Could you strike gold? See if your area might be hiding buried treasure

One autumn day in 1992, a man called Eric Lawes was poking about in a Suffolk field with his metal detector, a retirement gift from the Eastern Electricity Board. He wasn’t on the trail of hidden treasure: he was looking for a lump hammer dropped by farmer Peter Whatling.

Eric found the hammer all right, but not before he’d also stumbled across what was then the biggest collection of Roman gold and silver ever unearthed.

Treasure in Britain

Archaeologists moved in the next day and dug up more than 15,000 Roman coins. The two friends eventually shared a reward of £1.75 million for uncovering the so-called Hoxne (pronounced Hox-un) Hoard, which is now in the British Museum, along with the hammer.

There’s surely no finer example of the romance of metal detecting: the thrill of – quite accidentally – discovering treasures that have lain untouched for centuries. No wonder this absorbing hobby has never been more popular.

Figures just released by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport record 1,378 treasure finds last year, the highest figure since records began in 1996. The figures are provisional, but an estimated 96 per cent of these treasures were uncovered by detectorists.

The DCMS also notes that one per cent of the adult population went detecting at least once over the past year. That’s about 540,000 people, of which 60,000 are thought to be regular detectors.

This salamander brooch set in gold with emeralds and diamonds was discovered in 1912, buried in a cellar in London's Cheapside

Norfolk topped the league table of counties where most treasures were found, but that’s no surprise. It’s been the happiest hunting ground for nine of the past 10 years, toppled only by Hampshire in 2019.

Why Norfolk? “It’s a low population, open field landscape where there was a lot of activity in the Iron Age, Roman, Saxon and Medieval periods,” says Julian Thomas, professor of archaeology at Manchester University. “There’s certainly a lot of sites from those periods in the area.”

Finds include the so-called West Norfolk Hoard, 131 gold coins minted in the Frankish and Byzantine empires and buried shortly after 600AD. They were discovered over many years by the same detectorist, and are considered significant because they show the importance of foreign trade in seventh-century East Anglia.

As Norfolk is clearly swarming with treasure hunters, where else might be fruitful? Hampshire, Kent, Suffolk, North Yorkshire and Wiltshire all revealed more than 70 finds in 2022.

The British Museum holds buried treasure like this Ringlemere gold cup made between 1700–1500 BC

Detecting as a hobby took off in the UK in the late 1960s, using mine detectors from the Second World War. Interest has grown steadily, but there was a definite surge after The Detectorists comedy series, starring Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones, was shown in 2014. There was also a rise in interest during lockdown.

“The Detectorists was fantastic and included all the little quirks and foibles of the hobby,” says Julian Evan-Hart, editor of Treasure Hunting magazine. “It was a truly accurate representation, and it would be fair to say the series was responsible for increasing interest.”

Evan-Hart has been detecting for 51 years. “It’s a fabulous hobby and has many well-known aspects for offering respite from numerous health issues.

“Some have described the metal detector as a time machine. One moment you have travelled back to the Bronze Age by finding a bronze axe-head, and the next you’re holding a crumpled fragment of fuselage from a crashed Messerschmitt Me 109.”

But the rise of detecting has not been universally welcomed by professional archaeologists.  “There have been some examples of bad behaviour in recent years,” says Prof Thomas, “but if a detector user reports significant finds through the Portable Antiquities Scheme, I don’t think we have much of a problem. Indeed, there are lots of detectorists who work closely with archaeologists.”

The law takes a close interest in detecting. The Portable Antiquities Scheme, set up in 1997 and run by the British Museum, has a detailed code of conduct. Detectorists must have permission from the landowner before searching, and must alert the landowner to any significant find.

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The British Museum holds buried treasure like this Ringlemere gold cup made between 1700–1500 BC Credit: Brian Smith

Before the Treasure Act 1996, detectorists could sell any discovery that was not declared as treasure trove. Many items slipped through the net. Now all findings of treasure – gold and silver over 200 years old – must be reported to the coroner within 14 days. The act made it easier for museums to acquire valuable objects, at a price set by the independent Treasure Valuation Committee.

That’s in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, all archaeological finds must be reported to the Treasure Trove Unit of the National Museum of Scotland.

So if you do stumble across a valuable hoard, don’t be tempted to stuff a carrier bag with swag and sneak away. The penalties can be severe. Two detectorists were jailed in 2019 for 10 years and eight-and-a-half years after discovering a cache of Anglo-Saxon coins near Leominster, Herefordshire, four years earlier. They hadn’t asked the landowner’s permission, and had failed to report the coins.

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Some detectorists might be in it for the money, but most share the same love of history that drives professional archaeologists. Detectorist Tim Garbett, 65, from Twickenham, started hunting 10 years ago after it was recommended by a BBC colleague. “The attraction for me is the history,” he says. “Being the first person in however long to hold an object.

“I prefer finding things that one can research – it’s always a thrill to pin down a positive identification of what an object is and date it.

“You always find something, but quite often only rubbish. The most common finds are probably the decayed ends of shotgun cartridges, ring pulls and buttons.” Some discoveries can be more exotic. Mr Garbett once discovered a double-ended metal sex aid, abandoned in a field in Kent.

If you want to take up metal detecting, now is a good time. Autumn, the season of newly-ploughed fields, is the best detecting season. You can find a local club through the website of the National Council for Metal Detecting and The Detectorist blog has tips for beginners. It recommends the Garrett Ace 150, £170, as a good starter machine. You’ll also need a proper detecting spade, and perhaps a pinpointer, which is a hand-held, more accurate detector. Warm clothes and some decent boots are also advisable.

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Where to start? “That’s a very complex topic,” says Evan-Hart. “A perfect site is a matter of opinion, but let’s just say a moderate moisture content field with a flat surface. I like multi-age sites where one can find a Celtic silver coin from 2,000 years ago and then a Victorian silver sixpence.”

But on reading this, please don’t get the impression that detecting is a sure way to riches or archaeological glory. Sometimes it’s just a frustrating, if pleasant, walk in the countryside.

Personally, this writer’s only experience of detecting was a complete let-down. We were in a Wiltshire field which should have been very promising. It was next to the site of a Roman villa and included a stream with a natural crossing, where Romans might have accidentally dropped the odd coin during an afternoon stroll.

We spent a long, hot morning sweeping that field – and discovered what is surely the national collection of discarded mastitis cream tubes.

All things considered, we decided not to bother the British Museum.

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