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Logo: Tom Bates, Derbyshire Local Histrory writer  
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Digging the Dirt in Derbyshire!

Posted Saturday, June 23, 2007

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Digging the Dirt in Derbyshire!

`Thar's Gold in Them Thar' Hills!'

Metal Detecting is one of Britain’s fastest growing hobbies and enthusiasts digging the dirt in Derbyshire are often to be heard echoing that familiar old prospector’s cry, `Thar’s gold in them thar hills’ – and indeed there is, and lots of other buried treasure too!

Most Valuable Find:

The most significant (and most valuable) find however, was made long before the days of metal detectors – and even before the early pioneering days of archeaology, when, whilst grubbing for lead at White Low near Elton in 1765, a local farmer unearthed a beautifully decorated solid gold cross, a circular gold brooch set with garnets, a silver bracelet studded with miniature replicas of human skulls, two Anglian globular urns and two glass pouch bottles, believed to be the grave goods of an ancient Celtic Chieftain!

Other `finds’ of the metal detector variety include precious metals like gold and silver, medallions, Victorian jewellery - and you would be astonished to learn - literally hundreds of thousands of silver, bronze, copper and cupro-nickel coins!

There are also millions of ring-pulls, bottle-tops, pieces of silver foil, lumps of rusting farm machinery, aluminium cans, horseshoes, and lumps of lead ranging from the size of a pea, to the size of a pig!

In fact, a number of Roman pigs of lead weighing between 120 and 200lbs have been found in Derbyshire, all stamped with the Latin abbreviation `Lut’, short for Lutudarum which is presumed to have been the centre of the Roman lead-mining industry in the Peak District.

Just like the metal detectorist from Nottinghamshire who recently found a solid gold Saxon torque worth a minimum £150,000 in a field near Newark, I’ve been detecting for thirty years, mainly in Derbyshire - but my most valuable `find’ to date is worth only around £250.

Of course, the monetary value of a find is of little or no significance to a true detectorist: what is important is the object itself, the exact location of the find and its age. However, its antiquity is no guide to its monetary value, for example, a two hundred year old coin can be far more valuable than many a Bronze Age artifact, and it is the rarity and condition of a find which regulates it’s value in the modern market place.

You won’t find many Roman coins in Derbyshire, I found my first one only six years ago, but despite its relative rarity, it’s worth only about fifty pence. In fact, at most well organised metal detecting rallies dealers set up stalls selling equipment and `finds’, and a variety of small Roman bronze coins, known in the trade as `grots’ can be purchased in bags of a hundred for £25 (25p each) – or three for £1.

The reason why they are so rare in Derbyshire is because the county did’nt have as much Roman settlement and culture as many of the other counties in England, being mainly a military and mining region of activity.

Although small hordes of Roman coins have been found in a number of diverse locations like Pentrich, Crich, Ashover, Matlock Bath, Cromford, Hasland and at Oaker Hill near Darley Dale, the majority of Roman `finds’ have been located at or near known Roman settlements, or alongside known Roman roads.

New discoveries are being made regularly, and in recent years a metal detectorist from Buxton has found a horde of Roman artefacts and a previously unknown Roman settlement near Earl Sterndale, just off `The Street’, the Roman Road which runs from Buxton to Derby.

Known `hot spots’ – areas where important finds have been made regularly - are jealously guarded secrets by both landowners and detectorists alike, and of course, are few and far between!

However, the county has a number of relatively well known Civil War sites which are accessible by permission and these have yielded artifacts ranging from weaponry - including a sword, knives, and literally thousands of lead musket balls - to horse harness decoration and an assortment of belt, hat, dress and knee buckles.

The first cardinal rule for any budding detectorists is NEVER venture on any land without first obtaining the permission of the landowner, otherwise you may be liable to prosecution for trespassing, which is still a criminal offence.

There are metal detecting clubs in almost every county in England, and the National Council for Metal Detectorists (NCMD) is a national body to which most bonafide metal detecting clubs are affiliated. However, metal detecting clubs in Derbyshire are literally `thin on the ground’, with only one (Buxton) which is still operating. The main reason for this is because the majority of `finds’ are made in areas which have been more densely populated and have seen far more human activity. As large parts of Derbyshire were virtually impenetrable to wheeled transport until the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and prior to this the county was sparsely populated, the `casual losses’ – which account for 95% of all `finds’ - are considerably reduced in comparison to other counties. The NCMD recognizes this factor and offers individual membership costing just £5 per year, which includes indemnity of up to £1m for members against resulting insurance loss or damage claims.

Metal detectors are also useful tools in historical research for both the amateur historian and archaeologist, and can often bring evidence to light which would otherwise remain undiscovered.

During the course of my own research for a book about the White Peak, historical records revealed that the village of Birchover had been moved from it’s original hill top location, possibly around the thirteenth century owing to lack of water in the settlement, to it’s present location further down the hill where there was an abundant spring. There was no record of any church at the original settlement other than a brief mention in a medieval ecclesiastic accounts document which stated that `six pence was payed annually on Michaelmas Day to ye church at Barcover’ (Birchover).

But there were no records of any church at Birchover before the seventeenth century, and no trace on the ground of where a church might have stood.

I examined the landscape where the supposed original settlement was believed to have been located, now just a large parcel of flat meadow land forming a broad and slightly sloping plateau along the high ridge, adjacent to some old farm buildings. I obtained permission from the current landowner to first field walk, and then metal detect this parcel of land enclosed by ancient dry limestone walls, in an attempt to find evidence of an early church.

My first field walk revealed two-dressed blocks of masonry used in the construction of the field boundary walls - which were embellished with unmistakable Norman chevrons!

I eagerly put the detector to work and within a couple of hours I had unearthed a hammered silver shilling from the reign of Charles 1st, and a bronze ecclesiastic book-clasp dating from the 13th/14th century; further `evidence’ – circumstantial I might add - came months later with the find of a small medieval bronze and pewter matin bell, and a valuable Seal Matrix.

I took the Seal Matrix to Rachel Atherton, the Finds Liaison Officer at Chesterfield Museum and it was sent off to the British Museum for identification and dating.

It turned out to be a surprisingly good find judging by the confirmation of it’s authentication as:

“Medieval Seal Matrix; Inscription - *Lel Ami Avet;

Description: Copper alloy circular seal matrix with hexagonal handle ending in a loop with three slightly projecting knops. The device is two crossed arms with hands and a small bird above. The inscription starts at the bottom with a star and reads *Lel Ami Avet (Lombardic)–“You have a loyal friend”. Dates: Medieval (Certain): 1200 – 1300. A virtually identical seal from Salisbury is published in P&E Saunders (1991), dated 13th century.”

The value is somewhere around £250, but more importantly, although the pendant seal matrix, matin bell and ecclesiastic book-clasp in themselves do not constitute evidence of a church on the site, they at least suggest the possibility! In the interim the landowner has had a geophysical survey conducted by an archaeological research team – which has yeilded nothing!

But during the course of rebuilding the ancient dry-stone field boundary walls he has discovered stonework with embellishments which suggest it may be a large fragment of an early Saxon cross. Also found on the site recently is a carved stone head which was first thought to have been a `gargoyle’, but which on closer inspection looks like an early medieval cherub and is certainly from an old church!

I intend going back soon to continue my search, for the metal detecting season gets under way in late Autumn, usually around the second week in October when the harvest has been gathered in and the fields have been freshly ploughed. Watch this space!

 
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