With an urgency that is highlighted by UNESCO’s consideration of “treasure hunters” and cultural trafficking –
regulation on metal detectors and underground monitoring systems and the imprisonment of (no-longer-police constable) David Cockle for illicit metal detecting, (open-access) Cogent Social Sciences have published my quantitative analysis of open-source data on metal detecting for cultural property: estimation of the scale and intensity of metal detecting and the quantity of metal-detected cultural goods.
Public interest statement
It is possible to estimate how many people are metal-detecting, how much detecting they do and how many historic or cultural objects they find, by analysing publicly-available (“open-source”) evidence from online forums, social networks and elsewhere. This study compares activity in Australia, Austria, Flanders and elsewhere in Belgium, Canada, Denmark, England and Wales, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and the United States.
These territories apply a wide variety of permissive, restrictive and prohibitive systems of regulation. So, by comparing these, it is possible to evaluate which are most (in)effective in minimising cultural harm and illicit trade. The statistics suggest that more people engage in unethical but legal detecting under permissive regulation than engage in unethical and illegal detecting under restrictive or prohibitive regulation. So, even if illicit trade is technically reduced by the act of legalising it, cultural harm is increased.
Through netnographic analysis of online forums and social networks, this study presents quantitative analysis of the scale and intensity of metal detecting and the quantity of metal-detected cultural goods.
It adapts open-source data to develop empirical measures; to ensure reliability and consistency of sourcing and interpretation, these data were drawn from English-language forums and networks. Based on a poll of 668 online community members, it infers the size of active detecting communities from the size (93.42 per cent) of online detecting communities. Based on open-source data on the detecting practices of 101 detectorists, the worst tolerable weather for 151 detectorists and seasonal variations in the reporting of 1,089,337 finds to the Portable Antiquities Scheme over 13 years, it determines a pragmatic minimum average of 286.02 hours of detecting per person per year.
Comparing activity in a wide range of permissive, restrictive and prohibitive regulatory environments – based on local-language forums and networks in Australia, Austria, Flanders and elsewhere in Belgium, Canada, Denmark, England and Wales, Ireland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and the United States – it finds that permissive regulation is ineffective in minimising harm to heritage assets, whether in the form of licit misbehaviour or criminal damage. Restrictive and prohibitive regulation appear to be more effective, insofar as there is less overall loss of archaeological evidence.
Hardy, S A. 2017: “Quantitative analysis of open-source data on metal detecting for cultural property: Estimation of the scale and intensity of metal detecting and the quantity of metal-detected cultural goods”. Cogent Social Sciences, Volume 3, Number 1. Available at: https://dx.doi.org/10.1080/23311886.2017.1298397