The Fight to Save Battlegrounds from Invasion of Metal Detectors
David Keys Archaeology Correspondent, The Independent (London, England)
THEY ARE sites that witnessed some of the seminal moments of British history, where the Wars of the Roses were won and lost, where the Cavaliers and the Roundheads battled over a nation's political future and where Henry V first displayed his military skills.
Britain's famous battlefields - with names as evocative as Bosworth Field, Culloden and Hastings - are as much a part of the historical canvas of the nation as Stonehenge and the Tower of London.
But many of these important sites are now under threat, according to archaeologists, from a new menace: metal detectors. The invasion of amateur treasure hunters is becoming such a problem that attempts to discover the truth about some of the most famous battles in British history are being jeopardised.
At least 10 important battlefields have been damaged by uncontrolled metal detecting and the unrecorded removal of thousands of objects, the Battlefield Trust - a Heritage Lottery Fund supported charity - said yesterday.
They include medieval England's largest battle (Towton, 1461), Edward IV's great Wars of the Roses victory at Tewkesbury (1471), the Civil War battles of Newark and Newbury, and Henry V's first great battle (Shrewsbury in 1403) - one of the first mass deployments of longbows.
The largest single metal-detecting operation on a British battlefield took place on the weekend of 13 September at an English Civil War battle site - Marston Moor in Yorkshire. At least 300 people with metal detectors discovered many objects, including dozens, possibly hundreds, of lead shot and other objects from the battle itself, the brass top of one gunpowder flask, the lead spout of another, four spur buckles, part of a halberd or pike, numerous pistol balls and two pieces of decorated bridle equipment. A dozen coins in circulation at the time of the battle were also unearthed.
The problem was that there was no co-ordinated strategy for trying to ensure that battlefield finds were fully reported and recorded. The two hard-pressed officials present from the Government's antiquities recording quango - the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) - were overwhelmed by dozens of finds from all periods, from Roman times to the 17th Century. Out of about 140 items officially reported to the officials, fewer than 10 were understood to be relevant to the battle.
The Marston Moor operation was a legal, family- oriented event on private land which was only recently identified as part of the battlefield. The rally raised more than pounds 5,000 for charity.
But British archaeologists are furious. "What happened at Marston Moor was inexcusable," said the Battlefields Trust archaeologist Glenn Foard. "Metal detecting of this sort on nationally important battlefields destroys vital archaeological evidence of exactly how battles were fought."
Now English Heritage is planning to work with the PAS to provide more support. "English Heritage will seek to work much more closely with the Portable Antiquities Scheme to develop better recording methodologies and practices," said English Heritage's top battlefield expert, Paul Stamper.
Roger Bland, the national co-ordinator of the Scheme, said: "We did the best we could in the circumstances. Recording finds at large rallies is always difficult. However, it is important that all the voluntary and statutory agencies draw lessons from what happened at Marston Moor last weekend so that we can have a better response in the future."
Pioneering work in the US - particularly at the site of Custer's last stand - has shown that careful recording of battlefield finds, especially ordnance, can lead to the re-writing of history.
Archaeology at the site of the Battle of Little Bighorn proved that there was no determined last stand. Most of Custer's troops had been attacking when they ran into concerted Indian counterattacks, at which point the battalion collapsed like a row of dominoes
Robin Bush, who spent ten years as the historian for Channel 4's archaeology programme Time Team, said amateurs with metal detectors could play a vital role in excavating historical sites. …