Many metal detector users damage archaeological assemblages by pilfering collectable objects (archaeological evidence) from them for personal entertainment and sale with minimum record made of observed context of deposition. Only a few choose responsibly use their machines in situations where there is no possibility of damaging a finite and fragile resource. One such form of hobby use is beachcombing with a metal detector. In Thugwit county Dorset, one such metal detectorist found a nineteenth century inscribed metal disc lying loose on Church Cliff beach in Lyme Regis which he has donated to the Lyme Regis museum. From the inscription on it, it had probably belonged to famous fossil collector Mary Anning.
The token is roughly 25mm in diameter and is 1mm thick. It is an alloy, possibly brass and is not corroded or coated with concretion. Inscribed on one side is 'Mary Anning MDCCCX' meaning 1810, while on the reverse are the words 'Lyme Regis Age XI'.David Tucker, director of Lyme Regis Museum, attempts to narrativise the find, through the use of extra-source information. In 1810, Mary was 11 years old and had yet to find the first ichthyosaur and the plesiosaur which made her famous.
"Mary's father was a cabinet maker, and the disc looks like the metal blanks that I believe cabinet makers use in making handles for drawers." Mary’s dad, Richard Anning, could well have made it for his daughter as an 11th birthday token. As a cabinet maker, he had the tools to impress a metal disc as he would have had made metal labels for his furniture. Making the disc for his daughter may have been one of his last actions, and perhaps a way of showing affection for the daughter his poverty and ill health meant he could do little for. "Richard Anning died in Nov 1810, and this was before Mary made her great discovery a year later," added Mr Tucker. "The Annings weren't well off, and I wonder if Richard made it as a keepsake for his daughter. "By the sound of things he knew he wasn't going to live long, but we could be entirely wrong. It's a really puzzling item."The token could have been lost by Mary herself on one of her visits to the beach or it may have got there with rubble from the demolition of the Anning house at the end of the 19th century to make way for the construction of Lyme Regis Museum on the site.
The problem is one of scope and representativeness and the way this kind of thing is utilised and misrepresented by the supporters of current policies on artefact hunting. One metal detectorist found and donated to a public collection an item which can be related to a historically-known person. Even the PACHI blog says "this is useful". Some metal detectorists report and facilitate the (presence/absence) recording of some of their finds. Supporters say these morsels of information are a "useful source of knowledge" (which somehow makes up for the huge gobbets of information lost in the exploitation of assemblages of archaeological information for personal entertainment and profit). Surely we should not be cherry-picking the highlights of the situation, but looking at these recording events in the wider context in order to see a more representative picture of the effects f artefact hunting on the archaeological understanding of the past, not only in the short term, but also in its longer-term, conservation, perspective. That is what in general people are not doing.