The new edited collection The Public Archaeology of Treasure (Williams, Reavill and Clague 2022) introduces the popular hobby of metal detecting as one element of the politics, ethics and popular cultures of ‘treasure’ via the comedy drama Detectorists. Here, I delve further into this TV show and what it reveals about our popular engagements with archaeological ‘treasures’.
Introduction to Detectorists
Starring Mackenize Crook and Toby Jones as metal detectorists Andy Stone and Lance Stater, Detectorists follows their relationships through (to date) three seasons and a Christmas special. A further one-off special is now commissioned. The story takes place around the fictional Essex town of Danebury (actually seemingly inspired by Maldon, east of the village of Danbury). Filming takes place in Suffolk. Detectorists (2014-2017, and now 2022) has become a well-loved comedy (Williams et al. 2022).
The show has attracted some academic commentary, notably the edited collection by I.M. Keighren and J. Norcup (2020a) which touches on a range of pertinent themes regarding attitudes to landscape and identity through the portrayal of the hobbyists and their environment. The Foreword is authored show creator Mackenzie Crook (2020) and the Afterword by producer Adam Tandy (2020). Following an introduction (Keighren and Norcup 2020b), there are four essays tackling landscape interpretation (Keighren 2020), disquieting geographies of the everyday (Forsyth 2020), the ground-orientated perspectives and the groundedness of the show (Harris 2020), and the nuanced representations of gender (Norcup 2020).
Archaeology and archaeologists in Detectorists
Despite this finely illustrated and insightful collection, to date, there is a striking absence of academic discussions evaluating how Detectorists represents metal detectorists and archaeologists, both individually and their relationship with each other, with archaeological finds and the landscapes in which they are found. This is a surprising oversight given how heated the debates have run regarding the legality, ethics and impact of metal detecting and of both the long history of conflict and collaboration between the archaeology and heritage sector and metal detecting as a hobby (see Clarke 2022). This is especially odd give that one of the two main protagonists, Andy Stone, becomes a trained archaeologist and thus the relationship between the professional and academic pursuit of the past and amateur hobbyists is a crucial theme over the three series to date.
Certainly, professional and academic archaeologists get limited direct attention in the show. Andy goes to Botswana on an archaeological project and works as a commercial archaeologist for a time, but through the three series, there are no portrays of museum archaeologists or the Portable Antiquities Scheme for England and Wales (see now Boyle 2022; Reavill 2022), and scant attention to governmental or academic archaeologists.
In series 3, we encounter professional archaeologists via a single and negative representation of corruption within the commercial sector when a Roman mosaic is destroyed deliberately by the project leader to avoid it hindering construction. The narrative is that by becoming professional, Andy risks losing both his passion and his integrity and so he resigns. Both archaeological finds and archaeologists behind emotionally dead and culturally compromised by professional processes and institutions. Arguably, however, the press are mocked more decisively in how they report treasure-finds than archaeologists are derided through this one representation (see below, Christmas special).
Furthermore, we gain a sense that objects which reach museums and academic study are somehow ‘lost’ as much as when they were hidden beneath the soil. When placed behind glass the Anglo-Saxon aestell appears ‘dead’ to Lance in the Christmas Special, and no longer part of the past or the present for the characters.
In contrast, metal detectorists and detecting are portrayed in a very generous and kind light, as enthusiastic, passionate, interested and intelligent, if comedic nerds and sometimes deeply confused. There is very limited attention afforded to nighthawking and even the ‘baddies’ do nothing overtly illegal. Indeed, we end up learning that Paul and Phil (‘Simon and Garfunkel’) are avid bat conservationists as well as metal detectorists. Even the sale of discovered antiquities, such an integral part of metal detecting and its media representation, are eschewed by the show in all but the vaguest of terms (see Tierney 2022).
At the end of the day, this show is not primarily about detecting and certainly not about archaeology. It is really about the relationships of two friends. Still, via the adventures of Lance and Andy, we learn that archaeology is for everyone and metal detecting is portrayed as one avenue to engage with the human past. Andy says in series 1 episode 2: “Well, you can learn a lot from the amateurs, we are the most passionate, the plebs.’
For more on this take and a fuller review of Detectorists from an archaeologist’s perspective, check out thePipeLine from 9 November 2017. For a comparable perspective, see this A Life of an Archaeologist blog-post.
There are a pair of further striking absences in commentaries about the show is how the archaeological record itself is portrayed in Detectorists.
