Metal heads: the thriving detectorist scene digging up Britain’s past

Growing numbers are taking to the fields in search of fresh air, a sense of community and the odd piece of treasure

Eyes down, headphones on, arm sweeping across the ground, Mandy Duffin slowly paces a Warwickshire field with her metal detector. Suddenly she stops, and reaches for her spade.

Duffin is not alone. Up and down the country, men, women and children are listening for the tantalising sound of electronic pips, wondering if today will be the day they turn up an intriguing remnant of the past.

They certainly have reason to hope. Last week amateur detectorist Charlie Clarke scooped headlines after he unearthed a breathtaking Tudor gold pendant in a Warwickshire field, bearing the initials and symbols of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon.

And while the pendant might well be unique, astonishing finds are not.

“I think when somebody finds something like that, they are extremely lucky. But there’s nothing to say that there isn’t something like that in lots of fields, you just have to walk over the right bit,” said Duffin, who first picked up a metal detector with her father, a gamekeeper, when she was about eight years old and has returned to the hobby in recent years.

A Victorian-era penny found by Davis on her first metal detecting outing
A Victorian-era penny found by Davis on her first metal detecting outing Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

According to data shared with the Guardian, in the past 10 years there have been 9,499 finds in 6,274 records in Warwickshire alone, including 156 records of treasure cases.

Among them is a stunning medieval silver signet ring, bearing an inscription of the wearer’s name, hari lodefurd or Harry Lodeford. The find was discovered with a metal detector during a club dig and is now at the Warwickshire museum.

“Things like [the Tudor necklace] do spur people on – it seems to bring a lot of new people into the hobby as well,” said Tony Cummins, the head of the company Midlands Detecting Days, adding his group has found six hoards in the past 18 months.

“The last hoard was 199 Roman silver denarii,” he said, noting the club also found 332 fake silver coins in Staffordshire.

Records revealed the land on which the fake coins were found had once belonged to a man called George Thomas Fearns who, it appears, was hanged in 1801 for forging banknotes. “When we found [the fake coins] they were wrapped in bits of what we think was actually forged banknote paper,” said Cummins.

Mandy Duffin
Mandy Duffin returned to metal detecting in recent years, after first trying it as a child Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

Alan Tamblyn, of the National Council for Metal Detecting (NCMD) – the organisation that is formally recognised by the UK government and represents the hobby when it comes to legislation – said membership is steadily growing.

“There is an increase in people every time something comes on the TV or in the press,” he said.

But, he added, it is vital detectorists are aware of the law, stressing they must gain permission from the owner of the land before searching it.

“Everywhere in the country is owned by somebody even if it’s the council for your local park,” he said. Membership of the NCMD, Tamblyn added, includes insurance to protect the landowner in the event of accidental damage.

Cummins also said it is important would-be detectorists learn the ropes – including how to use the machines and dig a hole properly.

“There’s nowt worse than them just digging and digging and making an absolute mess of a farmer’s field,” he said, adding beginners should join a local club or organised dig, not least as permissions from landowners will already be in place.

A mid-70s toy ‘Joe 90’ gun found by Mandy Duffin.
A mid-70s toy ‘Joe 90’ gun found by Duffin Photograph: Fabio De Paola/The Guardian

Lawrence von Sorgenfrei, who runs the company Go Detecting, said the goal was not to stumble upon a major find.

“All [detectorists] want to do is walk around in the fresh air, have fun, get exercise and meet like-minded people to enjoy the hobby,” he said, although he noted his group had found hoards including a stash of Saxon hammered coins.

Duffin said among her finds was a host of intriguing coins and a “Joe 90” toy gun. “I always go ‘isn’t that great’? ‘Where did this come from’? ‘Who owned it?’,” she said.

It’s a view Tamblyn shares.

“This hobby is about uncovering our past, finding things in the middle of nowhere that tell a story,” he said.

One example was a corroded iron object that turned out to be a Viking axe head from about 1,400 years ago.

“You could see all the layers where the blacksmith just folded and folded and folded the iron,” said Tamblyn. “That’s no less important an artefact than the Henry VIII item.”


Nicola Davis Science correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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