A recent publication ‘Archaeology in Development Management’ produced by the Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers (July 2019) covering 2017/2018 states that 525,000 planning applications were submitted in that period of which 21,700 had archaeological implications requiring mitigation works to be undertaken by commercial archaeological units before planning approval can be given. The value of all the projects carried out by such units in that financial year was £218M.

This means that less than 5% of proposed development sites saw any archaeology, known or unknown, mitigated by excavation or evaluation leaving the remaining 95% unchecked with all the random archaeological casual losses contained in their soil layers consigned to oblivion, unidentified and unrecorded when the developers moved in.

Only the most important areas are excavated or watched as development proceeds and the details recorded whilst remaining areas are regarded as of no importance. Their casual loss archaeological record is therefore lost when the developers move in.

This arises directly from the work methods employed. All commercial excavations remove the soil layers by mechanical excavator, often up to a metre or more in-depth, which soil is then dumped into spoil heaps, often of considerable size, the justification being that objects in disturbed soil have lost their contextual value. As previously mentioned, all random casual archaeological losses contained in that spoil are therefore lost so that untold millions of items are lost, year on year.

Sometimes a half-hearted effort is made to scan the stripped surfaces before removal, but that involves looking at only a limited detector-depth slice of a metre or more of material whilst the spoil heaps are disregarded. Whatever efforts are made the whole process sees untold losses and that is only part of the story with large areas of stratified archaeological finds also lost to development due to percentage excavation values set in the excavation tender documents.

Interestingly, it is mainly establishment archaeologists and archaeological pressure groups who are the fiercest critics of metal detecting, a popular hobby involving the locating and removal of metal objects from that very same topsoil layer which commercial archaeologists see fit to discard.

The words ‘pots and kettles’ spring immediately to mind, and the question that needs to be answered is ’Why is there so much concern and interest in what is found when a metal detectorist searches the topsoil yet so little when it comes to development and archaeological mitigation strategies?

The question assumes particular significance at this point time when the Treasure Act (1996) is under review. This Act underpins the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), a partnership project which inter alia records archaeological objects found by the public in order to advance our understanding of the past and increases opportunities for museums to acquire archaeological finds for public benefit.

The outcome of a recent consultation on proposed changes to the Act is currently awaited and it may include the possibility of introducing a licensed permit scheme for metal detecting.  It goes without saying that there are serious concerns within the metal detecting community that this proposal if implemented, would result in a strict limit on the number of detectorists who are allowed to detect with corresponding limits or even prohibitions on metal detecting events such as charity detecting rallies.

It is open to speculation as to why licensing has been actively considered as part of the Treasure Act consultation process but it seems likely to be related to resource limitations within the PAS more so than to any other factor. Is it deliberately intended to restrict numbers in the hobby?

Metal detecting is purely and simply the searching for random losses in a decontextualized resource, something which orthodox archaeological techniques cannot replicate, and the fact remains that metal detectorists have contributed enormously to Britain’s heritage locating important artefacts which would otherwise never see the light of day.

Can commercial archaeologists make the same claim?

It should be the responsibility of the archaeology profession to put its house in order first and think carefully about the future relationship that it wishes to have with metal detecting.

* Thank you to Alastair Hacket for submitting this article. Please note any article published by the Archaeology and Metal Detecting Magazine reflects the author’s views and not that of ourselves. We also show no bias with these articles and sit completely on the fence. Any reader wishing to comment on the article can do so below and all will be forwarded to Alastair – Thanks, Editor.