Portsmouth’s historic past could soon be accessible to metal detectorists prepared to follow strict new rules being debated by the city council
A cabinet committee of Portsmouth City Council meets tomorrow, [12 March 2021], to discuss and potentially to adopt, a new policy regarding applications to metal detect for artefacts on council owned land. However, what would normally be a matter of local interest has attracted wider attention in the archaeological community with some archaeologists welcoming the new policy as it appears to go further than current national guidelines in protecting the integrity of archaeology both in the ground and as recovered by members of the public using metal detectors. The proposed new policy also comes at an important moment for both archaeologists and metal detectorists, with archaeologists concerned at the number of artefacts which are being alleged to be recovered without recording and even illegally and detectorists concerned at possible curbs to their hobby, with the Government in Westminster engaged in a consultation regarding the legal definition of “Treasure” as set out in the 1996 Treasure Act. There is an expectation that the term will be redefined to place the accent on cultural rather than financial value, thus bringing objects with no precious metal content within the remit of the Act. This loophole saw the internationally important Crosby Garrett Roman cavalry helmet sold by auction to a private collector. Some observers have gone as far as to suggest to thePipeLine that a policy of the kind to be discussed in Portsmouth could be rolled out nationally.
It is important to emphasise that the proposed policy on metal detecting which the council will discuss adopting refers only to council owned land and the report accompanying the policy paper notes that the proposal has been prompted by a number of requests to the council for permission to metal detect. Requests which the report suggests may be prompted by coverage of archaeological finds made during works along the sea front at Southsea during development work related to the renewal of sea defences.
The area around Southsea Common and Southsea Castle is famous as a gathering place for people seeing off ships of the Royal Navy for hundreds of years and is perhaps of particular interest to detectorists as being the site of the encampment of the Royal Army and its followers when Henry VIII watched his flagship Mary Rose sink during a battle with the French in July 1545.
However, it is equally possible that the interest has been prompted by the alleged increase in the number of people metal detecting since lockdown and reports of a decreasing number of permissions to metal detect available on private and farmland, as commercial rally organisers price individuals and traditional metal detecting clubs, out of the market.
Certainly the establishment of a policy for metal detecting on land belonging to the city would fill what is currently a policy vacuum and give council officers a firm basis up on which to make decisions regarding metal detecting.
Archaeologists commenting on the proposed policy to thePipeLine have been surprised, and delighted, that the proposal does not just put heritage issues front and centre by incorporating the requirements of the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Treasure Act 1996 into council policy. It states that metal detecting will normally only be allowed as part of a programme of archaeological research and, even where a permit is granted, the holder will be required to record find spots accurately to eight figures and to report finds to both the Finds Liaison Officer of the Portable Antiquities Scheme [the national body recording archaeological finds made by the public which is based at the British Museum]. Permit holders will also be required to submit a report to the Portsmouth Historic Environment Record. None of these actions are compulsory under current national guidelines set out in the “Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting“.
Significantly the council also reserves its right of ownership of any artefacts found on its land with the view to adding them to the city’s museum collections. This last stipulation may be unpopular with some metal detectorists who might wish to populate their own collections, or who see historic artefacts as a potential source of income through private sale. A situation highlighted by the recent sale, in controversial circumstances, of a nationally important Pre Roman Iron Age harness mount by Derbyshire based auctioneer Hansons.
Effectively Portsmouth City Council is proposing a system of local licencing for metal detectorists, with the expectation that licences/permits will only be granted to detectorists prepared to follow national guidelines and required to observe nationally recommended recording standards.
If adopted nationally by local authorities, and other landowners such as farmers, the kind of approach proposed by Portsmouth might go some way towards solving the vexed issue of how to regulate a hobby in the public interest, which, while popular, and capable of providing much useful archaeological data as long as the participants act with integrity, appears to many archaeologists to be increasingly out of control.
Criticism is aimed particularly at large commercial rallies which would appear to be barred under the Portsmouth scheme unless organisers were able to demonstrate they could adhere fully to the rules regarding both practice and reporting and accept there would be no automatic right of ownership of finds.
