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Concern is growing among archaeologists that the organisers of commercial metal detecting rallies are becoming increasingly brazen in using their advertising to associate pay to detect events, with known archaeology and even nationally famous and important archaeological sites.

Two of the latest examples of this kind of event, which often involve dozens of detectorists, appear to be a rally to be held in the archaeologically rich county of Shropshire on the Welsh border and another advertised as taking place close to the nationally important Arbor Low stone circle in the Peak District National Park.

Both events are due to take place this weekend [25/26 March 2023].

The Shropshire rally is being held in the area of Little Ness, which handily for participants is just east of the main A5, in an area where it is reported that historically there has been relatively little land available for detectorists to carry on their hobby.

Indeed, the high profile rally promoter, Mr Charles Lloyd of Sovereign Metal Detecting, describes the location as ” genuine undetected ground and not scheduled” which has become available after a four year wait.

Ryanair style, the FaceBook flyer for Mr Lloyd’s event promises that “adjacent” to the field were two Roman villas and associated farm structures, and as thePipeLine reported previously, Mr Lloyd appears to be using information which is drawn from open access sources such as the Shropshire County Historic Environment Record [HER] and the Heritage Gateway, for commercial purposes.

Such commercial use would normally attract a fee. However, it is not known if any fee was paid in this case.

The advertisement also refers to pre Roman double ditched enclosures, pit alignments and even that a field walking survey which recorded Roman pottery, all holding out the promise of collectable, and saleable, Roman artefacts.

Trigger words such as “hammered” [coins struck by hand in metal dies] are also employed as a lure for potential participants.

Hammered coins are highly collectable, and, as well being popular as a part of private collections, they are easy to sell via E-bay and other on-line market places, while particularly desirable types can be sold through coin dealers and auction houses.

The advertisement concludes,

“This is a one off opportunity only!
I genuinely urge anyone that truely loves history not to miss this event.”

Mr Lloyd states that the event is for a maximum of seventy detectorists paying £25 each.

Thus if the event were to sell out Mr Lloyd would take in £1750 for the day, although it is customary that an unknown proportion of this, usually understood to be a figure in the region of £250-£500, would go to the landowner.

However, thePipeLine understands that, while the land Mr Lloyd has advertised may not have been detected before, the area has in fact long been a target for rally organisers on account of the known archaeology in the area and its proximity to the road system making it easy to reach, and that there have been a number of rallies close to, or at, Little Ness in the last decade.

Archaeologists point out that the kind of field walking survey cited by Mr Lloyd in his advertising is directed research, with all finds, metal and non-metal, being recorded and published -otherwise Mr Lloyd would not be able to cite it-whereas a metal detecting rally misses much of the potential information because it is focussed on recovering metal objects alone, with pottery and stone artefacts of the kind recorded in the archaeological fieldwalking survey representing a form of bycatch at a rally, to be recorded only if a detectorist notices such finds, recognises their importance and wants to pick them up.

Neither are finds from metal detecting rallies published automatically to enable the knowledge they embody to be shared. While many detectorists do record finds with the Portable Antiquities Scheme, the national scheme by which any member of the public can report archaeological finds voluntarily, the scheme is unable to support rallies and, unless they qualify legally as Treasure under the Treasure Act 1996 there is no obligation on detectorists to record their finds in any case.

This leads to a further concern about Metal Detecting rallies which target areas like Little Ness with known, but unprotected and largely unexplored and uninterpreted, archaeological features. That concern lies in the nature of the archaeological record in Shropshire and the Welsh border.

With the exception of a few urban centres such as Shrewsbury, this a largely rural area where there is relatively little developer funded excavation to explore and publish the region’s archaeology.

Thus the evidence of the artefacts recovered by metal detectorists has become proportionately more important in attempting to understand the lives of people in the region in the past, not to mention its value in interpreting the lumps, bumps, moats and field systems which are the visible, but largely silent, witnesses in the landscape.

Seen as a book, it is as if the landscape is the page and the finds provide the words of the story and the more words the more sense the story makes.

It follows that any under reporting of finds has the potential to leave gaps in the words, that is the records used by researchers, and those gaps could even lead to the record forming the story becoming distorted.

With its accent on the individual person who “truly loves history” making finds Mr Lloyd’s publicity makes no mention of this wider importance, let alone of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which is the only nationally recognised and accessible means of the public, principally metal detectorists, reporting and publishing finds for research purposes.

While any underreporting arising form the event at Little Ness could have a regional impact, the second example of a rally associated with known archaeology is possibly of even greater concern to archaeologists as it relates to the area very close to a nationally important prehistoric monument.

The rally, advertised by Mr James Roberts who promotes events under the name “the Ministry of Detect”, is described as taking place on the “The Ritual Grounds” in the Hartington area of the Peak District National Park.

In fact the description, the “Ritual Grounds” is a construct of Mr Roberts, the rally promoter and is almost certainly designed as a trigger phrase to attract participants by dangling the potential for finding ritual deposits of objects.

