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Treasure Hunters - Metal Detectors

British Archaeologists Take on Treasure Hunters

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Amateur treasure hunters armed with a metal detector and shovel are digging up valuable treasures across the UK but now archaeologists are speaking out and have accused hobbyists of damaging Britain’s heritage.

It is estimated that across England and Wales there are approximately 10,000 metal detector users and, in 2011 alone, hobbyists found close to a million artefacts, 1,000 of which could be classed as treasure including ancient jewellery, weapons, tools, or caches of Roman coins.

Back in 1990, Roger Mintey, a man with a hobby for metal detecting, was scanning the backyard of his house in southeastern England when he stumbled upon a massive collection of 6,705 gold and silver coins dating back to the Middle Ages – a find now dubbed the Reigate hoard.

"I removed what I thought was a piece of land drain, and I saw two groats," Mintey recalls. "I pulled away another piece of land drain and suddenly saw all these coins stacked vertically in concentric circles."

Mintey handed the find over to the authorities. Some coins were distributed to museums, but the rest were returned to him. In the end, it netted him a tidy sum of money, £184,000.

But not everyone is pleased. Archaeologist and illicit antiquities researcher at Cambridge University, Christos Tsirogiannis, is one of those concerned. He says that amateur archaeologists are damaging important sites and destroying key historical traces and wants the practice banned.

"Every object has an amazing historical value, especially when it's found in its actual and original archaeological context," Christos Tsirogiannis explains. "If something is extracted violently and by an uneducated, non-specialist person from its original context, this cannot be reconstructed."

Some of the worst ransacking took place at a Roman-British temple site in Surrey in the 1980s where an estimated 20,000 historical objects were removed and sold world-wide. And in 2002, and Iron Age hill fort in Northumberland was looted and left pitted with dozens of holes.

However, not everyone agrees that the practice is wrong. Some archaeologists believe that amateur artefact hunters have an important role to play, including finding things that have been missed by the professionals.

"Metal detector users are changing what we know," said Archaeologist Suzie Thomas, noting that users who record their finds are producing vast amounts of data. "The sub-discipline of battle archaeology makes a lot of use of metal detected data because they're looking at objects like cannon balls and musket balls that are, of course, metal. Having the data of where on the field they've been found can help you reconstruct how the battle went, and that's incredibly useful information."

Stories like Roger Mintey’s have inspired many to take up hobby artefact hunting in the hope of finding treasure, but whether the practice is responsible for undermining Britain’s heritage is a matter that is still hotly debated.

By April Holloway

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