How history is being unearthed and rewritten by metal detectorists with a deep understanding of the past
PUBLISHED: 20:00 29 August 2019 | UPDATED: 07:49 30 August 2019
A piece of Viking silver discovered in a Norfolk field made it into a major exhibition with hours to spare. It is just one example of how metal detectorists are helping historians understand our past.
Almost every day the earth beneath Norfolk gives up long-buried secrets. And the time after harvest and before planting is peak archaeological find time.
Norfolk is the national capital of metal-detector finds, with thousands reported every year. Some fill in previously blank areas of the region's history - or redraw the picture entirely.
Andy Carter, of Norwich, has been metal detecting for more than 20 years. It began when he read a magazine article. "I was amazed at the kinds of things people seemed to be digging up all over the country," he said. "I persuaded a work colleague to go halves on buying a second hand metal detector, and we obtained permission to detect on a farm owned by a friend of mine, in mid-Norfolk."
Since then he has found weapons, coins, jewellery - and many thousands of pieces of virtually worthless metal scraps, often from fastenings on Victorian cotton clothing which was once shredded and used to fertilise fields.
But in 2001 he unearthed a Bronze Age hoard which had lain undisturbed for almost 3,000 years. "There were axe heads, spear heads, woodworking tools, knives, and fragments of sword blade," said Andy, who is now retired from his career as a scientist at the Institute for Food Research, where he specialised in the molecular biology of the genes which produce the world's most deadly natural toxin, botulinum.
"Another favourite of my finds, which also happened to have some intrinsic value (usually quite a rare occurrence!) was a gold ring which dated to the 1490s, the reign of Henry VII. It was covered with decoration on the outside; Tudor roses and lilies (a symbol for the Virgin Mary) but on the inside, inscribed in Gothic black lettering, were the Old French words 'Nul Auter' (none other). This ring, being more than 10% precious metal and greater than 300 years old, passed through the Treasure Act system, and is now in the Castle Museum."
Andy is a member of the East Norfolk Metal Detecting Society which meets in Lingwood every month. Detectorists must always get permission from landowners and Andy said: "One of our club rules is that we expect all members to voluntarily record their finds with the museum, via the Portable Antiquities Scheme. The database finds.org.uk is maintained by the British Museum. In practice, what happens is that if an item is over 300 years old, the archaeologists who attend our meetings take it away for recording. (Finds under 300 years old are deemed too modern - don't tell the Americans!)" said Andy. "They return it, with a report on its identification, the following month.
"The outcome of this system, and probably the main reason why I love the hobby so much, is that a properly identified and recorded object is permanently connected with a particular place. So even though the item is no longer present, the historical record is intact. Future discoveries in the same area can then be linked to the known record, and any significant clusters of similar finds can then be identified."
Most finds are from ploughed soil and even if their immediate context has been lost they can still provide vital information. Andy particularly loves Saxon finds. "Metal finds from this period are very rare, especially the coins, so when these do surface it is a red letter day," he said. "My favourite Saxon coins represent the first ones used in this country since the Romans left, 250 years earlier, in 410AD. These are tiny silver coins called sceats, or sceatta, and one of the most interesting aspects of their design is that many of them carry symbols of both the pagan and Christian religions, since they were struck at a time when conversion to Christianity was an ongoing process. So typically you might have a coin with pagan runes on one side, and Christian crosses on the other."
Viking: Rediscover the Legend, at Norwich Castle, has been revealing some of the wonders of the Saxon and Viking age to visitors. It includes some of the most recent finds made in Norfolk. The story they help tell of how people lived and died in the Viking era, is still unfolding. Even in the seven months the exhibition has been running, more clues about the East Anglian age of the Viking have been unearthed.
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"I am proud to have one of my finds included," said Andy. This time last year it was still lying beneath a mid-Norfolk field - and only made it into the exhibition with hours to spare.
The silver strap end would have decorated the belt of a wealthy woman in the 8th or 9th century. It was probably looted from the continent by Vikings and brought to Norfolk, then under Viking control, as booty. It would normally have gone through the Treasure Act system, with Andy and the landowner sharing any reward eventually made. But they agreed to forgo the money, and the time-consuming process, and donate it to Norwich Castle - allowing it to become part of the current Viking exhibition, with just four hours to spare before the opening.
Tim Pestell, senior curator of archaeology at Norfolk Museums Service and author of Viking East Anglia, said Norfolk had more finds, and more treasure cases, than anywhere else in the country. He paid tribute to the members of Norfolk's six metal detecting clubs, saying: "They are telling us things we would never know, and finding things we would never be looking for."
MORE: Where to find Vikings in Norfolk
Viking: Rediscover the Legend is at Norwich Castle until September 8. Exhibition and activities free with normal Castle admission.