Sleeping with the Enemy? The Scientific Potential of Amateur ‘Metal Detecting Archaeology’ on the Example of the Finds Dating Back to the Roman Iron Age and the Migration Period, Discovered in 2006–2014 in the Federal State of Schleswig-Holstein
Jan Schuster 1  
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Instytut Archeologii Uniwersytetu Łódzkiego ul. G. Narutowicza 65 PL 90-131 Łódź
Wiadomości Archeologiczne 2017;LXVIII(68):19–31
Whether we like it or not the activity of amateur metal detectorists who search the land for ancient and modern artefacts has now become widespread in many countries, here to stay, not to be avoided. Most professional researchers used to view this activity with suspicion. Their attitude, rule sceptical or hostile as a rule was dictated largely by the understanding that metal detecting impinges on the authority of archaeological institutions. The discussion – almost invariably quite emotionally charged – has continued over several decades, as evidenced by a long list of relevant publications. There is no need to emphasize in any special way that metal detectoring is destructive when driven by material gain, obviously nothing but commercial robbery, unstoppable for all the restrictive regulations in force. However, at the other end of the spectrum are amateur detectorists who, driven by a genuine fascination by their region’s past, would be ready to cooperate with the relevant institutions. We can describe their attitude as ‘a public-minded involvement in researching history and archaeology’. The potential benefits from a focused activity of amateur metal detectorists who have been trained and work in consultation with professional archaeologists have been demonstrated by the archaeological record obtained in the federal state of Schleswig-Holstein through a project aimed on making amateur detectorists a part of the system of institutionalized archaeology. An eight-year cooperation with amateur detectorists designed to test the value of their activities was followed by a research project wherein Roman Period and Migration Period amateur metal detector finds from everywhere in Schleswig-Holstein were submitted to a scientific analysis. The finds from this research project were published in monograph form (J. Schuster 2016). The analyzed assemblage (828 artefacts) proved to be an important source for the study of Late Antiquity in northern Germany and southern Scandinavia. The tremendous potential of metal detector archaeology, both for conservation and research, is demonstrated by the sheer number of archaeological sites unknown previously and identified only thanks to the metal detecting activities: 45, i.e., 62.5% of all sites investigated using metal detectors. Moreover, new and crucial data were obtained for sites already excavated in the past, both as regards the number and quality of the finds and the chronology of their use, of relevance in reconstructing the history of settlement in the region. The Roman Period and Migration Period finds show that long-term amateur metal detecting projects with institutional supervision can definitely bring in valuable results. This should be reason enough to incorporate this new branch of archaeology into the system of regular institutionalized research and add it to the agenda of monuments conservation offices. As to the question posed in the title, we can say that with a proper attitude towards amateur detectorists, by bringing their activity under the umbrella of monuments conservation offices, by assisting their interest in prehistory – obviously always within the law – from enemies they could become collaborators, and even friends of the archaeologist.