Roman coin hoard disunites British metal detectorists

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by Annika Backe

March 17, 2016 – “We have not spoken since. It is a real shame. We were at his wedding.” With these words James Petts is quoted in an English newspaper article, outlining the broken relationship with his friend Andy Aartsen. The reason for the conflict between the two men from Surrey lies in their find of 1,608 Romano-British coins on a field near Lymington. The question of who exactly has made the find will most likely become a matter for the courts to decide. 

It all started rather harmoniously when, on May 4, 2014 the two of them took their metal detectors to search for finds in the vicinity. In a statement, Aartsen said that he first came across 25 to 30 coins on the relevant field which made Petts come and join him. Since his signal became unstable, he decided to leave the spot. Petts, on the other hand, stayed and continued the search, only to discover the pot containing the hoard shortly afterwards. However, Aartsen claims to be the true finder of the coins that date from AD 260 to 274. After all, it was his signal that indicated the find-spot in the first place. 

When it was reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, the find was classified “treasure”. According to an official, the find belonged to both detectorists, who had to find an agreement themselves how it should be apportioned. The value of the find is estimated at about 8,000 pounds. The British Museum is said to be interested in buying one coin. But for Aartsen and Petts, it is not about the revenues but the question of who can rightly call himself finder of a Roman coin hoard. 

The incident is remarkable because it sheds light on the desired conduct of those who engage in this hobby that came into existence roughly 30 years ago. In order to prevent their members from breaching the principles of decency and fairness, British clubs of metal detectorists lay down codes of conduct, specifying what to do when such a find is being made. For example, rule no. 19 of the Midland Metal Detecting Club reads: “We expect a certain amount of cooperation if a member starts to excavate a potential hoard; it’s not a free for all! Help fence off the area, take photos and ask the finder if they need assistance. (…) The find belongs to him and the farmer alone. You would wish the same if you were the finder.”

What the club rules make sound rather easy seems a bit more difficult to follow in the heat of the treasure hunt. And what appears to be a stroke of luck may turn out to be a crucial test of an old friendship. 

The case was reported on in the Daily Echo of December 7, 2015.

Please read the Code of Conduct of the Midland Metal Detecting Club here.

These are the websites of the National Council for Metal Detecting, and the Federation of Independent Detectorists.

For visiting the Portable Antiquities Scheme, please click here.

And here you can read more about a very recent find of metal detectorists who dug up a Bronze Age burial mound in the North-West of Britain.