Rise of the detectorists: how to hunt for treasure

Last year was a record-breaking one for finding relics in Britain. It’s easy to get involved – just don’t expect to strike it rich

Tom Lucking lived up to his name in December 2014 when he and a fellow metal-detector enthusiast unearthed a hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasure in a field near Diss in Norfolk. The treasure, the highlight of which was a spectacular gold pendant, proved to be worth £145,000, which Lucking, his co-discoverer Stuart Isaacs and the owner of the land where the find was made will share.

Lucking’s lucky discovery was one of the highlights of the treasure report published this week, which details all the finds catalogued in 2016. It was a record-breaking year, with 1,120 treasure finds listed – the highest total since the Treasure Act was introduced in 1996. So, is this a golden age for detectorists, perhaps inspired by the award-winning BBC sitcom starring Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones, who play nerdy but loveable metal-detector obsessives?

“It has been growing,” says Harry Bain, editor of the Searcher magazine. “Media reports of big finds encourage interest. Anyone who thinks they can get rich quick soon realises they can’t, but people fall in love with being outdoors and finding something ancient.”

An Anglo-Saxon pendant found at near Diss in Norfolk by Tom Lucking and Stuart Isaacs
Vintage jewellery ... an Anglo-Saxon pendant found near Diss in Norfolk by Tom Lucking and Stuart Isaacs. Photograph: The British Museum/PA

Every enthusiast will tell you that the hobby is about communing with the past, not making a quick buck. “There are treasure hunters out there and there are detectorists,” says Steve Critchley, policy adviser at the National Council for Metal Detecting. Some of the latter will be lucky enough to find treasure, but most are happy to find the odd old coin and get pleasantly damp.

Bain reckons there are about 30,000 detectorists, some attached to local clubs, but many doing it alone. She says the image of an anoraked male pursuit is overstated. “You’re seeing more and more women out in the field and the women are often better than the men – they are more meticulous.”

To get started, she says, find a place to search, rather than investing in a metal detector. You need a landowner who is willing to let you dig on their land. Once you have permission, buy a decent detector (about £200, although you can pay up to £2,000). If you get the bug seriously, you can trade up – one enthusiast with 40 years’ experience tells me an £800 detector will give you everything you want. You will also need a spade and perhaps an electronic pinpointer, for combing through small clumps of earth – plus an anorak and a bobble hat, of course.

Detectorists explore the same fields for years on end; each fresh ploughing could throw up new items. East Anglia, the site of waves of invasion and settlement, is the prime searching area, but finds can pop up anywhere. Following Roman roads is often particularly productive.

In the unlikely event that you find a hoard of Roman coins or Anglo-Saxon burial objects, don’t get a JCB and start digging. You are obliged to contact the local finds liaison officer, who will undertake a professional excavation. Sorting out what it’s worth and whether a museum wants to buy it comes later. That’s the dream, of course. Mostly, it’s rusty ring-pulls.


Stephen Moss

The GuardianTramp

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