Forest, Kalkriese, while based in Germany in 1988. His recovery of artefacts such as lead sling shot, a key signature artefact of Roman warfare, initiated a major excavation programme and the foundation of a museum on the site (Clunn 2005). This military connection to the beginnings of hobbyist metal detecting is interesting, although not surprising considering that the original invention of a portable metal detector was in order to detect land mines during World War II—a function it continues to fulfil today, albeit in a more advanced manner.

These are particularly positive examples where the work of an individual has gone on to form the basis of further research, which in turn has contributed to the development of battlefield archaeology as a relevant and dynamic subject. However, due to the ill feeling between metal detectorists and archaeologists from the 1970s onwards (Thomas 2009), the potential role of the metal detector as an essential tool for the archaeological investigation of battlefields was initially ignored. The first systematic archaeological study of a UK battlefield, which took place on the site of the Battle of Marston Moor (1644), adopted a field-walking approach to recover battle-related artefacts rather than the use of metal detectors, no doubt a conscious decision made by the project directors. Between 1973 and 1979 several hundred lead projectiles and hundreds of other signature artefacts of conflict were recovered and mapped across an area of 10km² (Harrington 2004, 84). The efficient recovery of artefacts was later helped by the assistance of local metal detectorists, led by Paul Roberts. This project had the potential to affect the interpretation of the battle fundamentally, offering new insights into how both armies moved and fought across the landscape. Unfortunately, the project, which also demonstrated the potential of utilising the skills of metal detectorists within battlefield archaeology, failed to make the necessary impact as the results were not published by Newman and Roberts until 2003.

Across the Atlantic the picture was very different. In the USA professional archaeology projects were, although in isolation, using metal detectors from the 1950s to recover artefact distributions from Civil War battlefields and forts (Scott and McFeaters 2011, 106). The ground-breaking approach of Scott and Fox during their investigations of the Battle of Little Big Horn (1876) in 1984 emphasised the importance of a systematic methodological approach and the role of skilled metal detectorists (Scott et al. 1989). This was to greatly influence the first real burgeoning of battlefield archaeology as an archaeological discipline in the UK. The mid-1990s were marked by projects such as the Towton Battlefield Archaeological Survey Project by Tim Sutherland with the assistance of metal detectorist Simon Richardson in 1996 (Fiorato et al. 2000); as well as the founding of the Battlefields Trust in 1992 and the formation of the English Heritage Register of Historic Battlefields in 1994, both in response to the realisation that threats such as rapid urban expansion were causing irreversible damage to battlefield landscapes (Foard 1995). This momentum continued in 2000, which saw the first archaeological investigation of a Scottish battlefield at Culloden, Inverness, as part of the Two Men in a Trench series. With a remit to investigate the battlefields of Britain, this pioneering series not only placed battlefield archaeology in the public spotlight, it highlighted the important contribution made by skilled metal detectorists to the success of battlefield projects.

This relationship, born out of mutual respect and equal working conditions, continued across a number of projects led by the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology across Scotland (Plate 2), including several more seasons of work at Culloden, together with Sheriffmuir (Pollard 2006), Fort William (Pollard 2007), Prestonpans (Pollard and Ferguson 2009) and Philiphaugh (Ferguson 2011). In relation to developer-led projects such as Sheriffmuir, Pollard ensured that for the first time in the UK metal detectorists assisting within these projects were paid a wage equivalent to that of an archaeologist carrying out the same task (Pollard 2009, 188). Incorporating metal detectorists into the project team was mutually beneficial. For the metal detectorists the wage was not only a fair reflection of their input into the project, something that could not easily be replicated by professional battlefield archaeologists without time and money spent on training but, more importantly, it allowed them to assist without loss of earnings or using annual leave. This is a factor often overlooked by many archaeologists when engaging with volunteers (Pollard pers. comm.).

Plate 2

Plate 2: Volunteer metal detectorists carrying out systematic survey of the battlefield

This appraisal has touched on the more optimistic aspects of the role of metal detecting within battlefield archaeology and the contribution many hobbyist metal detectorists, either working on their own or within archaeological projects, have made to the development of battlefield archaeology as a discipline. Some may sceptically view this relationship as a marriage of convenience; both are necessary, yet often uncomfortable bedfellows. The author sympathises with this argument, having worked closely and successfully with hobbyist metal detectorists on several battlefield projects but at the same time remaining highly critical of irresponsible metal detecting activity that has severely affected the archaeological survival of many sites of conflict across the UK. Drawing on results from the author's recent doctoral research, the next section will explore the nature and extent of metal detecting activity and to what degree it may be regarded as having a negative impact on battlefield heritage. The discussion will focus more closely on outlining why this negative activity occurs and how hobbyist metal detectorists may perceive, value and interact with battlefields and their associated material culture. The article will then go on to revisit the positive contribution hobbyist metal detectorists have made to battlefield archaeology.


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