Detectorists and levelling up the heritage sector

Levelling up

The heritage sector seems to have done pretty well out of the £4.8 billion Levelling Up Fund. This is money that would have gone to the EU’s reconstruction fund in the past, and would probably have been spent on projects in Poland or Romania. Instead, local authorities across the UK have been invited to bid for grants for projects that will ‘improve everyday life across the UK, including regenerating town centre and high streets, upgrading local transport, and investing in cultural and heritage assets’.

Since 2021, some £3.8 billion has been allocated to 216 projects. In Wales alone, £17 million has been granted for the regeneration of Holyhead to encourage visitors and local people to explore the remarkably intact Roman fort and medieval St Cybi’s Church (one of six churches being upgraded to welcome pilgrims along the 133-mile-long North Wales Pilgrim’s Way). Another £20 million will be spent to regenerate three industrial heritage sites in the Lower Swansea Valley, including the Hafod-Morfa Copperworks and Swansea Museum, and money will also go to upgrading the former National Slate Museum in Llanberis to form the new Museum of North Wales.

You can’t please everyone all of the time, of course, and critics have attacked the scheme, saying that decisions should have been made locally, not in Whitehall. Some also question the allocation of funds to the south-east, deeming it to be ‘prosperous’, although it actually does have some of the UK’s most-deprived communities. More worrying is the fact that prices have risen substantially since bids were invited and budgets first compiled, so there are concerns about whether the grants are now adequate and whether some of the schemes will ever be completed.

St Cybi’s Church in Holyhead is one of six churches being upgraded to welcome pilgrims along the 133-mile-long North Wales Pilgrim’s Way. IMAGES: C Catling

Cambridge Castle

One place that could do with a share of the reconstruction fund is Cambridge Castle. Archaeologist Tim Tatton-Brown has been campaigning for something to be done about its current state of neglect. ‘When I visited Cambridge’, he told Sherds, ‘and walked to the top of the motte (still, but only just, the best viewpoint in the whole of Cambridge), I found rubbish all over the scrubby, steep but eroding southern and eastern slopes of the motte. The presentation board, telling you something of the history of the castle, had been vandalised and was difficult to read. I could just make out “Welcome to Cambridge Castle”. It was a shocking sight for a monument of such importance.’

Tim is concerned that the archaeology is at risk because Cambridge County Council, who moved out of the Shire Hall offices adjacent to the castle to new premises at Alconbury Weald in 2022, are likely to redevelop the site. Only a fraction of the castle is protected as a scheduled monument, so the council may be assuming that there is nothing left to excavate in the area, whereas it is likely that extensive remains survive below the ground, along with much Roman and early medieval archaeology.

Long before the University was created in the 13th century, Cambridge was already a major town and royal stronghold, with dense settlements on both sides of the River Cam and its bridge. The first motte-and-bailey castle was erected in 1068, and successive monarchs invested heavily in masonry structures. Edward I in the late 13th century turned it into ‘one of the strongest castles in England’, to quote Howard Colvin in The History of the King’s Works.

Some castle masonry survives, but in other parts of the city. Henry VI gave permission, in 1441, for the walls of the great hall to be demolished and the stone to be reused to build King’s College. Mary I then allowed more of the stone to go to Sawston Hall in 1557, while further masonry contributed to the construction of Emmanuel and Magdalene Colleges in the later 16th century. Finally, the remaining castle buildings were used as a prison until a new County Gaol was built 1807; this was, in turn, demolished in 1929 and replaced by the large Shire Hall of 1932.

‘The time has surely come,’ says Tim, for a detailed study of the below-ground archaeology of Cambridge Castle, before any redevelopment takes place. To do anything else would be unthinkable in a university city renowned for its archaeological research and its excellent and innovative Cambridge Archaeological Unit.


Viewers were treated at Christmas to a special episode of Detectorists, that most subtle and humane of TV comedies. For those who did not see it, the plot pivoted around the tension between the selfish instincts of one of the characters, who found a gold-and-garnet sword fitting and wanted to keep it to himself, and the other principal character, who wanted to report the find to the local museum and involve professional archaeologists. In doing so, the programme dramatised one of the essential differences between detectorists and archaeologists: the first are interested in objects (preferably ones that are worth a bob or two), the latter in knowledge.

The Gloucester Cathedral cloisters has been shortlisted for Britain’s favourite artefacts in the collections of English and Welsh cathedrals. IMAGE: Christopher J T Cherrington, CC BY-SA 4.0

Of course, that is a sweeping generalisation, and the truth is more complex. Metal-detecting is an increasingly popular hobby – British Museum Director Hartwig Fischer says in the latest annual report of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS; see p.14 for more news from this initiative) that ‘there might be as many as 40,000 active metal-detectorists in the UK’; if you include occasional hobbyists, the number could be as high as 100,000. Most are responsible and abide by the law, and some detectorists are deeply knowledgeable about the artefacts they discover. PAS finds are at an all-time high, accounting for 90% of all the significant archaeological finds made in any year. The PAS scheme now has 1.6m finds on its database, and 872 research projects have made use of PAS data.

Consequently, it is regarded as unhelpful to stigmatise detectorists, or to tar them all with the same brush, and banning metal-detecting is not an option – the activity doesn’t stop, it simply goes underground. Mark Harrison, Historic England’s Head of Heritage Crime Strategy, wants to encourage law-abiding detectorists to report suspicious activity and to help clamp down on the small criminal element – those who don’t obtain the landowner’s permission, who detect on scheduled monuments, and who do not declare their finds.

One incentive for doing so is the increasing difficulty of getting permission to detect from landowners because of the bad behaviour of the few. Letters in the farming press suggest that landowners feel harassed by rogue detectorists who refuse to take no for an answer and use intimidating behaviour to secure access.

What would also help would be a widening of the range of finds that must be reported, and more efforts to persuade detectorists to share their finds by donating them to a suitable repository instead of gloating, Gollum-like, in private, like the character in Detectorists. If they were more public-spirited, detectorists would deserve the praise that politicians heap on them in the annual ritual of the launch of the PAS annual report, calling them ‘true heritage heroes’, to the ire of archaeologists who are forbidden by the ethics of their profession to profit from finds – and who wouldn’t ever want to anyway.

Cathedral treasures

Treasures of an entirely different kind are the subject of a campaign to name Britain’s favourite artefacts in the collections of English and Welsh cathedrals. Ten have been shortlisted by popular vote from a long list of 50, all of which can be seen in a guide to the Cathedral Treasures of England and Wales, written by Janet Gough and published by the Association of English Cathedrals. They include the Shrine of St Frideswide in Christ Church College, Oxford (CA 297), and Gloucester Cathedral’s cloisters, the place where the fan vault – the glory of English Perpendicular architecture – first made its appearance, as well as the Lichfield Angel (CA 205), discovered during Warwick Rodwell’s excavations of the cathedral in 2003.

Two of Sherds’ favourites failed to make it on to the shortlist: Worcester Cathedral’s well-worn pilgrim’s boots, dating from the late 15th century, and York’s Horn of Ulf, an elephant tusk made into a drinking vessel by early 11th-century Islamic carvers in southern Italy. Ulf was a Viking landowner who donated his property to the Minster in AD 1030 – or at least that is what the Minster claimed in a chronicle dating from the late 15th century.