First is the fact that mortuary and sacral elements are a key component of the draw and story of ‘treasure’ as portrayed in the show. In the context of Adam Daubney’s recent discussions of grave-goods as ‘treasure’, this is a striking feature of this popular portrayal (Daubney 2018; 2002). This prompts us to ask: what of the ethics and perceptions surrounding metal detecting these archaeological remains and contexts, particularly graves and hoards?
Second, is the chronological focus on where England’s past is portrayed by Detectorists as residing. This is particularly important for me as an archaeologist of the first millennium AD since beyond recent-period quotidian traces, it is Roman and Anglo-Saxon period material cultures which Detectorists represents as pivotal to the popular representation of metal detecting across the three seasons. Meanwhile, prehistoric and later medieval remains get limited attention (see also Graves 2022; Green 2022). So it is in first millennium AD ‘proto-historic’ archaeology where the show represents metal detectorists making a significant and focused contribution to the exploration of the landscape and story of this island.
The result of its choices in how archaeologists are portrayed as opposed to the amateur detectorist, and its selection of contexts and time periods with the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods, The Detectorists constitutes one element of a gentle and somewhat spiritual celebration of Englishness as rooted in the soil and the ‘common folk’ who work and explore it. As with the 2021 film The Dig, this relationship with England’s story is encountered through sought after and uncovered artefacts of the first millennium AD. Moreover, it shares with both The Dig and the new 2022 film The Lost King in portraying a past mediated by ghosts and spirits who inhabit the earth and influence the discovery of lost treasures and graves.
The quasi-sacrality of Roman and Anglo-Saxon archaeology, particularly graves and hoards, is not altogether negative, not least because it shifts focus away from the monetary focus and helps to explain the stories inherent in the contexts which created them. However, it remains a persistent popular culture theme pervading Detectorists linked to contemporary discourses on national origins and Englishness, and thus it requires exploration and critique (see also D’Arcens 2020; Williams 2020; Williams et al. 2020; Williams 2022).
Series 1 – ‘Venerable Bede… full of shit’
The story of series 1 focuses on the long-term search for the ship-burial of Sexred, King of Essex in which the real-world discovery in 1939 of the ship-burial purported to be that of King Raedwald of East Anglia provides inspiration and parallel.
The search for ‘treasure’ is portrayed juxtaposed repeatedly against the mundane and quotidian of 21st-century life, and ‘looking down’ at the ground finds with the repeated action of walking fields with a metal detector is shown to chime with picking up rubbish, cleaning floors, finding a frog while mowing grass, and staring at an ornamental treasure chest in a fish-tank, just to name some examples from the first two episodes (Forsyth 2020).
Regarding the search for Sexred’s grave, it is clearly informed by a sense of research. It begins when Andy expresses his desire to find older and greater things than modern rubbish:
‘We need to find a new place to search, all we turn up these days is litter and ring-pulls. This is the land of the Saxons, I wanna discover where they buried their warriors and kings…’
A sense of the succession of time-periods in the landscape, and thus the landscape as harbouring the story of ‘early England’ is again made explicit by Andy when looking for potential sites: ‘where you got Roman, whose to say you haven’t got Saxon as well. We all know there’s a Saxon ship-burial somewhere in this part of the county. We’ve just got to find it first’.
Careful attention is paid to the landscape context in searching out a potential site where the grave was located, superimposed upon an adapted version of the landscape of Maldon, Essex (Tandy 2020: 96). The frequent equation of Sutton Hoo with the tomb of Tutankhamun is evoked too, an analogy which was destined to be extended to the Prittlewell chamber-grave (Hirst and Scull 2019. Kate calls Andy her ‘Lord Carnarvon’ looking for the Valley of the Kings in Essex looking for ‘wonderful things’ (see also Brown 2022).
In episode 2, at Bishop’s Farm, Andy explains it to be the possible site of a ship-burial of King Sexred of the East Saxons because Bede says so in his Historia Ecclesiastica. Yet, Sophie speculates that he might have been killed in battle against the West Saxons and Lance responds that they would have brought his body back. Bede is doubted, the landscape is not (see Keighren 2020).
They miss finding the grave, but the viewers are shown the rich contents of the grave for a brief second containing a helmet akin to the eighth-century Coppergate Helmet, a sword with a golden hilt, coins, gold-and-garnet cloisionne jewellery and sundry (arm?)rings. Thus, it is a somewhat more generic but overtly inspired equivalent to the Sutton Hoo and Prittlewell princely graves. Meanwhile, the perspective pans out to reveal that the ship-burial is indeed apparent on the surface as a cropmark. Yet just as their metal detectors miss the burial chamber, they are shown to be hindered by their ground-level perspective (Harris 2020).
