Metal detector ‘coins’ it with Caratacus find

By Geoff Harris

On your daily exercise walks during lockdown or the various tier restrictions across the UK, have you ever thought about taking along a metal detector? These devices, although controversial amongst some archaeologists, can certainly unearth some fascinating and historically important finds.

On November 15th, for example, the first-known gold ‘stater’ coin of the famous British tribal-resistance leader, Caratacus (15-54 AD), sold at auction for record-breaking £71,000, plus 20% buyer’s premium. A metal detectorist found the coin in a field near Newbury, Berkshire, in November 2019, only 20 miles from where it was minted in modern day Silchester, some 2,000 years ago. It’s not been revealed how much money the detectorist got, but it’s still an amazing result

Indeed, the find was described by historian and numismatist Dr John Sills as “the most important single Iron Age coin ever found in this country.” Meanwhile archaeologist Professor Colin Haselgrove, from the University of Leicester, said “it must be in with a chance of being the most valuable Iron Age coin found to date… everyone likes a British hero.”

Caratacus managed to keep the Roman legions at bay for eight years until he was betrayed in Yorkshire by Cartimandua, queen of the Brigantes. This coin is particularly interesting as it contains Latin inscriptions, which suggests Caratacus was educated in Rome – where he was later taken as a captive, but famously spared by Emperor Claudius after arguing his case for clemency. Historians are not sure what happened to him after he’d talked himself out of execution, but he is believed to have stayed in the imperial city of his former enemies.

Caratacus at the Tribunal of Claudius at Rome Engraving by Andrew Birrell of a painting by Henry Fuseli

Previously, the auction record for a British Iron Age coin was held by another stater, which provided the first evidence of a long-forgotten king called Anarevitos. He was believed to active in Kent in the years before the ultimately successful Roman invasion led Agricola, and the coin sold £21,000.

If you decide to get into metal detecting after reading about such exciting finds, there are some important considerations to bear in mind. First, there is the cost. A decent lightweight entry-level detector for hunting on beaches will cost around £200, but a sturdier model for more serious inland expeditions will set you back more like £500. There is a good introductory buying guidehere.

The Garrett Ace 400i is a good entry level metal detector, and possible Christmas present!

Buying the detector is only the first thing to think about, however.

1) Don’t trespass, and check ownership

It is easy to forget that all land is owned by someone or something, including parks, public open spaces and beaches. So, you will need to obtain permission to search from the landowner and clarify who will own any finds you subsequently discover. It is particularly tempting to go metal detecting near historic buildings and sites, so you need to be particularly careful to be sure of the rules about what you might find – search the full site list here.

2) Get to know the Portable Antiques Scheme

It’s really important you read the guidance on the recording of any finds here. Make sure that you follow current conservation advice on the handling, care and storage of archaeological objects.

3) When you are detecting

Try to work on ground which has already been disturbed, such as ploughed or cultivated land and be particularly careful that you don’t disturb any nearby archaeological remains such as earthworks. You can take out specialist insurance via the National Council for Metal-Detecting or the Federation of Independent Detectorists.

Credit Joe Mabel

If you do find something interesting, record exactly where you were in order to help professional archaeologist carry out further work – at the very least take an ordnance survey map reference or a photo of your location. Reporting a find of a single metallic object, such as a coin, won’t affect your rights of discovery.

4) Leave no trace…

Much of this is common sense and common courtesy; leave gates and property as you find them and do not damage crops, frighten animals, or disturb ground nesting birds, and dispose properly of litter. Think of yourself as an ‘ambassador’ for metal detecting.

5) If you do get lucky and find something…

You must abide by the statutory provisions of the Treasure Act 1996, the Treasure Act Code of Practice and wreck law. If you wish to take artefacts and archaeological material older than 50 years old out of the UK, you will require an export licence.

There may seem a lot of bureaucracy to contend with, but even if you don’t make much (or any) money from a historic find, it can still be satisfying – especially when you take your family along to see it in a museum…

6) Further research

You can find out about metal detecting via the National Council for Metal Detecting or the Federation of Independent Detectorists

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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