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Monday, November 24, 2008

Seek And Ye Shall Find

The word geo-cache came up in a blog the other day. Its not a word that is known here in the UK, but it struck me as a cute name for what we do have here; an ancient rural landscape that is literally covered in metallic debris from early Celtic times up to today's messy society.

Over twenty years ago I treated myself to a top of the range metal detector, and immediately it married my love of history with my love of the outdoors. Suddenly, the green and arable world around me became a treasure trove, not in monetary terms, but in insights to how our forefathers trod these self same places that we now tend to drive through at great speeds on our own daily fight for survival.

Even the simplest field will throw up old horse shoes and brass tack. Musket balls ( below ) from Georgian landowners out shooting for the pot,

and even lead tokens, that the farmworkers used to be paid in, that they would save up and cash in at the end of the week for a wage, this to keep them from going to spend a days money in the Pub and not turning up the following day through being drunk.

For the more interesting finds you have to become a historian, and landscape detective. To narrow down your chances of finding the good stuff, you pore over the old nineteen sixties Ordnance Survey maps that still contained references to ancient sites (the modern maps , wary that Detectorists do this, tend to not show the pre-medieval sites), seeking out where two country footpaths cross between three or four villages (a favourite site to hold transient weekly markets, where people would typically drop coins in the mud and grass) or south facing hills near the routes of ancient Roman roads, where the warm blooded Romans would build their villas and dwellings in the limited British sunshine.

You also scour the online aerial maps and good old Google earth, for likely fields and bridle paths with interesting crop and grass markings, evidence that ancient dwelling once dotted the site. (we are prohibited on threat of prison from Official Heritage sites, but England is just one big heritage site anyway so it doesn't matter.)

Then, with the farmers permission, you set out. But before you get your detector out of the van, you walk the prospective site, the best ones being newly harrowed, pre- seeding fields, where you look out for shards of pottery amongst the stones.

You become very practiced at this, and over the years I have taken friends with me on expeditions locally...and amazed them by turning up Roman,Medieval & Tudor pottery within the first few stride of entering a field. You look for high class pottery, kitchen pottery, decorative stone masonry, bearing in mind all the time that the modern plows and horse drawn plows have been stirring the field, like a big cauldron for hundreds of years, breaking the surface up and turning it over and over.

And then you are ready. With evidence that you are on a "hot" site , the detector is withdrawn from its bag, tested by throwing your own coin on the ground, and satisfied that you get a healthy, sharp signal when you encounter anything small and metallic, you are away for an afternoon of adventure back in time.

And anywhere back in time is where you might end up. Of course you dig up your fair share of modern nuts and bolts and shotgun cartridges, tractor keys and fence staples, but over the years, if I do my research first, I have amassed pocketfuls of buttons, belt buckles, shoe buckles, broaches, rings, sword and sheath parts, gun parts,bullets and coinage from every period right back to Roman times.

The Romans were in England from 1 AD to around 400AD...though by that time they had started to slink away, as their Empire was collapsing, leaving behind a whole society of Romano-Britons who had liked and assimilated the Roman affluent culture, it was difficult to tell when the Romans actually did leave.

Two of my favourite Roman pieces are a Dolphin Pin (so called because it was shaped like a surfacing dolphin) that held cloaks and clothes in place (who said the safety pin was a modern invention)

and a tiny Sesterius from the period of Emperor Valentinian I ( 364AD ~ 375AD ) (chipped by the plow for nearly 2000 yrs , these are worth just cents.)
Whenever I get the detector out, the average Joe, will say..."Oh you going Treasure Hunting then?", thinking that you are going to immediately unearth a pot of gold coins, hidden away in the days when there were no such thing as banks, by someone who was later killed, before they ever returned for them. It happens, once every blue moon.

But that's half the point why myself and a few other acquaintances do it, to suddenly unearth an object dropped and lost on some day, long ago, by somebody with the same human frailties as our own, and to hold it for the first time since that distant moment, and afterwards in a local Inn, by a black oak beam fireplace with a glass tankards of local ale, we'll concoct likely tales between us till late in the evening, of how our finds came to lay for thousands of season in the soil, and how we ourselves, are but a simple generation in time.

Sir Dayvd (the Gold Digger) of Oxfordshire


  1. Excellent Post Sir Dayvd! You had me walking the fields with you in excited anticipation! I remember the feeling of connecting with the past when I unearthed an Indian arrowhead at the Garden of the Gods in Southern Illinois. England has so much more diversity of history to explore. There you are lucky indeed.

    I'm sure I can speak for Sir Bowie and say that we must go hunting with you and share those fireside tails when we come visit!

    Sir Hook the Jealous of Warrick

  2. Interesting indeed. I'm sure the thrill of the find is exhilarating. Except for the metal detector, I have heard of similar techniques when searching for arrowheads. Plowed fields, near rivers and streams, dark areas, etc.

    However, I think you will find that geocaching is known among some in the UK. There are 690,239 active caches around the world as I write this. There are some in Northern Scotland, Northeast England, South East England, South West England, North Wales, East Midlands, etc. There are 1,320 pages of listings. I'd not be surprised if you pass one everyday.

    Sir James the geocacher Taylor

  3. Yes! Something else that we can do while over for a couple of years.

    I friend of mine pitched in for a metal detector in high school (unfortunately, a very cheap one that couldn't tell the difference between gold and a gum wrapper).
    We didn't find a pot of gold either, but we did find countless hours of adventure.

    Great post.

    Sir Bowie "thinking of Tim and digging up pop-tops" of Greenbriar

  4. Thanks for that Sir james.. I'd never heard of it here, but i went to your site and put in my PostCode ( zip ) and it shows me there is a Cache on Otmoor, which is a bird reserve, and marshy fenland just NNE of Oxford
    (partly famous because Lewis Carrol had it in mind when he wrote about the Red Queen and the chess board landscape in "Through The Looking Glass" )
    I will read up more later.

    Yes Bowie.. Ring Pulls are the bane of the urban park detectorist.. thats why it is essential to get out into the ancient rural landscape as soon as possible. I can adjust mine a little so it ignores Aliuminium,
    Metal chain is the bane of the rural detectorist.

    I sometimes take a trip to the South Coast beaches in the winter after the tourists have gone... Ring pulls there too, but also modern money and jewellery, especially if you knew where the Ice Cream vendor stood :)

    But locally i love the little tales we come across.

    In the picture on the blog, we were scanning a field that was the closest field possible to the off-limits "Lost" Roman city of Alchester, 9 miles from Oxford. We figured it would have to be full of Roman stuff. But there was nothing, except at the top of the hill we each found a Victorian child's silver thimble, ( three in all ) and all in a small area, and we summized that a sizeable group of young village Girls came up that hill, a hundred years passed, and sat and sewed their embroidery in the sunshine, all bright and happy in their large white dresses, and a few of the girls lost their thimbles in the tightly matted stems of the grass.

    Sir D of O