Metal Detectors and Archaeology: How to Metal Detect Responsibly


If you want to use metal detectors for amateur archaeology, it’s important to know how to metal detect responsibly.

Metal detecting is a great way for amateurs to become involved with archaeology. Many of the most spectacular finds in the UK have been discovered by metal detectorists, on sites that would have otherwise remained unexplored by archaeologists.

But treasures such as the Staffordshire Hoard could equally have been lost forever if the metal detectorists in question had not behaved responsibly. So if you wish to use a metal detector to uncover undiscovered archaeology in your area, there are guidelines you should follow in order to explore the past responsibly.

Metal Detecting Tips: Before You Go

Before you embark on any metal detecting expedition, there are several things you should do:

Don’t be overambitious. Practice with your metal detector in your garden or a local park if you are a novice. Or better still, join a local or national metal detecting society that fosters responsible detecting and works with local heritage groups. See ‘Useful Metal Detecting Organisations’ for details.

Obtain the permission of the land owner. Do not detect on ground without permission in writing or speaking with the owner in person. In the UK, landowners have an interest in anything you discover, so it’s advisable to agree the relative rights to any finds in advance.

Research the land before detecting. In the UK, it is illegal to metal detect around a scheduled site, site of an ancient monument or an area of special scientific interest. So it’s important to ensure your chosen site doesn’t fall into any of those categories. Check ordinance survey and old local maps as well as your local library, museum or public records office.

Metal Detectors in the Field

Once you have researched the land and acquired the owner’s permission, you can begin to explore. But again it’s important to explore in a way that will not damage the archaeological integrity of the site. To avoid this:

Try to work on land that has already been disturbed such as ploughed fields and keep your detecting to the disturbed layer. That way if you discover anything, you will not be disturbing undiscovered stratigraphy and will avoid damaging any underlying archaeological features.

Do not excavate anything you come across below already disturbed layers. Instead, contact your local museum or archaeological service.

If you come across human remains-ancient or otherwise, alert the police and the landowner. The same applies to live explosives such as undetonated bombs.

Dealing with Metal Detecting Finds

If you do discover anything, it’s vital to protect the condition of the finds and the context in which you discovered them so that the site can be properly investigated by professional archaeologists. To ensure this:

If possible keep finds in situ. If that isn’t feasible, then mark their position on the site.

Excavate carefully. If you need to excavate a small find, be sure to avoid damaging the area around it. Use a small trowel to remove a flap of earth over the find-don’t dig a hole in the ground.

Keep all finds in a coin or artefact tray. Avoid cleaning them, especially with abrasive or chemical materials.

Record your finds. Take Global Positioning Readings and mark them on a map. If you have a camera, take a picture of the find in situ. This will give any investigating archaeologists a good idea of the context.

Report what you discover. In the UK, it is a legal requirement of the Treasure Act that finds of gold and silver coins more than 300 years old and prehistoric base metal objects are reported. It’s also vital that finds are reported so full archaeological investigation can occur. In the UK, the Portable Antiquities Scheme is a voluntary scheme which encourages members of the public to record and report finds to local museums or archaeological society.