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Big treasure fuels metal detector rush

Stephen Beard Oct 26, 2009

Big treasure fuels metal detector rush

Stephen Beard Oct 26, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: Remember that haul of buried treasure that was found over in the UK last month? I don’t think you can say the shine has worn off the hundreds of pieces that were discovered in a field near Birmingham, England. But the hard work has definitely started. A team of experts at the Birmingham Museum has begun cataloguing and assessing the collection that was found by a guy walking around with a metal detector. He stands to net millions of dollars from his discovery, which has fueled a mini-boom in metal detecting. Marketplace’s Stephen Beard reports.

STEPHEN BEARD: People don’t usually line up to get into a museum. But everyday they’ve been queuing in the hundreds outside the Birmingham Museum, waiting eagerly to see the Anglo-Saxon treasure.

This is the finest hoard of Anglo-Saxon artifacts ever discovered: it’s believed to be battle plunder, a sword hilt covered with gold, part of a helmet. More than 1500 individual pieces, some encrusted with precious stones.

Museum Curator David Simmonds is almost lost for words.

DAVID SIMMONDS: It’s just incredible. It’s the kind of thing you spend 30 years working in a museum and think: wouldn’t it be nice to see one of these? But you never do. And then suddenly, there it is.

And this was how it was found, with a metal detector. It was unearthed in a field by an unemployed, 55-year-old named Terry Herbert.

TERRY HERBERT: I was quite shocked. I didn’t know what it was first.

Speaking briefly, at a news conference in the Museum, Herbert paid tribute to his trusty metal detector.

HERBERT: Fourteen years ago I bought a machine. It still finds items at really good depths, and it’s been more fun than winning the lottery.

The find is expected to fetch more than $10 million. The sum will be shared equally between Herbert and the farmer who owns the land where he made his discovery. These riches have put the spotlight on the 50,000 brits who make a hobby out of metal detecting.

Julian Evan-Hart lives just north of London. He has been searching for buried treasure on farmland around his home for 30 years. He’s never yet stumbled on the “big one.” Really important discoveries are very rare.

JULIAN EVAN-HART: A major significant find is probably once or twice every 10 years. So does that confirm the madness of metal detectors wandering around in the rain, the drizzle and the snow. Most likely, yes. It probably does.

But Julian has found thousands of individual items of interest and some value. His small home is packed with artifacts: bronze-age axe heads, and many, many coins — Roman and medieval.

EVAN-HART: And this really is a beautiful example. This is Edward III, and it’s a gold, half noble. A beautiful coin. Just look at the yellowness of that gold. It’s pure gold. That’s a detectorist’s dream.

The coin is worth around $3,000. The prospect of finds like this has brought out the so-called “nighthawks.”

MICHAEL LEWIS: nighthawking is kind of a glamorous term, I suppose, given to people who are basically thieves.

Michael Lewis of the British Museum says “nighthawks” are giving metal detecting a bad name. They operate illegally at night — without the landowner’s permission — looting finds and selling them on the black market. They cause untold archaeological harm.

LEWIS: Digging massive holes, shoving loads of soil into bags. Not only is there damage to the site, the physical damage, there’s also the loss to the archaeological record of those finds as well. From an archaeological perspective it’s an absolute nightmare.

But Lewis concedes nighthawks are small in number. The vast majority of metal detectors operate legally, like the man who found the Anglo-Saxon Hoard and like Julian Evan-Hart.

EVAN-HART: Let’s have a look at that. And there, look at that. A Victorian penny.

And frankly not worth a dime! The search for the big one goes on in a field about 30 miles north of London.

This is Stephen Beard for Marketplace.

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