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Letter from Britain: Hunting for Treasure Volume 55 Number 4, July/August 2002
by Neil Brodie

Archaeologists and metal detectorists reconcile conflicting interests in Great Britain's past.

Last November, not far from Canterbury in Kent, retired electrician Cliff Bradshaw was scanning a field with his metal detector when he made the find of a lifetime--a gold cup from around 1600 B.C. Bradshaw telephoned a local archaeologist, who was at first skeptical but quickly changed his mind when he saw a photograph of the object. The discovery alerted authorities to an ancient mound that had been flattened by millennia of plowing, and which was subsequently excavated by the Canterbury Archaeological Trust.

Bradshaw, under Britain's 1996 Treasure Act, looks set to share the cup's estimated $350,000 value with the landowner on whose property it was discovered, the cup itself going to the British Museum. The find showcases the trust and cooperation that exists between many metal detector enthusiasts and archaeologists in the United Kingdom.

But there is a disturbing new wrinkle in the U.K. metal-detecting scene: visiting tour groups of Canadian and American detectorists whose poor understanding of British laws and codes of practice are alienating their British counterparts and archaeologists. In February 1999, for example, an American citizen returning home from a metal-detecting vacation in England was stopped by customs officers at Heathrow Airport. The detectorist had ignored his tour organizers' warnings that all archaeological objects found in the U.K. need to be licensed for export, and his finds--medieval and later artifacts--were seized. He was not prosecuted and left the country with only a warning. The problem may not be simply rogue individuals. Anecdotal evidence suggests that some tours act in an unprincipled and illegal manner, taking participants detecting on private land without permission and even "nighthawking" (staging nighttime raids) on protected sites.

Neil Brodie is coordinator of the Illicit Antiquities Research Centre at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, Cambridge.

© 2002 by the Archaeological Institute of America