Treasure in the valley

Driving along the valley road between East Garston and Great Shefford last Friday afternoon (1 September 2023), I was intrigued by the caravanserai of tents, camper vans, marquees and food stalls which had set up on the field just beyond Maiden Court Farm. Garstonbury had been and gone for this year and was, in any case, on the other side of the road. What was going on? Festival? Traveller encampment? Was it perhaps a hallucination? There was a car close behind me so I had little time to stop and put any of these theories to the test.

The answer, a few enquiries revealed, was that it was a metal detecting event organised by the Rodney Cook Memorial, a charity set up by Gary Cook in remembrance of his father Rodney. Never having been to such an event, Penny and I walked down from East Garston on Saturday and again on Sunday, on this occasion managing to chat to and video the Ermine Street Guards, dedicated Roman soldiers for the weekend.

“The RDM Rally was set up after the tragic passing of my father Rodney,” RCM founder Gary Cook explained. “We wanted to try and help those people and their families who are suffering from cancer. It’s a family event based around the hobby of metal detecting. Indeed, “the RCM family” is a term we all use – because that’s what it is.”

We were certainly struck by how relaxed and affable the atmosphere there was: also by how the people were – though not in a showy or boastful way – keen to show us their finds, some of which were truly stunning. This impression was confirmed by Jeffrey Rabbitts who, with his brother Jonathan, owns Maiden Court Farm.

“We’d played host to a few smaller detection days on our farm before,” he told me, “but as the day approached, I was feeling a little nervous at the sheer scale of the event that I’d agreed to over a few pints in the Queens Arms earlier this year. I couldn’t, however, have been more delighted. The organisers were considerate and professional, the detectorists friendly and polite and the field was left in perfect condition afterwards. 10 of 10 to Gary Cook and everyone else involved. A wonderful weekend.”

Gary Cook agreed. “The East Garston event attracted over 1,300 people – this includes friends and family who were out on the fields who came along to soak up the atmosphere and entertainment and visit the trade stands. We estimate that it raised close to £100,000. RUHX based at the Royal United Hospital and Brighter Futures based at the Great Western will be the beneficiaries. Further events are planned. Finding suitable sites is one of our main challenges so of any local landowners can match Jonathan and Jeffrey Rabbitts’ generosity, place get in touch.”

Depending on which source you take, there are or were around 20,000 (2023) or at least 25,000 (2015) or more than 27,000 (2018) metal detectorists in the UK. The National Council for Metal Detecting (NCMD) – whose opinion surely trumps all of these – told me on 6 September that it has “over 33,000 members”, so let’s take that. The NCMD also confirmed the above-mentioned Saga Exceptional’s comment that a staggering 96% of archaeological discoveries, over 1.5m finds, are now made by informed amateur enthusiasts. That’s quite a contribution to our national heritage.

Although I’ve never done it myself, I can see it’s an activity with much to recommend it. It combines being very solitary with being very sociable; it has an intellectual dimension; it gets you out in the open air; and it provides ample opportunities for musing on the many mysteries of the past, tiny clues of which you might at any moment dig up.

There’s another aspect, of course, which perhaps it’s right that we leave until last: the elusive, evocative and enticing T-word; the X-marks-the-spot thrill from so many childhood stories. But what is treasure, by today’s more rigid and legalistic definition?

This page has one summary of the legislation but it’s clearly not completely clear cut. New legislation has recently been introduced which everyone is still getting their minds round. The one thing that seems universally accepted is that if a find is sold, the proceeds are split 50/50 between the finder and the landowner. However, there are a number of legal and regulatory hurdles that also need to be crossed.

“Once someone finds an object that they believe is treasure, or has reasonable grounds to believe this, they have 14 days to report the treasure to the FLO (Finds Liaison Officer) on behalf of the coroner,” Ella Mackenzie, a coin expert from Spinks, told me on 6 September. “During these 14 days, they are not prohibited from approaching a third party, such as an auction house like Spink, to ask for an appraisal, valuation or catalogue entry. We would then suggest giving this along with the find over to the FLO and this will allow the treasure process to be moved through more quickly. It aids both the finders and the heritage community in better understanding the find and what its significance might be.

“If the find is determined to be treasure by the coroner, then the Treasure Secretariat would seek a provisional value from a company such as ours to help the Treasure Valuation Committee – if they already have this then it speeds this part of the process up.”

The NCMD re-inforces this view. “We remind all our members of the need to inform the Coroner of their county where they are detecting if they find an item that might  be potential Treasure,” Communications Officer Dave Crisp told me. “We also recommend all detectorists use our permissions agreement form which recommends a 50/50 split and that all finds should be shown to the landowner or the tenant farmer.”

In these and other matters, any reputable metal-detecting club such as the Rodney Cook Memorial, the trade association NCMD, or professional valuers and auctioneers such as Spink, will be able to advise.

The event at East Garston unearthed hundreds of items. These were mostly coins, dating from the day before yesterday to pre-Roman times: and this was just one week-end’s work. This led both me and the landowner Jeffrey Rabbitts to wonder how on earth this came to be. Were they all dropped through holes in Roman or medieval pockets or sacks, or are they the now scattered remains of a hoard? Does it suggest that there was once a settlement there, all signs of which have vanished? Was there even some ritualistic aspect to the dispersal, in the same way as we now throw coins in fountains?

I put this question to another Spink expert, Gregory Edmund (who was also at the East Garston event). “All of these are factors,” he told me, “but remember as well that we’re dealing with centuries of accumulated artefact deposits that have only really been hunted for in the last few decades.” He also pointed out that features that we now scarcely notice could have been responsible. A bump in the land on a favoured route might lead to items often being dropped and not missed. One only has to have this happen once a month since the Romans pitched up to have the best part of 25,000 coins in more or less the same spot. He told me of one case where over 35,000 Roman coins (which did not seem to be part of a trove) turned up alongside one short stretch of an ancient road. In this context, the haul at East Garston doesn’t seem so remarkable.

In most cases, the finds are – though of value to the detector – of fairly small worth and the finder will generally be able to keep them without payment. As with owning Premium Bonds, though, there’s always the chance of The Big One. Ella Mackenzie offered two examples of chance recent discoveries (one of one coin in Hemyock in Devon and one of 266 coins in Ellerby in Yorkshire) which realised between them over £1m.

This hope for a long-priced winner is not, probably, the main motivation for most. Standing in the middle of a stranger’s field holding an object that no one else has seen for perhaps two thousand years is as close as many of us get to stepping into a time machine. A casual loss? A disturbed cache? A ritual offering? You’ll probably never know. None the less, there you are, clasping a physical piece of history that mysteriously binds you to someone who, for whatever reason, let it fall so long ago. There are many worse ways of spending a Saturday afternoon.

Being human, of course, we are all also hoping for The Big One. So, we take a swig of water, replace our headphones and move on up the field – and one fine day…

Brian Quinn

The image below and at the top were taken from The Rodney Cook Memorial website and are © Rodney Cook Memorial Rally.

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