Any reasonably knowledgeable detectorist would know that such deposits would likely be declared “Treasure” under the Treasure Act 1996, and would therefore attract a financial award to be shared 50:50 with the landowner.

Like Mr Lloyd in Shropshire, and as is also commonplace in advertising metal detecting rallies, the description of the Abor Low event describes the site as “a brand new farm for you all” adding that,

“Arbor Low and Gibb Hill run into our fields along with numerous Bronze Age burials surrounding the farm.”

This description links directly with the use of the term “Ritual Grounds” and can be used because Arbor Low is a nationally important stone circle, which forms part of an extensive prehistoric ritual landscape, including a rare Bowl Barrow, which appears to have been in use from the late Neolithic Period to the Middle Bronze Age [c.2400-1000BC] and the Gib Hill burial mound to the south west of the circle.

The site of the Ministry of Detect metal detecting rally seen from the Arbor Low stone circle.
The rally permission begins centre frame immediately behind the fenced Gib Hill burial mound, between the mound and the trees.

Arbor Low and Gib Hill are among the earliest sites to be protected by the state, having first been designated as being under State care in 1884, and thus it is an offence to metal detect on them unless with permission as part of a formal archaeological research project, but critically not all of the area around the monuments is currently protected by scheduling.

This is a point which the Mr Roberts make much of, in that, while his publicity states properly that parts of the scheduled area lying within the permission will be clearly taped as out of bounds for metal detecting, other areas of the permission are free to detect and the implication is that these could yield finds of a similar period to the ritual site, ranging from individual Bronze Age artefacts to hoards and even the burials which are often associated with such ritual sites and landscapes.

It is the potential presence of the latter which perhaps of greatest concern to archaeologists because, not only are burials potentially delicate reservoirs of detailed information about the past, requiring particular skills and equipment to excavate and record, they are also protected by law.

A licence, obtained in advance from the Ministry of Justice, is required to excavate a burial, but there have been suggestions in the past that metal detectorists may have accidently, or deliberately, excavated burials to recover artefacts, either without recognising the objects come from burials, or, in the case of distinctive objects such as Iron Age mirrors, or Saxon personal jewellery, exploiting a potential ambiguity as to origin to recover the object without the legal complication of declaring them as coming from a burial.

One unanswered question relating to the Ministry of Detect event is why it can take place when in large areas of the Peak District National Park metal detecting is banned.

The bylaws for the Peak District National Park state that on Access land, that is land subject to a specific agreement allowing public access,

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No person shall on the access land use any device designed or adapted for detecting or locating any metal or mineral in the ground.

However, in what some might see as an anomaly, the ban appears not to apply parts of the National Park which are not subject to such an agreement and the decision as to whether or not to allow metal detecting lies with the land owner.

There is also no buffer zone added to a scheduled area to protect probable, but unknown, archaeology.

This means that outside of areas protected by bylaws, or national legislation such as that relating to scheduling, Treasure and burials, there is little that local and national heritage authorities, such as the National Park, Historic England and the Finds Liaison Officers [FLO’s] of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, can do to assert influence over metal detecting rallies, apart from trying to develop a professional relationship with rally promoters and detectorists, offering them advice and support on a non statutory basis. Advice which can be ignored as easily as it can be accepted.

In the absence of specific legislation this situation is difficult enough, but it is made the more so because the activities of rally promoters like Mr Lloyd and Mr Roberts, while legal, remain largely opaque, with events often being organised through closed groups on FaceBook and WhatsApp.

Even when a rally group legally becomes a Limited Company, as the Ministry of Detect did in October 2020, at a time when an exemption to Covid restrictions on hobbies appeared to be on offer to registered companies enabling them to continue operating events and generating income, that does not mean the business becomes more accountable.

Indeed, such visibility was short lived as Mr Roberts sought a voluntary strike off for the limited company incarnation of Ministry of Detect which took effect in March 2022 without his ever posting company accounts. An action which coincided with the ending of Covid restrictions and which, once again, was perfectly legal.

The rally in the landscape close to Arbor Low is being advertised as costing £20 per detectorist and at the time of writing eighty eight detectorists have registered as wishing to attend.

This number would net Mr Roberts £1760 for the day, although again a proportion of this would be expected to go to the landowner.

It remains to be seen whether the events advertised by Mr Lloyd and Mr Roberts for the Ministry of Detect deliver on what the advertising appears to promise in terms of finds, or turn out to be the Ryanair of metal detecting rallies, with the headline destination promising all sorts of exciting delights, only to dump passengers somewhere miles outside of town, with little satisfaction and a long journey home.

Of course, critics of rallies would say that such is the opaque and unaccountable nature of the rally industry that, unless something goes wrong and the metal detecting message boards light up with complaints, or a hoard is found and the video of its recovery on YouTube becomes the latest advertorial for the metal detecting company which promoted the rally, there is no certainty that archaeologists, let alone the wider public whose shared heritage most archaeologists would say this is, will ever know that a rally even took place, let alone what was found.

Mr Lloyd for Sovereign Metal Detecting and Mr Roberts for the Ministry of Detect and the Peak District National Park have been approached for comment.

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thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.

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