How detectorists thrashed archaeologists at their own game

Detectorists starring Toby Jones and Mackenzie Crook on BBC popularised treasure hunting
Detectorists starring Toby Jones and Mackenzie Crook on BBC popularised treasure hunting - Chris Harris

On any given mid-week afternoon, up and down the British countryside, a growing army of metal detectorists is helping to rewrite history. Forget notions of elderly gentlemen beep-beeping their way across a desolate beach with what looks like an unwieldy vacuum cleaner. Today’s kit is high-tech and comes complete with GPS-aided apps for recording routes and tracking finds. Welcome to metal detecting 2.0, where the stakes couldn’t be higher.

There are now an estimated 40,000 detectorists in the UK, thanks to a new generation of treasure hunters sharing their finds via social media. Videos of unearthing treasure, popular dig sites and impressive finds have racked up almost 3 billion views on TikTok and Instagram. On a wider cultural level, TV shows such as BBC’s Detectorists; the Michaela Strachan-fronted Digging for Treasure and new Channel 5 drama Finders Keepers (starring Neil Morrissey, James Buckley and Fay Ripley), are driving the trend.

Neil Morrissey in Finders Keepers on Channel 5
The latest TV depiction of treasure hunters stars Neil Morrissey in Finders Keepers - Channel 5

So popular has public metal-detecting become that every year 96 per cent of all metallic archaeological objects are found by a detectorist compared to 2 per cent from archaeological digs. In 2022, the British Museum reported a record-breaking year – with more than 53,000 finds and 1,300 treasure cases, the highest-ever reported in a single year in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Among the excavated treasure was a 3,000-year-old gold dress fastener discovered in Staffordshire, one of only seven found in England and Wales.

With such treasure comes the irresistible desire for fame and fortune amongst the metal detecting community, the type that once saw a 20-something have-a-go-detectorist pocket hundreds of thousands of pounds when a Roman cavalry helmet found in Crosby Garrett, Cumbria, sold at private auction for £2.3 million.

Crosby Garrett Helmet at Christie's Auction house
Heavy metal: A detectorist found the Crosby Garrett Helmet in Cumbria; it fetched £2.3 million at Christie's

“It’s like doing the national lottery but having some involvement in the ticket compilations – the more times you go out, statistically the more chance you have of uncovering something significant,” says Julian Evan-Hart, editor of Treasure Hunting magazine on the thrill of the chase. “It’s a mixture of luck, fate, quality of your machine and your mental outlook on the day.”

Now, a recent law change, and a number of high-profile scandals, could put an end to these epic paydays. One recent “fake find” scandal brought the competitive nature of the game to the fore. When 64-year-old metal detectorist Michael Jones from South Wales declared he’d found five rare silver Crusader coins on Herefordshire farmland during a metal detecting rally in 2021, it piqued the suspicions of fellow detectorists.

Further investigation led them to the actual origins of the coins – a £200 bargain on eBay. Jones later admitted having planted in an attempt to impress the wider detectorist community.

“Of course, it can get competitive,” adds Evan-Hart. “But I suspect there was an inferiority complex at play here. Does he regret what he did because he got caught or because it was wrong? We will never know. But a lot of it is opportunistic and it happens in all sports and hobbies. He didn’t go out to cause major harm to anybody, he just wanted to grab some glory and tried to pull some mild perception.”

Petty crime though it may seem (Jones was acquitted of fraud by false representation because there was no proof he stood to make financial gain) but experts argue his allegations could have changed the course of history. The silver deniers, minted in Antioch (now Turkey) between 1163 and 1201 had never been discovered in the area before and archaeologists claim that had they legitimately been found in the field they would have reshaped the cultural history of Herefordshire and the Welsh borders.

Staffordshire Hoard, the largest collection of Anglo Saxon treasure ever found, in 2009
Staffordshire Hoard, the largest collection of Anglo Saxon treasure ever discovered, was found by Bloxwich metal detecting club - Getty Images

Thankfully, cases like Jones’ are incredibly rare and most in the detectoring community report an inclusive, shared desire to contribute to history. “Like any hobby, there are people out there that are not in it for the love of history but are what I call treasure seekers – because they want to find something they can sell on,” says Sophie Baylis, a 44-year-old beauty therapist from Worcestershire who discusses finds on her podcast Sophie AKA Girl That Digs, and who like so many others credits metal detecting with boosting her mental health. Stumbling across treasure is a bonus.

“It’s a very mindful hobby and I’m rarely happier than when I have my headphones on, listening to the sounds of the machine, being in the great outdoors and connecting with nature, says Baylis. “On my first group dig, we found a hoard of small silver hammered coins from the mid-1300s, and that was it, I was hooked. Of course, there will always be people who give the hobby a bad name by not following the rules of reporting, but the vast majority of people in the detectorist community are friendly, supportive and get excited for one another. I could be out for eight hours and find nothing but tin cans, but I’ll still be thrilled if a guy a few yards away unearths a Saxon coin.”

Last year, a law change meant that seeking lucrative bragging rights to a find (one coin or artefact) or a hoard (multiple finds in one concentrated area) is becoming more difficult for rogue detectorists. Previously, the UK definition of Treasure under the 1996 Treasure Act was any metallic object with at least 10% of its weight being gold or silver, that is at least 300 years old when found.

In 2023, the definition was updated and now any object found after July 30 2023 that doesn’t meet that criteria but is made at least partially of metal, is at least 200 years old and provides insight into an aspect of national or regional history, archaeology or culture by its rarity, the location in which it was found or its connection with a particular person or event.

Etiquette dictates that public detectorists should always seek the landowners’ permission before setting off, and anything found of possible historical or regional interest should be reported immediately to your local council’s Find Liaison Officer for verification and cataloguing. Depending on rarity and condition, most finds or hoards will be passed on to museums.

For the purists, this is a positive move that will result in richer collections for the British public to enjoy. “Detectoring is a privilege,” says Evan-Hart. “In the absence of a time machine, this is the next best thing to connect to our past. You can have a direct link to a soldier who 2000 years ago squatted for a pee and dropped that coin.

“I have recovered artefacts connected to people too – Second World War dog tags that I’ve managed to send back to American families of the airmen who died. The letters I get back from relatives are priceless. A few years ago, I returned a silver bracelet to a war evacuee who lost it in 1942.”

For Baylis, it is the sense of camaraderie that keeps her going back into muddy fields week after week. “I have discovered friendship and support in the most unlikely places and that’s part of why I dig, to share that joy. As a mum, wife and business owner, it can be difficult to find downtime by myself but detectoring gets me outside, walking and soaking up that vitamin D when the sun is shining.”

Evan-Hart agrees with the wellbeing benefits: “I’ve heard from ex-servicemen and women who have combat-related mental health issues and I’ve been involved with offenders and drug rehabilitation units who take people out for the day – the look on their faces when they find an old coin, it provides a positive focus and that’s invaluable. I almost wish this hobby could be prescribed on the NHS.”