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A Special Issue of Open Archaeology on Non-Professional Metal-Detecting

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Featured Image Credits: Socketed object, Roman? | © Courtesy of ISLAND 2000 TRUST.

In 2016, the Open Access Journal Open Archaeology produced a collection of topical articles on the status of metal-detecting for other than scientific reasons in different European countries.

A Blog Article by Pablo Markin.

As this issue of Open Archaeology shows, metal-detecting by non-professionals can be acceptable to varying degrees across Europe, since it can also serve non-public interest, such as the antiquities trade. In this respect, the archaeological community is hard pressed to deal with this phenomenon, both due to the presence of divergent regulatory regimes in different countries and given the importance of amateur finds to the furthering of academic knowledge and the democratisation of archaeology.

As this journal issue, and especially Natasha Ferguson’s article, highlights, non-professional metal-detecting is endemic, as it occurs across European countries regardless of its legal status or regulatory frameworks. Nevertheless, the journal’s articles indicate that an emerging consensus on the need for the development of shared, cross-national policy approaches to the handling of non-professional metal-detecting practices and the resulting collections of finds exists, as Pieterjan Deckers, Michael Lewis and Suzie Thomas discuss in their editorial.


Looking and Listening for Coins | © Tom Miller.
Looking and Listening for Coins | © Tom Miller.

Additionally, this openly accessible collection raises the issue of non-professional involvement in archaeological activity that needs to be measured against both the imperative of preserving archaeological heritage for posterity and the possible contribution to scholarly research that non-professional investigations could make. The Portable Antiquities Scheme, an archaeological finds recording project running since 1997 in England and Wales, is an example of involving non-professionals in archaeological research. Currently, this initiative has contributed to the recording of approximately 1.3 million archaeological finds with the participation of non-professional metal-detectors. This demonstrates the power of an open source approach to archaeology. This volume of articles, exploring diverse archaeological approaches to metal-detecting, also indicates that, as a non-professional practice, it can damage existing efforts to protect European heritage, especially due to the presence of divergent legal frameworks seeking to address this phenomenon within the European Union, which as Suzie Thomas argues, demands a transnational approach.


Detecting at Keston, London Borough of Bromley, as part of an archaeological excavation of an Anglo-Saxon burial | © Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.
Detecting at Keston, London Borough of Bromley, as part of an archaeological excavation of an Anglo-Saxon burial | © Courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme.

As Andres S. Dobat and Astrid T. Jensen as well as Michael Lewis respectively discuss, in countries, such as Denmark and England, where amateur metal detectorists are closely involved in archaeological work, gains in archaeological knowledge, e.g., in relation to cultural artefacts, have accrued in the form of data from recorded discoveries of artefacts. Yet, large-scale public engagement with archaeology is not without problems, since non-professional metal detectors do not necessarily follow best archaeological practices, such as in relation to the ownership of archaeological material. In European countries that lack clear-cut guidelines for dealing with metal-detecting, such as Finland and Poland, archaeological information can be lost, as Agnieszka Makowska, Agnieszka Oniszczuk and Marcin Sabaciński indicate.

Furthermore, some scholars, such as Thomas Lecroere and Ana Yáñez, argue in favour of the prohibition of non-professional metal-detecting, as is the case in France and Spain, since lax regulation might fail to stem the looting of archaeological sites. Open access schemes for the recording of archaeological finds may also provide indirect authorisation for non-professional practices that can impair the integrity of archaeological sites and divert their artefacts into the channels of illicit trade in archaeological findings. Thus, this issue of Open Archaeology draws attention to the potential benefits as well as the drawbacks of professional engagement with the interested public, such as the encouragement of reporting accidental finds, as Ignacio Rodríguez Temiño also argues.


Visit at the conservator | © Courtesy of Odense Bys Museer.
Visit at the conservator | © Courtesy of Odense Bys Museer.

Therefore, this journal serves as an open forum for discussing various finds recording schemes, such as in Denmark, England, Flanders and Scotland, legal and practical issues surrounding metal-detecting, and border-crossing efforts to promote finds recording, e.g., in the North Sea Area, as Jostein Gundersen, Josephine M. Rasmussen, Ragnar Orten Lie also discuss. In this respect, this special issue affords a critical re-examination of both prohibitive and liberal regulatory approaches to this phenomenon, as found in Raimund Karl’s review of this topic. Various contributions to this volume show that, despite local legal limitations, a necessity to establish common methodologies and ethical principles in dealing with detected artefacts and non-professional finders exists, such as via policy making. Additionally, other than exploring novel theoretical and methodological approaches, studies included into this volume indicate the utility of digital applications or online platforms for collecting and analysing metal-detected archaeological data, as Pieterjan Deckers et al. propose.

By Pablo Markin.

Featured Image Credits: Socketed object, Roman? | © Courtesy of ISLAND 2000 TRUST.

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