Following thePipeLine’s recent story suggesting that leading metal detecting rally company, Sovereign Metal Detecting might have used data from the county Historic Environment Record [HER] for Shropshire to target known archaeological sites for pay to detect rallies, Shropshire Council has confirmed that it has taken steps to limit the location data available to users of the on-line version of the county HER.

In a statement Dr Andy Wigley, the Interim Policy & Environment Manager, Planning Services – the Historic Environment Team, at Shropshire Council, told thePipeLine,

“Clearly the council is concerned that HER information is being used by the organisers of metal detecting rallies who do not co-operate with the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and we have therefore now taken steps to reduce the location information available via the Discovering Shropshire’s History online version of the HER.” 

That said, councils seeking to protect their archaeology from inappropriate attention by unregulated metal detecting rallies face problems as Dr Wigley noted, telling us,

“However, the restriction of access to HER records needs to be balanced against the requirements to make the HER a publicly accessible resource established through the NPPF and other guidance.”

The NPPF, or National Planning Policy Framework is the regulatory process for securing planning consent for anything from a house to a power station and part of the NPPF process relies on the ability of a developer, communities, and campaigners, to access comprehensive data about known and suspected archaeology at any particular location, which is held in the county HER.

Historic Environment Records also represent a powerful and important research tool, representing as they do a data base of archaeological records, some dating back several centuries, and are thus critically important for academic researchers looking at, for example, the distribution patterns of types of artefact or structure.

What they were never designed to do is facilitate metal detectorists in finding locations to search, let alone provide locations for mass participation events where tens, or even hundreds, of detectorists pay to dig, and are under no obligation to report any finds to the HER, except those falling under the remit of the Treasure Act 1996.

In his statement Dr Wigley confirmed that nobody from Sovereign Metal Detecting had contacted the Shropshire county archaeology team in advance of the rally. Neither had Sovereign Metal Detecting paid for any searches of the HER, which is normal practice in searches related to the commercial use of the data.

However, Dr Wigley correctly pointed out that, given that the HER is required to be a public record, on-line versions of the Shropshire HER are available in a number locations, including the Heritage Gateway, which is maintained by Historic England, and Discovering Shropshire’s History, which is maintained in conjunction with Shropshire Archives, the council’s archives service.

HER data has also been re-used, it is alleged often without obtaining permission, on some privately operated websites.

Summing up Dr Wigley stated [our italics],

“The Council’s HER search policies are clearly stated on our website, and the use of our data, made available through various web portals, is governed through our HER user policy; this is clearly supplied for research purposes only.”

The location of the rally advertised by Sovereign Metal Detecting as taking place on Sunday [7 November 2021], which was the subject of thePipeLine’s original story, was changed at the last minute by Sovereign without explanation. However, while the action of Shropshire council in limiting location data may make it marginally more difficult to access the information needed by rally companies like Sovereign to target unprotected archaeological sites, there may also be disquiet that the actions of a few bad actors has led to barriers being erected in front of genuine researchers.

It is also unknown currently how widespread the abuse of HER data for commercial metal detecting and more widely, for the leisure metal detecting of artefacts which are never reported, actually is, and whether other councils will feel the need to follow Shropshire’s lead?

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