Detectorists unearthing treasures which should be left alone

Archaeologists warn treasure hunters who use metal detectors and shovels to unearth valuable objects at national monument sites are breaking the law and 'stealing' from the State
Detectorists unearthing treasures which should be left alone

Matthew Seaver, National Museum of Ireland assistant keeper at the Irish Antiquities Division, recording the disturbed ground at Kilcrea Friary, Ovens, Cork. Picture: Jim Coughlan

It has been a popular hobby in the UK for decades but has seen a resurgence in recent years, fuelled in part by the success of TV shows like The Detectorists, a comedy starring Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones as two eccentric metal detectorists who spend their days sweeping fields in the hope their alarms go off when they find treasure.

While it has led to the discovery of some of the most incredible and valuable hoards in that jurisdiction, including the vast Staffordshire hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver in 2009, later bought from the finder jointly by a museum and gallery for £3.285m, the rise of the hobby here has caused nothing but alarm in the archaeological community.

Two recent incidents at protected national monuments here, where dozens of holes were dug by detectorists and where human remains were disturbed, have just heightened concerns.

But as the British authorities play catch-up by introducing new laws on the definition of buried treasure which will compel detectorists to surrender certain finds to the museums, the laws here on metal detectors and archaeological finds could not be tighter or clearer.

“Using a metal detector on a national monument site, even having it in your possession on the site, is illegal, and archaeological objects are the property of the State,” Matthew Seavers, an assistant keeper in the Irish antiquities division in the National Museum of Ireland, explains.

Disturbed ground and discarded metal at Kilcrea Friary. Picture: Jim Coughlan
Disturbed ground and discarded metal at Kilcrea Friary. Picture: Jim Coughlan

He was speaking during a visit to the 15th-century Kilcrea Abbey national monument in Cork on Thursday with Anne Carey, the district archaeologist in the National Monuments Service, to inspect recent damage caused by detectorists.

At least 10 holes were dug on the monument by two men who were spotted on the site on March 11 with a metal detector and digging tools. They were reported by a concerned member of the public.

Even more disturbing, however, was an incident at Conna Castle near Fermoy last month, where a group of people with metal detectors and shovels dug about 70 holes in the outcrop upon which the imposing castle stands.

An inspection of the scene later found evidence human remains of archaeological significance had been disturbed during the digging of one of the holes.

Reports on both incidents are being prepared for gardaí.

There are an estimated 130,000 archaeological monuments at thousands of locations around the country, ranging from ring forts, to standing stones.

But there are about 1,000 individual national monuments at hundreds of locations around the country in the custody and guardianship of the State, ranging from megalithic tombs of the neolithic period to medieval churches and castles, industrial mills and historic buildings.

Under the National Monuments Acts 1930 to 2004, it is illegal to use a metal detector at a protected national monument site, and to even be in possession of a detection device at a protected site, without the prior written consent of the Minister for Heritage.

Penalties include fines of up to €63,486 or three months in jail. The penalties for digging or excavating for archaeological objects without a licence include fines of just over €126,000 and up to 12 months in jail.

It is illegal to promote the sale or use of detection devices for the purposes of searching for archaeological objects and any such objects found in the ground belong to the State. Anyone who finds an archaeological object must report it to the National Museum of Ireland within 96 hours.

But it seems the message is getting through to metal detector hobbyists.

Mr Seavers said those involved in illegal metal detecting activity are looking for discarded iron objects, precious metals like silver, copper, or alloy coins — small portable objects that can be kept at home or sold online and effectively lost to the State.

Those who remove such artefacts from national monument sites are “stealing from the interpretation” of these heritage sites, he said.

“We have reports of objects that were definitely found using detection devices, but some of which are now being kept for people's private entertainment and some of which are being sold,” he said.

“In and of themselves, these objects mean only what's contained within the object, but when they're associated with a monument, they have a story to tell, and that's the fascinating thing about these objects.

“And when people remove those objects on their own, the objects are only significant in their own meaning — a coin is only significant to its own time period — but its position in a particular layer tells you something about the dating of that event.

Those involved in this activity are actually stealing from the interpretation of the site and the appreciation that the general public would have of this site if it was excavated from the National Museum’s perspective.

“It's an offence and we do investigate every time these incidents are reported and we liaise with the gardaí to make sure that this activity is stopped and the monuments are kept for the appreciation of everyone rather than for the select few.” 

Anne Carey, district archaeologist in the National Monuments Service at Kilcrea Friary: 'It's very distressing to see excavations of this type and for this purpose in the monument.' Picture: Jim Coughlan
Anne Carey, district archaeologist in the National Monuments Service at Kilcrea Friary: 'It's very distressing to see excavations of this type and for this purpose in the monument.' Picture: Jim Coughlan

Ms Carey said people care very deeply for the archaeological sites in their areas, whether they are national monuments or not, and she praised the members of the public who reported the most recent illegal digging activity to the National Monuments Service.

“It's very distressing to see excavations of this type and for this purpose in the monument,” she said, as she surveyed the damage at Kilcrea Abbey on Thursday.

“It isn't just at it [the building]. It's actually in the monument. Some of these holes there are right up against the wall of the monument. You couldn't get closer to the monument.

“Metal is just one of the aspects of the rich range of remains left by previous occupants on a site. The retrieving of metal alone in this manner destroys context, it destroys the things we're interested in, those which have been left by the previous occupants.

“It's just very disheartening to see this.”

While those involved in this activity may see themselves as amateur archaeologists, or bargain basement Indiana Jones types, Ms Carey is clear.

“I wouldn't call them archaeologists at all. I think their purposes are entirely different to ours,” she said. 

It's almost like an act of vandalism because it's got no benefit to the archaeological community or to the wider community.

“It's not adding anything to the information on the site. In fact, it could be actively destroying valuable information on the site.

“I've been involved in excavations where you see the holes that have been dug by the detectorists as you're going down through your own layers [of soil], and you see the damage.

“So I know from first-hand experience the pointlessness, in an archaeological sense, of doing this.

Some of the illegally dug holes under Conna Castle, Cork.
Some of the illegally dug holes under Conna Castle, Cork.

“The damage at Conna Castle left a very visual trace. Every visitor who has come to the site would have seen 70 holes excavated, and every person who comes around this site will see the damage.

“People don’t like it and people are upset by it. It is an illegal act and the people who care are aware of that." 

Mr Seavers said it may be the case that the detectorists here have seen the various TV shows but are just not aware of the differences in legislation between the UK and Ireland governing the use of the devices and the ownership of archaeological objects.

But ignorance of the law is no justification.

The damage at Conna Castle and Kilcrea Friary has been inspected and reports will be prepared for the gardaí to assist in their investigation.

Separate reports will be prepared to help guide the reinstatement of the disturbed ground at both sites, work which itself will require special licences and permissions.

Both experts urged people to familiarise themselves with the legislation, and they encouraged people who see detectorists on national monument or heritage sites to report the matter to the National Monuments Service.

You can report illegal metal detector activity to

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