Sunday 4 December 2011

Detecting Under the Microscope: More Grey Detecting in Norfolk

A group of UK artefact hunters have created a private facility for fellow metal detector users who do not want to responsibly report artefacts to the state-run PAS system. In imitation of the PAS, they have set up set up their own "database" to "record" their finds, creating an alternative definition of "responsibility" to that promulgated in the official Code of Practice for Responsible Metal Detecting in England and Wales. It is allegedly "an initiative by members of the metal-detecting community to promote good practice within the hobby. [...] an online facility for detectorists to record their finds and ensure that the information is preserved for future generations" ["good practice" is undefined]. The pirate database however is incompatible with the format of the PAS database, and the format of Historic Environment Records used in planning, and does not allow for the accurate recording of findspot which is a key feature of the PAS system.

The UKDFD is used by 'grey' detectorists who fall between the extremes of the 'white' end of the scale (those who responsibly report all of their recordable finds with full details to the PAS) and the so-called 'black sheep' who hunt for artefacts for collection and sale by illegal means. There are many grey areas in artefact hunting and one of them is the degree to which the archaeological record is being plundered for commercial ends by these people. Artefact hunters deny it is happening, they are "all in it for the history" they protest. But eBay tells a different story to this broad brush generalization. Here we can examine individual, real-life cases rather than glib statements about the milieu of artefact hunters.

I came across an eBay seller from Wereham, Norfolk in another context (more of that later perhaps) and thought this case worthy of some attention. Here in the full majesty of the law a metal detectorist (I assume, since he presents himself as such in the archives of UKDFD) is benefiting from the lax English laws to hoover out collectable and saleable items from the archaeological record of, mostly it seems, Norfolk, and apparently instrumentally using the UKDFD to legitimise their sale. We can use the records of actions and transactions openly available on the Internet to see what happens to them.

This seller has some auctions going on at the time of writing. One of the ones that has finished however is a "WONDERFUL (sic) Roman Hound Chasing Hare Folding Knife Handle 1st - 4th century AD" ("Stunning artefact. Great detail. Extremely collectable. Lovely dark patina. Really nice rare item. Sold as seen."). It sold on 18th November to a buyer for 76 quid (I wonder whether the landowner who let him take it away knows that?) Buyer molenkamp who won it (apparently Simon Wicks, East Dean, Sussex) is a dealer busily acquiring quite a varied collection of dugup goodies on eBay from various sources (probably including a number of metal detectorists).

As "authentication" of this find, the seller offers the information that the object he sold has been "recorded" on the UKDFD detectorists' finds website and as a result,
"Nigel Mills ([....] comments: "The 'hare and hound' is the most common form of folding knife to have been manufactured in Roman Britain by native craftsmen. This type of knife was primarily used as a razor, and its popularity suggests usage by the Legionaries".[...] Recorded on UKDFD - Ref. No. - 34662.
Leaving aside the dubious ethnic label and social inference, let's follow that link through and pay attention to the field "recorded elsewhere?" and the negative answer.

A few moments spent on this seller's "eBay My World: dacockle (Feedback score 594)" page reveals a telling pattern. In the lasts twelve months, he has sold 123 items, most of them metal detected artefacts and coins, 29 of them in the last month. These are interesting statistics as it reveals that if he has been finding them himself, his rate of finding the most saleable of recordable items is actually FIVE TIMES that predicted by the much-maligned Heritage Action Artefact Erosion Counter. Five times. The evidence that he is indeed the actual finder comes from the UKDFD website, where many of them have been listed and the same person is given as the finder. [This gentleman has apparently recently (?) changed his user name on UKDFD from "cockled"(or variants thereof) to "Smith1430". The reason for this is unclear.]

What is more important here is that shortly after each item appearing as 'verified' on the UKDFD webpage, the majority of them appeared on eBay. From the "recorded elsewhere" field it is clear that the vast majority were not reported to the PAS. Some of the coins were shown to numismatists (again to supply some form of authentication and identification for the sales spiel). This casts some shadow on the purpose behind the UKDFD site, is it merely to provide authentication and legitimation of artefacts which are destined for the international internet market in dugup "minor" antiquities? Is that the "good practice' the UKDFD is promoting amongst its members? It is certainly legal, and I am sure these people are all "law abiding", but is it right? If so, why has a major metal detecting forum (not the UKDFD) banned its members from even discussing internet sales of the portable antiquities they dig up?

Looking at the public records of ebay, we can determine that the Norfolk metal detectorist's sales in the last month or so include:

RARE Coin Weight - C15th-C16th Ryal Series (#250925936344) UKDFD 32391. Sold for GBP 14.99

RARE Washington One Cent 1785? (#250915062399) - early US coin found in Norfolk GBP 19.99

SAXON Hooked Tag (#250925900155) =
UKDFD 32476 GBP 9.99

Collection of 11 Voided Long Cross/Long Cross Cut Halfs and Quarters From my collection (#250925844586) GBP 23.66

ABSOLUTELY STUNNING Anglo-Saxon Zoomorphic Strap-End (#250925877482) = UKDFD 32443. GBP 75.00

ABSOLUTELY STUNNING Shield-Shaped Heraldic Harness Stud (#250925929151) = UKDFD 32303 GBP 89.00.

