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The wandering tribe of treasure hunters

TREASURE hunters have been scouring Oxfordshire’s fields in greater numbers since high-profile hoards were found.

More than 500 people gathered near Wantage for one of the UK’s biggest metal-detecting rallies last week.

They uncovered about 250 historic artefacts at the Weekend Wanderers Big Summer Rally over 1,000 acres of fields around Lockinge Farm.

A Bronze Age razor handle and a Queen Elizabeth I sixpence from 1576 were just two of the finds. Among those taking part was Oxfordshire’s roaming archaeologist Anni Byard, who works as the county’s finds officer for the government-funded Portable Antiquities Scheme.

She analyses and records historic finds across the UK older than 17,000 AD for the scheme’s national database.

She said: “Oxfordshire is a historically rich county right through to the modern day – you get finds from all periods.

“In the last few years metal detecting has increased in popularity. That could be a result of things like the discovery of the Staffordshire hoard.”

Uncovered by Terry Herbert with a metal detector in a field near Hammerwich, near Lichfield, in 2009, the stunning find was valued at £3.2m. It consisted of more than 3,500 mainly warlike items, the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork ever found.

Ms Byard added: “On average in Oxfordshire I record about 1,500 finds a year and about 50 per cent of them are Roman.

“It doesn’t surprise me that it is so popular though — people are very interested in the history of the things they find and a lot of them are very knowledgeable about what they discover.”

Over the past five years, from 2008 until 2012, the number of historic finds has jumped up and up, apart from an anomaly in 2011 – which Miss Byard said could be put down to bad weather or the lack of a large metal-detecting rally.

So far this year 1,326 finds in the county have been recorded, and four of these have been declared as treasure.

Another group that has noticed the growing popularity of metal detecting is Littlemore-based Oxford Blues Metal Detecting Club. The club has had to cap its membership since last year because arranging car parking and space for its 200 members became too difficult.

In 2009 the club had about 70 members, which had risen to 200 by last year and was scaled back to 152 this year.

David Connor, from Kidlington, who has belonged to the club for 14 years, said: “We get a lot of enquiries and we have a waiting list now of about 15 to 20 people.

“A lot of people see something found on the TV or in the paper and say, ‘They got how much money for it?’ and they go out and buy a metal detector.

“It was one of our members about 10 to 12 years ago who found the Didcot Hoard.”

The hoard was a rare find of 126 gold coins from the first two centuries of Roman rule discovered in 1995.

But, Mr Connor added: “People who go out and do it for that kind of reason don’t end up sticking to it for too long.

“It is about being outside and having a bit of peace and quiet, not the catch. It is too much of a lottery.

“I go out hoping to find something old and interesting, not necessarily valuable. But Oxfordshire has so much history. Not so much in Kidlington but if you go down towards Didcot and South Oxfordshire that is more productive.”

For metal detector users who don’t know exactly what they have found the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford runs an identification service every month.

The Archaeological Artefact and Coin Identification Service is held on the first Wednesday of every month from midday until 3pm.

Experts from the Ashmolean take a look at objects to see if they can be identified.

The sessions began in January 2010 and are organised by finds adviser for the Portable Antiquities Scheme, John Naylor.

He said: “Oxfordshire is very important archaeologically and with the Oxford University and the Ashmolean Museum here it is always a hub of activity.

The sessions are going very well — we now get around 150 objects a month to identify. It really took off within the first six months, but we tend to be quite busy.”

Curator of European pre-history Alison Roberts is one of the experts who identify the finds.

She said: “Oxfordshire is fantastic because it is the centre of the country so we get a really good overview from the objects of what is going on historically.

“People are becoming more and more interested in heritage.

“And they shouldn’t be intimidated by thinking their find is too small because often they are the most important.”

IT was at one of the Ashmolean sessions in which Mrs Roberts almost fell off her chair.

Kitchen assistant Steven Bain, from Ewelme, near Wallingford, had stumbled across a very rare piece of treasure.

The 27-year-old scours fields with his metal detector as a hobby after work.

Last October he almost threw away what looked like a piece of muddy rubbish.

When he took it to the experts at the Ashmolean Mrs Roberts identified it straight away as a gold earring – one of the earliest pieces of metalwork in Britain, from the Early Bronze Age, 2,200BC.

Last month at an inquest into the find Oxfordshire’s Coroner Darren Salter ruled the earring was treasure.

It is now waiting to be valued at the British Museum in London.

Mr Bain said: “There’s obviously a lot to find in Oxfordshire. It is a good area for it which has a lot of history.

“I do it because I enjoy going out. It is peaceful and you don’t have to worry about anything, you are just walking around a field relaxing.

“And it is always exciting when you get that bleep – that signal on the metal detector – and are digging whatever you have found up. You are thinking, ‘what is it going to be?’”

METAL detector users have to have permission from the landowner to use their fields.

The value of anything found on the land is usually split 50-50 between the finder and the landowner, depending on their agreement.

Once someone using a metal detector has found something they think could be valuable enough to be declared as treasure, they have to declare it by law.

Treasure is governed by the Treasure Act 1996. All finders of gold and silver objects and groups of coins from the same finds over 300 years old have a legal obligation to report the items within 14 days.

They can either take the objects to the finds liason officer for Oxfordshire (Miss Byard) or take it directly to Oxfordshire Coroner’s Court, which deals with inquests into treasure as well as deaths.

The inquest is opened before the item is declared as treasure, or not, by Miss Byard — a decision which is then approved by the British Museum. A formal inquest is then held to rule the find treasure, or not, by law. If it is not treasure it goes back to the finder.

As soon as the item is declared treasure it doesn’t belong to the finder anymore – it belongs to the Crown.

If it is treasure it then goes to the treasure valuation committee of independent valuers, which meets four times a year, made up of  museum experts, dealers and auctioneers.

A current market worth is then given to the object and if the finder doesn’t agree with it, they can appeal — otherwise they split the money with the landowner.

The British Museum usually gets the first chance to say if it wants to buy it. Then the Oxfordshire Museums Service can declare an interest and try to raise the money, usually by grants or donations.