Don’t use magnets to seek treasure, experts warn after technique damages Viking sword found in river

A magnet fisherman shows his equipment
A magnet fisherman shows his equipment

The British Museum has urged detectorists not to go “magnet fishing” to retrieve treasure after a Viking sword was damaged while being dredged from a river.

A record number of finds, from Iron Age coin hoards to Tudor rosary beads, are being unearthed in the UK, according to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) run by the British Museum.

But experts are determined to persuade those seeking treasure to stop using the increasingly popular technique of “fishing” for artefacts in waterways using powerful magnets.

They say the risks of the method include blowing up unexploded ordnance, and damaging artefacts.

The warning from the PAS comes after a Viking sword was damaged while being pulled out of the River Wallers Haven in Suffolk. The remains of the hilt fell off and were lost in the river.

Risks include explosives and drowning

The scheme experts wrote: “‘Fishing’ for metal objects with powerful magnets in lakes and waterways has become increasingly popular. However, there are many risks involved, including finding unexploded ordnance and possibly drowning.

“There is also the risk of damage to the object and its archaeological context, particularly at sites of ritual deposition. The PAS advises against this activity, which is banned by the Canal and River Trust on its waterways.”

The method also erases important archaeological context which offers clues as to the meaning of objects, and what they were used for.

In 2022, a record haul of archaeological finds were made in the UK, with detectorists largely responsible for the 53,490 discoveries.

Among the finds were an Iron Age hoard of coins in a flint container, and an eerie rosary bead carved in bone during the Tudor period, when the position of Catholics in Britain was precarious.

Thanks for detectorists

One side of the delicately carved object, found on the banks of the Thames near the City of London, shows the face of a young woman, but the other depicts a skull, reminding the owner of their mortality.

Mark Jones, the interim director of the British Museum, said: “The information about finds is being recorded by the PAS to advance knowledge of past peoples, where and how they lived.

“As such, it reflects every part of human history, from the Palaeolithic to more modern times, across the whole of England and Wales.

“Most of the finds recorded have been found by members of the metal-detecting community and I wanted to especially thank them for recording these items with the PAS.”

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