Collection of Short Cross Cut Halfs and Quarters from my collection (#250925841626) GBP 37.65

VERY NICE Saxon Penny - Cnut (Rare Coin) (#250922368298) UKDFD 32291. GBP 270.00

Lead Artefacts from C17th English Civil War Battle/Skirmish Site - Kings Lynn (#250915611475) [BATTLEFIELD LOOT, 3 musket balls, 1x powder measure and an unidentified lead badge]. Not recorded anywhere, not even UKDFD: sold for GBP 8.50

Saxon Penny - Edward The Confessor (Rare Coin) (#250915239716) UKDFD 33805. GBP 172.00

Norman Penny - Henry I (Rare Coin) (#250915247711) = UKDFD - 33594. GBP 200.00

EXTREMELY RARE Scottish Alexander II Hammered Penny (#250915254953) UKDFD - GBP 227.00

Bulk Lot of 100 Roman Coins uncleaned and unresearched, as dug in Norfolk. (#250915582472) GBP 65.00

STUNNING Gold Edward IV Rose Noble/Ryal, "Although found in isolation , it is probably from a hoard. Starting price at £2250 reflects condition, NEF".(#250908448441). (found near King's Lynne) "recorded" in UKDFD Sept 26 2011 and apparently nowhere else. Sold for GBP 2,402.76, Oct 20, 2011.

Bronze Vessel Leg (#250855040722), sold for GBP 0.99, buyer comments "provenance would be useful"

There are 29 pages of this, going back to March 31st 2008 (though he is a user since the end of December 2007). Nearly 600 transactions.

In the period of just over a month between the end of October 2011 and today, it seems that this gentleman has made GBP 1762 from selling off the small pieces of metal he has found in the fields of Norfolk farmers (plus another 2402 quid for a single gold coin which may have been from an otherwise unknown hoard). If that can be extrapolated from 30 transactions (average sixty quid each) to the 600 he (and other metal detectorists) participate in, it becomes clear that the searching of fields for metal scraps is a nice little earner. Add to that that the non-collectable non-ferrous metal has a substantial scrap value, and some collectors claim to be able to sell the photos of individual quite mundane finds for 500 quid apiece, the financial rewards are tempting. That is even if the honest ones are returning a hefty proportion of these earnings to the landowners who let "finders" like "Smith1403", and "cockled" take away these money-making "minor" finds.

But how many landowners see even a penny of such profits? Most "landowner agreements" published on detectorist websites do not include ANY mention of this, the only exception being a mention of Treasure cases or individual high value finds, the sale of which has of course a very public character. The cumulative value of the small pieces of corroded mud-caked metal shown, perhaps deliberately dismissively, as the detectorist exits the field is not mentioned. Certainly, checking reveals that none of these agreements mention the photographic rights. One can only conclude that some, perhaps many, and maybe even the majority of landowners are being royally ripped off by these artefact hunters and kept wholly in the dark about the financial worth of the "just old scraps this time" they allow to be taken away. When however a landowner requests some kind of remuneration for allowing people onto their property to find these things and imposes conditions, there is an uproar about "collectors' rights" (let us compare HRH's proposed annual fee of GBP 70 with the 1760 quid made by the seller under discussion here last month from selling off SOME of what he has found recently).

The rate of finding some quite nice saleable stuff by this detectorist is quite remarkable. He does not say what machine he uses, nor how many detecting hours a week this represents, nor where in the region of Wereham and King's Lynne he is finding these "productive sites". As I say, the rate at which he has been selling finds recently is five times the rate predicted by the HA counter. The only thing that would bring his selling rate to that of the erosion counter's rate is if these finds are THE ONLY things he has found over a period of twenty years which he is now disposing of. Is that the case? Is it the case that he has not actually found all these finds himself, but perhaps bought them from others and then represented them as his finds on UKDFD? I must say that knife handle with which I began this text does look a bit odd in the photo, also that's not really a very common "patina" for Norfolk dug ups is it? What it looks like (from the photo) is the sort of deep green chemical patina that you get on a number of "Roman" objects that have been coming out of Bulgaria. You can compare the picture on eBay (and the photos of Balkan dugups on eBay) with photos of the appearance of objects from Norfolk on the PAS database to spot the difference. So, was this knife handle really dug up in Norfolk by this artefact hunter and ebay seller? Or if it is a Norfolk dugup, has the finder for example stripped a crude example of one of these objects with acid or coca-cola or whatever it is detectorists use and then repatinated it with the sort of gunk you can buy on eBay too?

These are just a few of the questions that arise when we start looking at individual cases. At the moment, I see that on eBay there are 1983 objects* on sale in the "British Antiquities" category on eBay.UK1983 objects (that's not including Roman and Medieval coins which are in a separate section) being sold by several hundred individual sellers. What stories and patterns of activity would a close examination of all of them reveal?

Vignette: what lies beneath the nice clean white surface

*Though it has to be said the complete lack of intelligence of some eBay sellers is clearly such that a whole range of other objects are falsely listed in this category.

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