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Surrey archaeology and metal detecting - Surrey's most important archaeological sites

16:39 17 May 2012

A pair of metal detectorists on the hunt

A pair of metal detectorists on the hunt

With the Festival of British Archaeology taking place this month, and a whole host of events going on in the county, it's a great chance to find out about some of the historic treasures that have been unearthed here in Surrey. But what of those items found by members of the public. What happens to those and who decides? MATTHEW WILLIAMS reports

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine July 2009

Photos: Surrey History Centre


We've all done it; laid in bed on the verge of sleep, dreaming about that pot of gold on the walk to work or finding a jewel-encrusted goblet while picnicking on a Sunday afternoon. How rarely these dreams come true, however, and, if we do find something, it usually turns out to be a misshapen rock rather than Stone Age tools or buried treasure.

That said, someone must be finding something, as Surrey finds liaison officer David Williams, who lives in Reigate and is based at Surrey History Centre in Woking, already has a folder of over 600 finds for just this year alone. Last year, he recorded around 1,600 items.

What is more, many of them are just as exciting as that pot of gold, too. How about walking among Wisley's blooms and stumbling across a beautiful brooch that turned out to be the only Saxon artefact discovered in the county last year? Or unearthing a decorative equine piece from a horse of Charles II in Epsom? What about the lady who found a perfect Bronze Age arrow head while walking her dog in Reigate?

"We're lucky to have had some really exciting finds in Surrey and the major excavation at Woking Palace this year by Surrey Archaeological Society will hopefully unearth a few more," says David, who works for the Portable Antiquities Scheme - a project run by the British Museum that offers people a way of voluntarily recording the objects they find. "In the main, though, my job is to record individual finds and I receive items all the time - mostly coins and seals.

"Of the items I see, over 99 per cent are metal detected finds; and I consider metal detecting to be a huge source of archaeological knowledge, provided the finds are recorded with us properly."

Metal detecting by the rules
Indeed, there are strict rules governing metal detecting; you can't just take a trip to your local park, dig up a few objects and take them down the local pawn shop. Unless you seek permission from the landowner, it constitutes theft and even with their permission 'treasure' must be recorded.

"The Treasure Act means that there is a legal obligation to report certain classes of finds within 14 days - basically, gold and silver over 300 years old, hoards of coins and groups of prehistoric base metal objects," says David. "Treasure finds go up to the British Museum and the value then depends on whether a museum is interested in acquiring them. If it is purchased, the finder and landowner will share its full market value, based on assessments by leading dealers.

"For instance, there was a hoard of Bronze Age ingots, still in the pot, found in Betchworth last year. Because they are prehistoric metal objects they came under the Treasure Act and have now been acquired by Guildford Museum."

However, there is still a lot of concern among the archaeological community for what is known as 'nighthawking', which is basically trespassing on others fields or targeting sites of archaeological interest and carting away the proceeds.

"As far as I know, it's not such a problem in Surrey," says David. "There is, however, a Scheduled Ancient Monument in the Croydon area - a Roman site - where over 120 holes suddenly appeared last year. We don't know who the people are but we'd very much like to know what they found and get them to stop. It is a problem, though I think it has lessened since the Portable Antiquities Scheme was introduced, as people are more aware."

Location, location, location
In Surrey, the further you go down into the Weald - the area of mainly low-lying clay in the south-east of the county, which includes the likes of Horley and Lingfield, as well as much of Kent and Sussex - the less you are going to find. But where people have had good agricultural land, such as on the North Downs, the finds rise.

"Admittedly, a lot of things that we are yet to find are getting damaged in the ploughed soil and by agricultural chemicals," says David. "So I can see the metal detectorists' point - that they are to some extent rescuing items that would otherwise be destroyed. But, until something has been recorded, it cannot be considered to be rescued - that's the way we look at it.

"Once in a while, you do receive something that really makes your eyes light up. I had one the other day, a Roman dodecahedron, which I immediately recognised because they are so rare - it's only the second one we've ever recorded on the scheme. It's a strange bronze object, the use of which is simply not known. In fact, if you go on the internet, there is a whole world of speculation on the subject! So what one was doing in a field west of Guildford, I just don't know."

The scheme generally only records objects dating from before 1700 AD, but just occasionally something turns up that is just too special to let go.

"We've recently taken on a First World War medal, which was discovered in Limpsfield, and I'm trying to find out more about the man, to see if we can track down his family," says David. "It's a bit of a mystery and one of the later examples that I'm more than happy to look at."

Securing our history
The scheme's basic aim is to make sure that the nation's history is recorded as thoroughly as possible and not lost to eBay sales and modern day pirating. A common problem is that landowners give permission for their land to be detected on but don't realise they take on the responsibility to report any finds.

"People shouldn't be concerned that by having finds on their land reported, they are going to be inundated with archaeologists - this simply doesn't happen," says David. "Most of these finds are just casual losses, and even if it does turn out to be an important site, we can't just force our way on to it!

"Some people allow detectorists on to their land but tell them not to tell anyone about what they find. Obviously, it's this second thing that we want to discourage."

Here in Surrey, we are fortunate to have some very responsible metal detecting groups, who are careful to do everything by the book. So, if this article has piqued your interest, the best thing to do is join one of those. Who knows what you might find?


Surrey metal detecting groups:

  • East Surrey Research and Recovery metal detecting group. Based
    in Reigate. Tel: 01737 243761

  • Discoverers Historical Society. Based in Guildford. Tel: 01483 871344

  • Weald and Downland Metal Detecting Club. Based in Reigate. Web:


Five of Surrey's most important archaeological sites

We spoke to Surrey History Centre to discover more about some of Surrey's top archaeological sites

Ashtead Villa & Tileworks

In recent years, Surrey Archaeological Society has been performing fieldwork on the Roman site at Ashtead Common. Members of the Roman Studies Group and also the Artefacts and Archives Research Group are continuing work to identify, catalogue and analyse the tiles from the site.

North Park Farm

Archaeologists working at North Park Farm, Bletchingley, between 2001 and 2005, discovered over 50,000 flints during their excavations in a sand quarry just south of the North Downs. The most exciting evidence to emerge, however, was of Mesolithic date - a series of pits. Hunter-gatherers have rarely left any visible trace on the landscape other than flint artefacts, so this was highly unusual.

Tongham Nurseries

Once an Iron Age settlement, work began at Tongham Nurseries as a result of the intended road construction in 1993. The excavation revealed the remains of at least 18 roundhouses as well as a 2nd century BC bronze brooch and pottery vessels.

Wanborough Temples

So nearly wrecked by the vandalism of treasure seekers, the site at Wanborough, near Guildford, yielded spectacular secrets - two temples dating from pre-Roman times. Meticulous work brought to light priestly regalia, a complete sceptre along with 15 other sceptre handles.

Chertsey Abbey

The site at Chertsey Abbey was excavated in 1855, 1861 and 1954. In the 13th century, the Abbey produced some of the finest pictorial tiles made in medieval England. As expected of a Christian site, the burials were mostly without grave goods, but one coffin contained a metal chalice and paten, indicating the occupant was a priest.


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