Going with the FLO: Metal detectorist rally seeks out Oxfordshire’s hidden treasures

Oxfordshire is considered one of the jewels in Britain’s archaeological crown and this weekend will see 1,000 metal detectorists from across the globe descend on a large swathe of land near Leafield for the Big Detectival.

The two-day event is one of the biggest of its kind – with detectorists from the USA and from across Europe where detecting is mostly illegal.

And playing a pivotal role in recording finds from the mass rally across 1,000 acres, some of them ‘virgin’ sites, will be Oxfordshire County Council’s Finds Liaison Officer (FLO) Anni Byard.

Anni, an experienced archaeologist and author who has worked for the county for the past decade, sees events like these a crucial part of understanding the history of Oxfordshire over thousands of years.

Finds unearthed this weekend will be photographed, dated and analysed and some may even be classed as treasure helping Anni, her colleagues and volunteers piece together what is akin to a giant jigsaw puzzle - every item found allows them to better understand our landscape, how it was used and by whom.

Each item is registered with the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which is run by the British Museum to encourage the recording of archaeological objects found by members of the public in England and Wales.

This year the county’s museum service has been celebrating 20 Years of Treasure marking the anniversary of the commencement of the 1996 Treasure Act (September 1997) By May, 35,000 items had been recorded in the county. Now, a matter of weeks later, the figure stands at 36,289.

It’s a testament to the rise in popularity of detecting, especially since the hit BBC4 comedy series The Detectorists which starred its creator Mackenzie Crook and Oxford-born actor Toby Jones. Many clubs are now full and even have waiting lists.

Anni is expecting a tough two days of carefully bagging and itemising everything prised from the ground this weekend. Last time a similar detector-fest revealed more than 500 items – the equivalent to six months’ work of recording, but it also gave evidence of Iron Age and Roman settlements and Saxon activity.

“It’s going to be really hard work, but great fun and will help us gather more evidence of who lived here and a better understanding of our history,” she said.

Anni works closely with Oxford Blues, the county’s prime metal detecting club, but there are many others she meets up with along the way because of the county’s booming popularity with detectorists. It’s our rural and arable landscape that makes it such a draw.

Detectorists should always seek landowners’ permission to search land.

Anni says some landowners may remark that a piece of land has been searched before - perhaps by less scrupulous enthusiasts or even night hawkers - and that nothing has been found.

Anni counters that items are always found even if they're quite modern and that it may be the detectorists who don’t tell the owners what they’ve unearthed and then go on to sell items on the black market.

Our FLO laments this as missed opportunities, because whatever was found could be a vital bit of evidence that the archaeological community may have been searching for.

And she says landowners miss out too. Approved searches with responsible detectorists may mean that if treasure is found – which means it must be of a precious gold or silver – the finder and farmer could stand to benefit financially.

One of her favourite recent finds is an Iron Age brooch. She explained: It’s bronze and would have possibly looked like gold when it was first made more than 2,000 years ago. It not worth anything but it is one of only 17 known in existence and they have mainly been found in a north south line across The Ridgeway. It may have been a tribal badge and may pre-date the area’s main tribe of the time, the Atrebates. Historically, it’s a really important find.”

The brooch is one of hundreds of thousands of items that the Oxfordshire Museum Service holds in its repository near Standlake. Myriad items are packed in to a double-storey climate-controlled warehouse – each and every piece reflecting the social and economic history of the county.

Anni says: “It is a breath-taking sight – row upon row of rare and priceless Oxfordshire ‘memorabilia’.”

There’s old shopfront signs, farm machinery, posters, portraits, a Witney Blanket loom, wartime posters, a staircase from a stately home, a turn-of-the-century pram, a children’s pedal sports car, a plushly decorated horse-drawn carriage used by nobility, a Roman’s gravestone – the first of its kind in the county – a suitcase of baby clothes not to be given to the ‘ungrateful’ or ‘cruel’ woman.

Treasure in this Aladdin’s Cave are regularly sent out in to the community, for displays in libraries, for educational purposes in schools, for illustrated talks and for show at the county museum. Members of the public can also make appointments to tour the facility and marvel at the contents and it is used by students to help in their research.

Perhaps the most unusual object has to be a 1950s Bendix washing machine with a sign proudly revealing it was used for a 30-year period.

Anni explains:“This is the store for all archaeological objects found on commercial digs in Oxfordshire, like the Westgate Centre where there was a big archaeological project and eventually all the archive and objects they found will come here.

“We hold everything that reflects the history of the county from really modern stuff like washing machines all the way back to ancient artefacts. If something is related to the county or has a history within Oxfordshire, like Witney Blankets for example, then we can collect it. It’s all part of our social history.

“We’ve even got items from Didcot Power Station, like the control boards, when that got torn down.”

Anni is appealing for more volunteers to become involved in Oxfordshire Museum Service, especially people with a keen interest in history and photography skills.

To find out more, email anni.byard@oxfordshire.gov.uk

Oxfordshire Museum Resource Centre is holding an open day on Sunday, October 14 between 10am and 4pm. Admission is free


Anni explains: What is treasure?

  • Any object over 300 years old which is made of gold or silver
  • For coins it’s a bit different. One gold coin isn’t treasure, but if you find two of more from the same find spot then it could be treasure. It could be what we call part of a scattered hoard – so a farmer’s plough may have struck the coins and distributed them in the plough soil.
  • The most famous discovery of recent times was the Watlington Hoard. It was discovered on private land by metal-detectorist James Mather in 2015. Comprising about 200 coins (some of them fragmentary), 7 items of jewellery and 15 ingots (bars of silver), the find is not particularly large, but it is hugely significant because it contains so many coins of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex (r. 871–899) and his less well-known contemporary, Ceolwulf II of Mercia (r. 874–c. 879).
  • Items that are bronze – so for coins there must be 10 or more – over 300 years old from the same find spot
  • For prehistoric objects, so pre-Roman, pre 43AD, like a Bronze Age spearhead, that isn’t classes as treasure. But if it has been snapped in two, then it is. The PAS would like changes made to the Treasure Act so that Roman base-metal assemblages and single Roman gold coins are included.
  • If anyone finds something and they are in any doubt they should ask the FLO.
  • If it is treasure they have a legal obligation to report in under the Treasure Act 1996 and hand it to me and we then prepare a report which is then approved by the British Museum, and if report is sent to the coroner for an inquest.
  • If the county museum service wishes to acquire an object, which technically belongs to the Crown, then it will be valued at current market values. Then we have to raise money through grants and public appeals.
  • One notable recent case was that of the Didcot Mirror, a rare Iron age mirror though not technically a treasure. It was sold at auction and was looking certain to go to the USA until the Secretary of State put an export halt on it because it was such an important artefact for Britain. The museum service has six months to raise around £30,000 which it did with the help of grants and the generous support of the public and Friends of Oxfordshire Museum.

For more information on this weekend’s rally see www.detectival.com