Asked if it had been consulted in framing the new policy the Portable Antiquities scheme confirmed that the PAS Central Unit at the British Museum had not been approached, although the local finds liaison officer has now been in touch with the council.
Sources have told thePipeLine that this contact came about when archaeologists noticed coverage of the proposed new policy in the media and social media and asked if the PAS was involved.
the PipeLine also asked the Portable Antiquities Scheme if the organisation supports the proposed policy when it states that anyone wishing to access land for the purpose of metal detecting “should” [ which legally is a shorthand for “is expected to”] “…adhere to the Portable Antiquities Scheme’s Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting”?
The PAS responded that as the council seems to be referring to the Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting in England and Wales (2017), that was something,
” …which we (the BM) endorse.”
That said, the PAS website emphasises the voluntary nature of the Code, talking about “guidance” only and stating of the code itself that “Being responsible means…” behaving in accordance with the code.
This can be taken as a much weaker statement of the importance of the code of practice than Portsmouth propose to employ in their new policy.
The BM/PAS also agreed with Portsmouth city council’s proposed policy in that anyone given permission to metal detect on council owned under the policy will be required to, ” record find spots accurately, report finds to the Portable Antiquities Scheme Finds Liaison Officer and to submit a report to the Portsmouth Historic Environment Record” stating,
“Yes, we think that is a sensible approach.”
However, asked if overall, the BM/PAS agree that such a policy, which expects permission would normally be given only as part of a programme of archaeological research, not a “standalone activity”; which emphasises acting responsibly according to the code of practice, and which requires the accurate recording and reporting of archaeological data, could serve as a model for all bodies in charge of publicly owned land, and potentially for all landowners where permission is sought to metal detect, the PAS replied,
“Portsmouth Council would not be unique in licencing metal-detecting on its own land. Likewise, the Crown Estate and Port of London Authority require people to record finds with the PAS as part of permission to search.”
thePipeLine also asked if the PAS might promote such a model. A question to which the organisation gave no direct answer. However, a spokesperson for the PAS told this website,
“We very much welcome landowners doing all they can to encourage people to follow best practice, including recording finds to advance knowledge.”
The PAS also endorsed local licencing or permit schemes rather than the prohibition of detecting on council and other publicly owned land, telling thePipeLine,
“As Pipeline will know, many local authorities prohibit/restrict metal-detecting on their land or have licensing systems.
We believe the latter is preferential where land is under plough so we can understand archaeological sites at risk.
In these cases it is important finders follow best practice and finds are recorded.”
With one finds specialist [and regular user of PAS data] telling thePipeLine that,
“Whoever came up with this [at Portsmouth City Council] deserves a huge amount of credit (and a big bunch of flowers); it’s brilliant. It places the value of the item back where it should be, not in how much an item sells for, but in what it can tell us all about our local and national histories.”*
*The full comment is included in the accompanying opinion article Here.
…there is no doubt that archaeologists and metal detectorists will follow the outcome of Friday’s meeting with interest as a possible indication of a new direction of travel in the often fraught relationship between the two groups.
Historic England which acts as the national heritage advisor to Government and also coordinates responses to heritage crime including illegal metal detecting, was also asked a number of questions about the proposed metal detecting policy in Portsmouth as was Portsmouth City Council itself.
Up to the time of publication neither body had responded to those requests.
However, as the meeting was going on Historic England gave thePipeLine the following statement which was first published on Twitter and is now reproduced here,
“Historic England has not been consulted in relation to the introduction of a metal detecting policy on land owned and managed by Portsmouth City Council. The proposal aligns to the relevant heritage protection legislation; and, the Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting.
The Code is published by the Portable Antiquities Advisory Group, and provides guidance on securing permission from a landowner; and, the accurate reporting and recording of finds. Metal detecting undertaken safely and responsibly can make an important contribution to archaeological knowledge and our understanding of the history of our nation.”
A recording of the meeting of the council committee is available here. Discussion of the metal detecting policy starts at 06:02.
Portsmouth City Council is currently under no overall control, with the largest party, the Liberal Democrats, forming the administration.
This article was amended at 17:40 on 12 March 2021 to include the statement from Historic England and the link to the recording of the Portsmouth City Council committee meeting.