Metal detectorists join forces with archaeologists to reconstruct early life in UK

October 1, 1999

A government initiative to improve relations between treasure seekers and researchers has been running for two years. Now, writes Steve Farrar, this alliance is starting to rewrite history

The Danes swept all before them until they met their match in the fierce resistance of the Saxon king Alfred the Great. The mark of the Scandinavians and their Danelaw on English history has been indelible, one of the most important episodes of the Dark Ages, but physical evidence of their invasion has been far more elusive.

It has lead some prominent historians to speculate that the Viking invaders were little more than drunken hooligans who fought hard, extracted ransoms and took political control of huge tracts of England but did not settle here in any numbers.

Now, thanks to a pioneering national initiative to forge a solid working relationship between Britain's archaeologists and amateur treasure hunters armed with metal detectors, that picture is changing.

Preliminary results from the Portable Antiquities Scheme in Lincolnshire suggest that large numbers of Scandinavians made their homes in eastern England in the wake of the Danish Great Army's conquests in the 870s. If more evidence supports this hypothesis, it will be a major achievement so early in the initiative.

For the past two years, metal detectorists operating in Lincolnshire, as in a number of other counties, have been meeting regularly with archaeologists to discuss their finds. It is not so long ago that most would never have dreamt of crossing the divide between the working-class treasure hunter and the middle-class academic, a gulf that was widened by mutual suspicion and a lack of understanding on both sides. Very little of what the detectorists recover is ever seen by experts. It is simply lost to our heritage.

But under the scheme, bridges are being built and trust is being won. The enthusiasts, under no onus to give up their hard-won treasures, are often spurred by curiosity and a love of history to allow the archaeologists to study and record their finds. In return, the experts have gained access to a rich seam of information that no amount of systematic field walking could have brought them.

In Lincolnshire, hundreds of cheap Danish brooches, dating to the time of the Great Army, have been found by metal detectorists. Kevin Leahy, keeper of archaeology at the North Lincolnshire Museum and coordinator of the scheme for the region, said: "These are not the sort of brooches that a Dane would buy to impress his new English girlfriend. But they are precisely the sort that would have been worn by Danish peasant women turning up en masse to settle in Lincolnshire under the aegis of the Great Army."

It is the kind of potentially important result that Richard Hobbs, outreach officer for the scheme, would like to see repeated nationwide as a result of this new era. "The benefits of greater cooperation cannot be overstated - this scheme is the most significant development in British archaeology in the past 20 years," he said.

The initiative has been introduced piecemeal in a rolling series of pilots in its first two years. There are now 11 regional finds liaison officers like Leahy. Although much of the country remains unrepresented, there are plans afoot to remedy this.

Tens of thousands of objects have been recorded so far, with descriptions of 7,000 available to academics via the scheme's website ( Admittedly, this is a fraction of the 400,000 finds that detectorists are thought to have made, but is a healthy start.

In the first six months of the Welsh pilot scheme, Philip Macdonald, who is coordinating the work, cannot claim statistically significant results to compare with Lincolnshire but there have been some successes.

He recounts the story of the detectorist who recently contacted him after chancing upon a horde of late Bronze Age axe-heads near Newport. The enthusiast had pulled up two heads and was still getting a strong signal. Instead of pocketing the lot, however, he contacted Macdonald, who immediately excavated the site, working into the night to uncover a total of nine axe-heads.

A geophysical survey found no evidence of nearby settlement, while laboratory analysis of corrosion patterns on the bronze revealed the imprint of woven cloth, suggesting this was a votive offering to the spirits that had been wrapped before being deliberately buried.

"This shows the potential benefits of working closely with detectorists - the man contacted me purely on the strength of the liaison work we have been doing," Macdonald said.

There are other similar tales - finds of iron-age coins helping plot the various Celtic tribal territories across the country, pewter toy soldiers and pots and pans that are shining new light on what medieval childhood was like, and lead seals telling the story of the early modern cloth trade.

Most of the evidence focuses on the lives of common people, folk movements, trade and politics.

No one doubts there will be many more revelations to follow.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.


Featured jobs