This first series therefore reveals detectorists seeking buried funerary treasure of a royal grave for which Sutton Hoo’s Mound 1 and other late 6th and early 7th-century princely graves such as the Prittlewell Prince offer inspiration (see Carver 2017; Hirst and Scull 2019). Indeed, somewhat west, the story of an Anglo-Saxon furnished weapon burial found near Mortimer, Buckinghamshire in 2020, provides a real-life equivalent to Lance and Andy’s search in Detectorists (Metcalfe 2020). The furnished graves of the earliest English kings are seen as a particular locus of detecting fantasy and treasure allusions tied to conceptions of antiquity but specifically to the origins of the English and Englishness (Williams 2022). Moreover, the sorrow of their failure to uncover the grave as the detectorists roam over fields chimes with the sense of wandering and loss found in many Old English poems.
Series 2: ‘It’s not old enough, if it hasn’t been forgotten I’m not interested’.
As with series 1’s ‘land of the Saxons’, ‘Saxon gold’ is the focus of the endeavours of Andy and Lance in series 2, even if they don’t know it! While the real-world inspiration for Sexred’s ship-burial are the ‘princely graves’ of Sutton Hoo and Prittlewell, series 2’s ‘treasure’ is a replica of the actual Alfred Jewel on display at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Incidentally, this is now a famous object in fiction too, and soon after Detectorists used it the item made an odd guest appearance in The Last Kingdom season 2. In series 2 of Detectorists, viewers see the jewel in the ground awaiting discovery at the start of each episode until it is finally discovered by Lance at culmination of the series.
Now, this isn’t a funerary context, yet it is shown as a treasured item interred on purpose by a religious. In a flashback we gain a sense that this Christian relic was hidden at a time of conflict and/or uncertainty by a monk, so this was a hoarded item interred by someone respectful of its religious significance: not a casual loss. In this fashion, the sense of sacred associations is explicit in the semi-spiritual game of fortune Lance and Andy play with the English landscape and the secret stories it conceals. This theme is picked up most explicitly in the Christmas special.
There is another interesting funerary dimension to series 2, and it relates to the death of detectorists themselves, rather than their discoveries per se. The irony is that it is the grave of a detectorist which is rifled by nighthawks – one of only a few times illegal metal detecting is explicitly referenced in the series.
Lance says: “Here about old Bob Cromer? Exhumed mate! Grave robbed… nighthawks. Rumour has it he was buried with some of his best finds: James 1 guinea, medieval posie ring, that Viking torc. They came in the night and dug him up.
Andy replies: ‘Unbelievable: some things people will do for gold.’
Lance reflects: ‘Poor old Bob, better he never thought he’d end up on that end of a detector!’
Christmas Special: “Can’t have too many big words, like Saxon.”
At the end of series 2, Lance almost has a preternatural inkling that there is something special about a reading and he uncovers his version of the aestel – the Alfred Jewel. For the 2015 Christmas special, Lance goes to see it as an ‘Object on Temporary Display’ at the British Museum, described as a ‘Late Saxon Gold Jewelled Aestell, Henburystone, Essex. Finder: Lance Stater’. Significantly, Lance leaves past the Sutton Hoo helmet, suggesting the aestel was being displayed roughly where the Cuerdale Hoard is partly exhibited in Room 41.
Upon showing the Danbury Metal Detector Club, his photograph of himself posed with the displayed item also reveals a hooded figure looming behind the display case, presumably the apparition of the monk who buried the item. We are left to wonder as to whether the jewel is cursed, as the slides burst into flames. The nature of the item is discussed explicitly when Lance meets a local reporter, which serves to illustrate how Lance is informed and knowledgeable, as well as proud of, his discovery.
Reporter: “Remind me, what was it you found?”
Lance: “A late Saxon jewelled aestel…”
Reporter: “It has to be language a ten-year-old can understand”
Reporter: “Can’t have too many big words, like Saxon.”
Lance: “Well, it’s a type of jewel…”
Lance: “Garnets and glass”
Reporter: “I’ll put diamonds. How much is it worth?”
Lance: “Well the final valuation hasn’t come through yet”
Lance feels cursed by his find, and is unlucky in finding anything else subsequently. He concludes that an ‘offering’ must be made to placate the earth from when he took the aestel. So, outside the British Museum, Lance buys Roman coins and buries them in Essex to reciprocate and lift his ‘curse’. So while not a funerary find, a sense of moral and spiritual exchange with the landscape is played out in the storyline: Lance is in spiritual connect with the Saxon past.
