Hobbyist Metal Detectorists in Europe: a web focus group of their uses and interests in digital tools and applications

Suzie Thomas, University of Helsinki, Irmelin Axelsen, University of Oslo and Vykintas Vaitkevicius, Vilnius University
Keywords: Metal detecting; Digital tools; Web focus groups; Archaeology; Europe
For many decades now, archaeology hobbyist enthusiasts have used metal detectors to access archaeological material in a non-professional and very hands-on way. The legality of the hobby varies depending on which country within which the activity takes place (e.g. Hardy 2016; Makowska, Oniszczuk and Sabaciński 2016). Similarly, the ethics of the metal detecting hobby, and the manner in which it can be conducted – with varying degrees of care with regard to the care taken and quality of data recorded connected to individual finds – are discussed at length in a lot of the related literature (e.g. Reeves 2015; Thomas 2016; Beaudry 2009, 26). Rather than retread this well-walked ground to a great extent, in this paper we focus particularly on the extent to which metal detectorists use digital tools in their hobby.
Across Europe, the legislation controlling metal detecting is a patchwork of different levels of regulation. In some countries such as France, Italy and Spain, metal detecting for archaeological material is effectively forbidden in all instances. At the same time, countries such as Denmark, England and Wales, and recently the Netherlands, have been characterized as ‘liberal’ in their approach (Deckers, Lewis and Thomas 2016, 426-427), where metal detecting is allowed in certain circumstances, although known archaeological sites and other archaeologically sensitive areas still enjoy legal protection.
In countries where metal detecting is possible, there is usually a system in place to ensure that the data generated from metal detecting activities can be recorded and made useful to archaeological research. The oldest and probably best-known of these is the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) that operates in England and Wales (see Bland et al. 2017 for overview). In more recent years open finds recording databases have launched in the Flanders region of Belgium, Denmark, and the Netherlands. At the time of writing a similar scheme is under development in Finland (see Wessman et al. in press for overview of its development). These databases already open up a possibility for metal detectorists to engage with and contribute to archaeological data through a digital platform.
We present results from a recorded web focus group that we carried out in November 2018. The web focus group is one of several that members of the COST Action ‘Arkwork’ carried out, targeting different interest groups in relation to digital engagements with archaeology. In our web focus group we consulted five hobbyist metal detectorists, from Belgium, Finland, Lithuania, Norway, and the United Kingdom. The recorded discussion is supplemented with information from a further two hobbyist metal detectorists – from Denmark and Poland – who were unable to participate in the web focus group but opted to provide written responses to our guiding questions. All of our informants are anonymized in this presentation, and potential identifying information omitted.
We selected the web focus group participants through personal networks and connections, since all three of us have research experience of working with metal detectorists and with other archaeologists who also work with metal detectorists. Our decisions of who to approach were also influenced by the legal status of metal detecting in different countries, with it harder to approach people in countries where the hobby is illegal. An effect of this is that our informants come from northern European countries, with the south not represented at all in particular web focus group.
After transcribing the recorded web focus group, we coded the transcript for analysis, as well as coding the written responses from the two metal detectorists who provided written responses. We were particularly interested in the different aspects of the metal detecting hobby that are most affected by digital opportunities – with finds recording schemes and online research of maps and other sources suggesting ‘citizen science’ approaches, while at the same time Facebook and other social media platforms providing means for hobbyists to community one another and share information.
In our conclusion section we summarize our main findings, reflect on the advantages and disadvantages of the methodology we adopted – particularly our efforts to do our analysis in synchronization with approaches and coding used in several other web focus groups and scrapes – and suggest avenues for taking this line of inquiry further.References:

Beaudry, Mary. 2009. “Ethical Issues in Historical Archaeology”, in International Handbook of Historical Archaeology, edited by David Gaimster and Teresita Majewski, 17-29. New York: Springer.

Bland, Roger, Michael Lewis, Daniel Pett, Katherine Robbins and Rob Webley. 2017. “The Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme in England and Wales”. In Key Concepts in Public Archaeology, edited by Gabriel Moshenska, 107-121. London: UCL Press.

Deckers, Pieterjan, Michael Lewis, and Suzie Thomas. 2016. “Between Two Places: Archaeology and Metal-detecting in Europe.” Open Archaeology 2.1: 426-429.

Hardy, Sam. 2016. “‘Black Archaeology’ in Eastern Europe: Metal Detecting, Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Objects, and ‘Legal Nihilism’ in Belarus, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine”, Public Archaeology 15(4): 214-237.

Makowska Agnieszka, Agnieszka Oniszczuk and Marcin Sabaciński. 2016. “Some Remarks on the Stormy Relationship Between the Detectorists and Archaeological Heritage in Poland”, Open Archaeology 2(1): 171-181.

Reeves, Matthew. 2015 “Sleeping with the ‘Enemy’: Metal Detecting Hobbyists and Archaeologists”, Advances in Archaeological Practice 3(3): 263-274.

Thomas, Suzie. 2016. “The future of studying hobbyist metal detecting in Europe: A call for a transnational approach”, Open Archaeology 2(1): 140-149.