The simple pleasure of unearthing treasure

IT USED to be viewed alongside stamp collecting or train spotting as a slightly odd, but harmless hobby.

Following the discovery of a priceless treasure trove by an amateur in a farmer's field however, metal detecting looks set to gain new popularity.

Unemployed Terry Herbert is expected to gain millions of pounds after finding a huge collection of gold and silver Anglo-Saxon coins and other artefacts last week.

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The Staffordshire treasure trove is thought to date from the seventh century, and those who have examined the find consider it one of the most important of recent years, even comparing it to the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb.

As well as exciting the experts, the news has led to a surge in the number of people buying metal detectors and sent inquiries about joining clubs soaring.

It seems history enthusiasts are realising there could still be valuable treasures waiting to be discovered close to their own doorsteps.

Of course, hobbyists have already made a huge contribution to our understanding of history, and helped swell museum collections. One of the most famous Roman finds in the Lothians, the "Cramond lioness" sculpture, was stumbled upon by a local ferryman. And each year, the Treasure Trove Unit at the National Museums of Scotland examines around 2000 items brought in by the public, such as Roman coins and medieval jewellery.

In fact, archaeologists regularly liaise with amateur metal detectors when carrying out excavations. A team involved in a dig at Traprain, East Lothian, encouraged enthusiasts to try metal detecting in their own gardens last year.

But there are some concerns that the upsurge of interest could lead to treasure-seekers disturbing archaeological sites or damaging private property. Many people are unaware of the strict laws governing where they can search – or the fact any finds automatically belong to the Crown.

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Alastair Hacket, the Morningside-based secretary of the Scottish Detectors' Club, said they had seen a rise in interest following the Staffordshire find.

He said: "We're certainly not in it for the money! None of us are millionaires. People think treasure will turn up, but it's extremely rare. Typically on a club outing we'll find broken pieces of jewellery, a few coins and junk such as rusty nails.

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"There's a slight risk that people reading about the Saxon hoard might think they can buy a detector and rush out and make a fortune. There will always be some people who will use it in an illegal way.

"We're trying to ensure people behave responsibly. A lot of people think it's 'finders, keepers' but that's not the case."

Mr Hacket added that anyone looking to start treasure hunting should first familiarise themselves with the law, and to make sure they ask permission from any landowners. Metal detecting is not covered by "right to roam" laws, and the fact that many sites are working farms can be a problem. Edinburgh City Council usually allows detectors to search in parks or other public places, but they should always ask first.

Joining a club is a good way to learn more. The two main Scottish clubs have around 100 members between them, but there are also smaller local ones.

And while hobbyists are unlikely to make their fortune, time and patience can be rewarded. Mr Hacket's best personal finds include a first century broach, in a style known as "dragonesque". He has also found several Bronze Age axeheads while helping with an archaeological dig in the Lothians.

He added: "The Saxon hoard is fantastic news – it shows how useful the detector can be as a tool. There have been so many other finds in the last 20 years. I would personally argue that some of the most important finds have been made by amateurs. Britain's heritage would be worse off without them."

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Metal detecting started to become popular in the 1970s when modern, relatively inexpensive detectors became available.

Peter Bettis, owner of Joan Allen, one of the country's largest metal detector suppliers, said they had seen a rise in sales in the last week. He said a good-quality basic model cost around 100. "Whenever there's a good publicity, there's always an increase in sales," he said.

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Each year, hundreds of keen collectors bring their finds into the Treasure Trove Unit on Chambers Street. Administrator Stuart Campbell said the most common finds in the Lothians tend to be medieval coins and Bronze Age artefacts, such as spears. Between one-third and a half of these is kept by the museum, while the finder is normally paid the market value.

He said: "I've no doubt metal detecting, if it's done responsibly, can tell us a huge amount about the past.

The things that tell us most are not often what people think of as treasure. It's usually every day objects, made of lead or bronze, that tell us how people were living.

"Stories like this inspire people, but it's still a lot of hard work."