Series 3: ‘metal detecting is the closest you’ll get to time travel’
Season 3 sees competition between detectorists but also broader competing social and economic demands over the English countryside relating to the value of what is underground and what is above ground, as our detectorists’ favourite farm is under threat of development as a solar farm. Lance reflects on the long history of the island, from ‘Celts and Druids’ to ‘Romans’, ‘Saxons’ and ‘Vikings’ and how he can ‘read the landscape’. Meanwhile we learn that Andy has become a paid commercial archaeologist, then quits on principle given the destruction of another ‘treasure’: an intact section of Roman mosaic!
The Saxons again echo through the series. For while the principal archaeological find awaiting discovery seems to be a deposit of Roman gold coins, possibly (but not unambiguously) interred with ceremony as part of a funerary ritual, in Andy’s garage we get to see his childhood interest in the human past revealed in the fact he possesses a Mechano Sutton Hoo helmet.
The tension between below and above ground manifests itself through the generations of magpies who collect the coins from the ploughsoil and deposit them in their nest. At the end of the show, it is from the tree, not the soil, that the ‘treasure’ is found!
We also get the philosophy of the detectorists explained by Lance: – ‘Time travel…metal detecting is the closest you’ll get to time travel… See archaeologists only gather up the facts, piece the jigsaw together. Work out how we lived and find the buildings we lived in. But what we do: that’s different. We unearth the scattered memories, mind in the stories, fill in the personality. Detectorists: we’re time travellers.’
So the different periods of England’s past are revealed through the memories and stories that constitute the personality of place. Through the discovery of artefacts, the detectorist goes back in time, experiencing these stories, access these memories. It’s a lovely and warming thought, if one that better applies to the contextual investigation of past material culture which modern public-facing archaeological research provides rather than metal detecting (Williams et al. 2022).
Keighren and Norcup correctly perceive Detectorist as resonating with the present and speaking to the future regarding cultures of Englishness, specifically ‘contested notions’ during ‘a period of increasing political polarisation (Keighren and Norcup 2020b: 15). I argue that Detectorists does this specifically through focusing on Roman and early medieval artefacts from mortuary and sacral contexts. In some ways, the show foreshadows The Dig as a reflection on English origins (D’Arcens 2020). Detectorists certainly was born and lives in the shadow of Sutton Hoo, the Alfred Jewel, and (although not explicitly cited) the Staffordshire Hoard (Fern, Dickinson and Webster 2019; Greaves 2022). The proto-history of Celts, Vikings and later Middle Ages hover around this search for origins, but it is to the Romans and Anglo-Saxons that the romanticised imagination of the English landscape fixes upon most often in the show. Revealed through metal detecting, the treasures of the soil are not monetary but stories and memories of successive phases of the island’s story to be protected, studied and shared. Yet of all potential elements, Detectorists latches onto royal Anglo-Saxon graves and precious artefacts most closely (see also Green 2022).
Detectorists is not a drama that simply dramatises and romanticises the hobby of metal detecting, but affords a sacral aura to the ‘treasures’ which embody England’s origins. The distinctively ‘English’ legality and practice of metal detecting as a hobby is foregrounded (cf. Greene 2022). In particular, its striking prominent treatment of Roman and early medieval hoards and grave-finds should prompt further critical reflection on the ethics and popular culture of mortuary-derived antiquities (see Daubney 2018; 2022) and how these specific categories of archaeological evidence serve in configuring our engagements with the origins of the English in relation to contemporary conceptions of Englishness.
Boyle, G. 2022. A national strategy for treasure? in H. Williams, P. Reavill and S. Clague (eds) The Public Archaeology of Treasure. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 78-95.
Brown, S. 2022. The public archaeology of tomb treasures in the media, in H. Williams, P. Reavill and S. Clague (eds) The Public Archaeology of Treasure. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 155-161.
Carver, M. 2017. The Sutton Hoo Story. Woodbridge: Boydell.
Clarke, P. 2022. ‘An unlikely ally?’ Archaeologists and metal detectorists in England and Wales today, in H. Williams, P. Reavill and S. Clague (eds) The Public Archaeology of Treasure. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 41-53.
Crook, M. 2020. Foreword, in I.M. Keighren and J. Norcup (eds) Landscapes of Detectorists. Axminster: Uniform Books, pp. 8-12.
D’Arcens, L. 2020. The Dig’s romanticisation of an Anglo-Saxon past reveals it is a film for post-Brexit UK. The Conversation. 15 Feb 2020, https://tinyurl.com/2zda7dst
Daubney, A. 2018. Grave finds: mortuary-derived antiquities from England and Wales. Public Archaeology 17(4); 156-175.
