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Digging up the past: What really drives the detectorists?

27 Jan 2023 | Written by By Paul Phillips

I’m sitting in a pub with an axe in my hand. An axe head, to be precise. The handle is long gone. Not that surprising seeing as what I’m holding is the best part of 3000 years old.  

It was found in a Norfolk field by metal detectorist Godfrey Pratt. The Bronze Age tool is in pristine condition, preserved by the saturated ground it was found in. The craftsmanship is remarkable. The sense of history is immense. Maybe that’s what appeals to Godfrey more than anything else.

Portrait of Godfrey Pratt

The hugely popular BBC TV series Detectorists shone a light on the hobby, although I suspect the subliminal message from the programme was about the participants trying to find themselves as much as the shiny stuff that might lie beneath their feet.

Mind you, the shiny stuff also has obvious appeal. Godfrey says he’s known by his team at the Norfolk Heritage Recovery Group as ‘the king of bling’ for the trinkets he brings in. He found himself on national media when he unearthed an Anglo-Saxon pendant – which he first thought was a bottle top. It turned out to be extremely rare, made of high quality gold possibly in France. It’s now on display in the Norwich Castle museum.

Godfrey’s fascination with the buried past began when he was 10. He lived near Peterborough and read that workmen dualling the A1 had found a Roman burial site. So, with a friend, he cycled to the site and wandered around filling his saddlebag with Roman bones and other bits and pieces. He explained that, unlike now, no-one seemed to be worried about site security.

But it wasn’t until many years later, when the time-consuming pressures of family and career had eased, that Godfrey bought his first metal detector. He soon discovered that the key to successful metal detecting is patience.

“I realised that most of the things that are metallic in the ground are nails, horseshoes, shotgun cartridges – loads and loads of junk. It is a long learning curve before you start to understand the signals you are getting from your metal detector.”

An entry level metal detector will cost about £200. Godfrey now uses a bit of kit that is ten times that price. But, as ever, you get what you pay for. His detector can identify different types and sizes of metal so presumably it saves him digging up the junk quite so often.

So, you’ve got a detector, but how do you know where to start looking? 

“You’re quite limited really because all the ground you see is owned by someone and you can’t trespass on someone’s land and start digging holes. The first place you can start is your back garden, of course, and then you can move onto your friend’s back garden and when you’ve run out of all your friends you just put the word around that you would like to metal detect and sometimes you’re lucky and someone will say ‘we’ve got a paddock that you can try.’”

Godfrey warns that it is vital to get the landowners permission and that can be tricky. For instance, many farmers are tenants so are not necessarily the people to give the ok. 

“You can sometimes, by your own observation, see the fields that look interesting either because they’re close to a ruined church or an old important house or there might be interesting humps and bumps in the field indicating ruins. But to be honest, it’s a matter of luck.” 

Luck, perhaps, but knowing what you’re looking at is a valuable source of clues. 

“People who occupied the land in, say, the Bronze Age or earlier left very little behind to show that they were there. But there may be some bits of pottery or flint tools which indicate some sort of settlement.”

And then there are the ‘potboilers.’

“There are some stones you will find that are crazed. They were used for heating water. Before we had metal and strong earthenware pottery water was heated in wooden or leather containers – or even a sheep’s stomach. Water in such a container couldn’t be heated over a fire so they’d get a handful of stones and put them in the fire. When the stones were really hot they were picked up with greenwood twigs and dropped into the water to make it hot. The thermal shock shattered the surface of the stone. The crazed stones date from the Bronze Age right through to the early Roman period. “

So you’ve found a promising site and hopefully your metal detector is giving off all the right signals. I asked Godfrey about his first find. 

“I can remember the first coin I ever found. I was in North Norfolk on a caravan holiday at a farm and the nice Mr Farmer allowed me to metal detect on his fields. I found a silver penny from the time of Edward 1st, minted between 1290 and 1305 in Canterbury. A medieval silver coin is the iconic find in the metal detecting world. They’re known as ‘hammies.’ They were made by hammering an engraved image onto a silver blank. When you’re on a field with a group of people you often hear the call: I’ve got a hammy!’ “

These coins are fairly common but there are strict rules governing the discovery of potential ‘treasure.’ It is defined as an artefact which contains more than 10 percent gold or silver.  A single coin doesn’t have to be reported; two or more must be declared to a County Council’s Finds Liaison Officer. They’re sent to the British Museum for appraisal. A Coroner, advised by an archaeologist, may then be involved to decide whether a find is treasure or not. It could all lead to a reward being paid which is usually spilt 50/50 between the finder and landowner. 

Severe penalties loom for those tempted to ignore the law and instead try to sell their finds on the black market.

Godfrey’s most valuable find to date is a gold coin made in Norfolk by the Iceni tribe. It depicts a bust of Apollo on one side and a wolf on the other. It’s known as the Norfolk Wolf. Godfrey says the coin is at the top of every East Anglian detectorist’s bucket list. Its value today runs into four figures but it sits proudly in Godfrey’s private collection. As it was a single coin it didn’t need to be handed in, remember. Please pay attention at the back.

But forget any monetary value for the moment. The real richness here is the story behind the coin. In the late Iron Age the Iceni started trading with continental tribes who used little shiny things or ‘money.’ The Iceni thought they’d better have some of their own. They were called ‘staters’ and were in circulation until around the time the Romans turned up. But why did the Iceni put Apollo on their coins? A depiction of the Greek deity was used on coins made in ancient Macedonia whose tribes were trading with the Iceni. So it’s most likely the Iceni just copied that. To me that story is priceless. 

Godfrey’s most recent find was a little more up to date. A toy petronel from about the time of the English Civil War. Here’s what happened: 

“Every so often, when I’m out metal detecting, I find something which resonates across the centuries to make a real personal connection. So it was on my last visit to a farm in the village, where I’ve recently been given permission to detect.

One day in the late 16th/early 17th century – when Elizabeth I, James I or Charles I was on the throne – a young boy was playing in the field beside his home. He’d been given a toy gun, a model matchlock musket, just like the ones the soldiers use. On this particular day, while chasing imaginary enemy soldiers, he tripped over, the gun slipped out of his hand, and try as he might he couldn’t find it. He was very upset. Although he searched many times over the following days, he never did manage to find it, and there it lay for four hundred years until I walked over it with my metal detector. I wish I could return it to the little chap who lost it.” 

I asked Godfrey how he uncovered the story. He said, chuckling, that he’d made it up. A bit of romance to add to the actual find, bringing the past back to life. 

Perhaps, for most metal detectorists, that’s what it’s all about. 


For anyone interested in taking up metal detecting, Godfrey advises joining an established club – although many have long waiting lists. There are detectorists online who have set up their own websites and organise digs on land that they have permission to use. There’s also the National Council for Metal Detecting which is well worth a look at. 

Paul Phillips has been a journalist for over 40 years, had senior editorial roles with the BBC and Sky News and worked in many parts of the world as a consultant and skills trainer. Paul is also a university lecturer specialising in broadcast journalism and TV production.

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