Charting the Effects of Plough Damage Using Metal-Detected Assemblages

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The exceptional quality and wealth of the Staffordshire hoard (see Editorial in Antiquity 84: 295-6) has highlighted the importance of the Treasure Act in facilitating the reporting of finds of portable antiquities in England and Wales. We should not ignore, however, the more mundane objects reported on a day-to-day basis which can also throw light on past societies and, as this paper seeks to demonstrate, on the depositional history of artefacts.

The archaeology of the ploughzone is an important area of study (e.g. Schofield 1991) and archaeologists are well aware of the damage done to stratified archaeological deposits by modern agricultural practices (e.g. Lambrick 1977, 1980, 2004; Hinchliffe & Schadla-Hall 1980). Most mitigation strategies, however, have focused on lessening the damage to monuments rather than assemblages (e.g. Oxford Archaeology 2006; Oxford Archaeology & Cranfield University 2010). There has been some research into the effects of plough disturbance on artefacts, although most previous studies of such attrition have been concerned with mechanical or chemical damage to pottery (Reynolds 1988, 1989; Boismier 1997) and, in a few cases, bone, while for metalwork most work has started from the issue of how arable agriculture has resulted in changes in the chemical stability of objects and has not looked at mechanical damage (Fjaestad et al. 1997; Scharff & Huesmann 1997; Wagner et al. 1997; Gerwin & Baumhauser 2000; Pollard et al. 2004; Ullen et al. 2004).

McLean and Richardson (2007) have discussed whether detected Anglo-Saxon brooches are accidentally lost or represent deliberate deposition, based on the composition of the detected assemblage over southern England in comparison with the excavated assemblage. Chester-Kadwell (2009: 76-7) has compared excavated and detected brooches in Norfolk and reviewed the literature on aspects of ploughzone taphonomy as it relates to metal-detected artefacts.

Metal-detecting is often portrayed as an activity which destroys archaeology (Dobinson & Denison 1995; Oxford Archaeology 2009; Thomas & Stone 2009). However, comparison of the condition of stratified excavated and metal-detected artefacts recovered from the ploughsoil allows us to chart the effects of plough damage on portable antiquities. Instead of being a cause of damage to archaeology, metal-detecting has the potential to provide new data to help us understand the processes at work in the agricultural destruction of the archaeological record.

Anglo-Saxon pins and strap-ends

Copper-alloy artefacts comprise the majority of finds made by detector users although they are frequently recovered in a fragmentary state. The VASLE project identified that 85 per cent of Anglo-Saxon finds recorded in the Portable Antiquities Scheme database were copper alloy (Richards et al. 2009: 3.2, fig. 61). In the present study, attrition to two groups of Anglo-Saxon copper-alloy dress fittings, namely pins and strap-ends, was quantified and demonstrated to result largely from farming practices. The choice of pins and strap-ends rests, on the one hand, from them being ubiquitous and numerous finds on Middle Saxon sites across the country and also through the availability of comprehensive records of longstanding detector surveys of several sites of the period in the East Riding of Yorkshire and one in West Yorkshire.


In the case of the pins, the process was found to be observable on two sites over two to three decades. The pins studied here date from the later Middle to Late Anglo-Saxon periods (c. AD 800-1000), and divide into the following broad categories of head form: faceted, biconical, globular and flat (largely disc or rhomboid) (Haldenby & Richards 2009). Other groups of Anglo-Saxon pins are not included, each predating the study group and being far less numerous. These comprise those from early burials, often with plain disc or spiral heads, and the large eighth-century chip-carved and gilded forms. …