Daubney, A. 2022. Rest in pieces: ‘treasure’ and the public perception of grave goods in England and Wales, in H. Williams, P. Reavill and S. Clague (eds) The Public Archaeology of Treasure. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 138-154.
Fern, C., Dickinson, T. and Webster, L. 2019. The Stafffordshire Hoard: An Anglo-Saxon Treasure. London: The Society of Antiquaries of London.
Forsyth, I. 2020. Hoarding the everyday – the disquieting geographies of the Detectorists, in I.M. Keighren and J. Norcup (eds) Landscapes of Detectorists. Axminster: Uniform Books, pp. 42-55.
Greaves, P. 2022. The Staffordshire Hoard Conservation Program, in H. Williams, P. Reavill and S. Clague (eds) The Public Archaeology of Treasure. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 96-112.
Greene, S. 2022. Stór mo chroí – reflections on treasure from an Irish perspective, in H. Williams, P. Reavill and S. Clague (eds) The Public Archaeology of Treasure. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 54-63.
Harris, A. 2020. ‘When I get up it just goes to shit’ – unearthing the every day vertical landscapes of Detectorists, in I.M. Keighren and J. Norcup (eds) Landscapes of Detectorists. Axminster: Uniform Books, pp. 58-75.
Hirst, S. and Scull, C. 2019. The Anglo-Saxon Princely Burial at Prittlewell, Southend-on-Sea. London: MOLA.
Keighren, I.M. 2020. ‘When I look at this landscape, I can read it’ – practices of landscape interpretation in Detectorists, in I.M. Keighren and J. Norcup (eds) Landscapes of Detectorists. Axminster: Uniform Books, pp. 24-38.
Keighren, I.M. and Norcup, J. (eds) 2020a. Landscapes of Detectorists. Axminster: Uniform Books.
Keighren, I’M. and Norcup, J. 2020b. Introduction, in I.M. Keighren and J. Norcup (eds) Landscapes of Detectorists. Axminster: Uniform Books, pp. 15-21.
Metcalfe, T. 2020. Anglo-Saxon warlord unearthed by metal detector hobbyist, Live Science, https://www.livescience.com/anglo-saxon-warlord-discovered-metal-detectorists.html
Norcup, J. 2020. ‘That’s got to be a first: woman reads map’ – gender, hobbies and knowledge in Detectorists, in I.M. Keighren and J. Norcup (eds) Landscapes of Detectorists. Axminster: Uniform Books, pp. 78-93.
Reavill, P. 2022. Going with the FLO: personal reflections on the Portable Antiquities Scheme for England and Wales, in H. Williams, P. Reavill and S. Clague (eds) The Public Archaeology of Treasure. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 22-40.
Tandy, A. 2020. Afterword, in I.M. Keighren and J. Norcup (eds) Landscapes of Detectorists. Axminster: Uniform Books, pp. 94-105.
Tierney, A. 2022. From golden eggs to trampled treasure: the 2019 Cadbury Chocolate Scandal, in H. Williams, P. Reavill and S. Clague (eds) The Public Archaeology of Treasure. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 64-77.
Williams, H. 2020. The fight for ‘Anglo-Saxon’, https://aeon.co/essays/why-we-should-keep-the-term-anglo-saxon-in-archaeology.
Williams, H. with Clarke, P., Bounds, V., Bratton, S., Dunn, A., Fish, J., Griffiths, I., Hall, M., Keelan, J., Kelly, M., Jackson, D., Matthews, S., Moran, M., Moreton, N., Neeson, R., Nicholls, V., O’Conner, S., Penaluna, J., Rose, P., Salt, A, Studholme, A. and Thomas, M. 2020. Public archaeology for the Dark Ages, in H. Williams and P. Clarke (eds) Digging into the Dark Ages: Early Medieval Public Archaeologies, Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 1–18.
Williams, H. 2022. Destroy the ‘Sutton Hoo Treasure’! in H. Williams, P. Reavill and S. Clague (eds) The Public Archaeology of Treasure. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 162–185.
Williams, H., Clague, S., Carr, N and Raine, J. 2022. Introduction: the public archaeology of treasure, in H. Williams, P. Reavill and S. Clague (eds) The Public Archaeology of Treasure. Oxford: Archaeopress, pp. 1–21.
Williams, H., Reavill, P. and Clague, S. (eds) 2022. The Public Archaeology of Treasure. Oxford: Archaeopress.