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Metal Detecting

November 11, 2012
Hiberno Norse Brooch

 In the eastern part of Shropshire there is a man who most people will never have heard of. Frank Taylor has no celebrity status except amongst those who know his work well and know that this quiet unassuming man is one of the finest local historians that there is. For thirty years he has been metal detecting and his book ‘A Life’s Work, Metal Detecting in  a Shropshire Parish,’ has just been published. Co-written by myself, the ISBN number is 978-0-9573505-0-2. Local history through artefacts is a different concept and the book is packed with finds ranging from flints to buttons and seals. The featured image is a rare find in Shropshire and it took fifteen years to identify it as a Hiberno Norse pinhead.This is Frank’s story.

Frank Taylor, Metal Detectorist

I was not born with an interest in history and in the first ten years of my life nothing occurred to change that. Living in the Onny Gorge in South West Shropshire I was surrounded by history. There were Roman remains, castles, old trackway and stone circles. No-one told me anything about them or more likely I didn’t listen. Growing up on a small farm in the Shropshire Hill Country with open access all around (parental restrictions were much more liberal then) was as good as it gets.

I then attended Ludlow Grammar School where the history lessons did not inspire me. It was all dates, Kings, Queens and Emperors. I was more interested in how ordinary people lived and worked. Back then teachers were regarded as the fount of all knowledge; less so today perhaps. In my youthful excursions around my local woods, streams and fields I often picked up things of interest that caught my eye. I took a couple of those to school to show the history teacher, one was what I thought was a piece of flint and a strange looking piece of metal. “Very interesting,” he said, “I’ll look them up.” I never saw them again, they probably ended up in the bin.

Visits to museums were infrequent. I was then more interested in natural history than actual history. However some things did draw my attention. Roman and early British silver coins and Roman brooches I looked at in awe and wonder. How did people find them? I thought I never would. One item interested me a lot. It was labelled “Iron Age Axe Mould.” It was a stone cube with every side except one incised with a deep axe shape. I can’t remember whether it was in Ludlow or Shrewsbury Museum but I can remember it was found by a ten year old boy in a Shropshire stream. I wish I had been that boy.

One thing survived from those days. A piece of flint from a local field found its way into the hands of a Miss Chitty who lived in the Pontesbury area. She identified it as a flint fabricator. It went to Rowley’s House Museum where it was on display for a long time.

Life moved on and so did we. On to East Shropshire, within a short distance of the Staffordshire border, in the Parish of Worfield and Rudge. This was a different country to me. Before the emphasis was on livestock, here it was arable. Pigs, sheep and cattle had their defined areas. The fields were bigger and the hills were more rounded and more gentle than in South West Shropshire, The weather and the land worked better with each other. If it rained all night you could plough or work the fields next day. In the south west you had to wait at least a week. The crops were different, too. Wheat, oats and barley we knew but here they grew 40 acres of potatoes and sugar beet. In the early 1960s growing sugar beet was quite labour intensive. The mono culture of today’s one plant, one seed system had not yet evolved. The seeds were drilled thickly and they had to be hoed out by hand. This lasted for three to four weeks in late Spring and early Summer. It was piece work and the chance for farm workers to earn a little extra cash. Where this all connects with history may not seem very clear. One thing I did learn was how to concentrate on a task for hours and hours which helped me in field walking and metal detecting in later years.

I had read somewhere that flint did not occur naturally in Shropshire and where worked flint occurred it must have been brought in by man. In the long hours of sugar beet hoeing, the hoe would strike an object that emitted a sharp metallic sound and on investigating that object often turned out to be piece of flint. Often it was no more than unworked or scrap material but occasionally it was a blade or a scraper. Slowly my interest in things historical grew. I began to field walk looking for flints and early pipe boles. I also started digging through Victorian bottle dumps, a phase which only lasted a few years and left me with a room full of bottles. One day during the potato harvest as I walked across the field in the midday break I saw a glint of gold. On picking it up I thought it was a fruit machine token. Closer examination revealed a sovereign of George 1V, 1823.(returned to the family on whose land it was found)

The inevitable conclusion of all this ended in the acquisition of a metal detector. In the late 1970s metal detectors were not very sophisticated and I dug up so much junk I began to lose interest. But I didn’t give up. I continued to field walk. I was pleased to be able to record a concentration of flint objects with the Shropshire Archaeological Service. These indicated a site in constant use throughout pre history. It was inspirational to handle tiny objects used by the first people to inhabit this island. I am deeply grateful to Emma Kate Burns (as she was then) for her time and expertise in this matter. She taught me a lot.

As my life moved on and as thoughts of retirement began to loom I found I had more time on my hands. I picked up a metal detecting magazine in a local newsagents and found out that detecting technologies had moved on, too. Headphones had improved, discrimination was much better and depth as well. There were photographs of objects people had found, coins, jewellery and all kinds of artefacts. This looked really interesting. A few hundred pounds got me a new metal detector and I was away. My agricultural upbringing assured me of plenty of land to detect on and I began finding interesting things almost immediately. Identifying these artefacts and partefacts gradually became easier. There were reference books and magazines and I read all I could get. One of my first finds was a silver Roman Denarius of Domitian 69-81AD. This later proved to be part of a scattered hoard of Roman silver coins. My detector felt like a magic wand. I only had to wave it and it took you back in time. A time machine if you like. Metal objects from this friable Worfield soil did not require much cleaning. Washing up liquid and warm water was usually enough. As the years passed, finds of importance began to accumulate significantly.

On designated historical sites metal detectors are quite rightly banned but in this country we are so lucky the whole country is a historical site to me. Important and interesting objects can pop up anywhere.

One farmer was very friendly and cooperative. He had an empty glass case in his office. “See if you can fill it.” He said. Over time I filled it and another one as well. The farmer assures me the collection will stay on the farm for the foreseeable future and hopefully beyond. This is great news, although this assemblage of artefacts contains nor precious metal it does contain a number of finds unique for Shropshire and a couple unique to Britain. I hope future detectorists will find many more.

Governments and politicians, whatever their political agenda, seemed only over the years to put up taxes. Then with the millennium looming (1997) some genius in government came up with the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS). I knew this was just what was needed. The hobby was getting out of hand. While gold and silver were covered by the Treasure Act, other metals were not. These antiquities were collectible items. There are collectors all over the world. Some detectorists were in it for the money. They still are. I am not against you selling finds if you wish to, but Please!, Please! Record where an item came from. Without its location it is just an artefact, with its location it’s a part of history. With the PAS scheme Finds Liaison Officers (FLOs) were appointed to designated areas all over England to record anything they deemed to be historically important enough and old enough (the benchmark is three hundred years or older.) The number of finds recorded has increased every year since the scheme began. Last year 2010 the number of finds recorded countrywide was well over 90,000. Recordable objects can turn up anywhere, on a country walk or while gardening, but the great majority of object recorded by the FLOs were metal detector finds.

The vast area of Herefordshire and Shropshire was appointed its own FLO in 1998. He was Peter Reavill, he was based in Ludlow and is still doing a great job today. His knowledge and expertise cannot be faulted and he obviously loves his work. I cannot thank him enough for all the time and effort spent researching every item. I have learned so much from him.

Now I find that I cannot spend the length of time in the fields that I used to. My stamina is not what it was. It appears that just when I am catching up with history, history is catching up with me.



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