Another Tale from …
Is there such a thing as beginner’s luck? Can it really be possible to unearth a hoard of treasure at your very first go at metal detecting? In the very first hole you dig? As I stood in my field on a Sunday morning I rather hoped so.
Wesley Carrington pretty much did that in 2013. Wesley, a 34-year old car salesman from St Albans in Hertfordshire, decided one day to have a go at metal detecting. He popped down to a shop in town and bought the cheapest beginner’s detector he could find.
From there he headed to his nearest woods and started waving his new toy around. His first two finds were hardly earth-shattering: a spoon and a half penny. However, the third lot of bleeps he heard in his headphones almost blew his ears off. He dug down seven inches and there found a Roman solidus – a 22-carat gold coin. Then he found another. And then another. Before he had to stop digging, because darkness was falling, he had a bag bulging with 55 of the things. Lucky sod
A few days later he took his booty back to the shop from which he bought the detector to ask the owners what he should do with his finds. After picking themselves up off the floor they advised him to report them to the local council and town museum.
Twenty minutes after taking up metal detecting, fluky old Wesley had effectively unearthed 159 Roman gold coins spanning the reigns of six Emperors, from Honorius to Gratian, dating back to the fall of the Roman Empire.
Around 1700 years before Wesley took his fortuitous walk in the woods some unknown soldier or Roman consul, panicking as he watched his world crumbling around him, probably stashed his fortune in the ground hoping to recover it later. It was not to be.
But one centurion’s loss is another man’s gain. In this case, car salesman Wesley’s gain. His hoard of gold had an estimated value of £100,000 put on it, and it was sent off to the British Museum.
In the Field
Back in my field, I wonder whether I am about to do a ‘Wesley’ and unearth my very own hoard at my first attempt? The signal in my headphones was a clear ringing tone. A good sign. And the control panel display was indicating silver. Another good sign. I push a button on my machine to help pinpoint the spot under my detector where my silver hoard lies. Time to dig!
I put my detector down and give my new lucky spade its first work out. There is a technique to digging the perfect hole. It is a technique I have yet to master. Holey Moley and Sweatstain, who are digging holes of their own nearby, seem to manage it far more elegantly than I. Nonetheless after a couple of minutes
I am on my hands and knees looking into a hole of my own. I can see nothing. Where is that layer of shining coins gleaming up at me?
Bog Lurker wanders past and peers into my hole watching as I root around in the soil with my hands, much like the doctors must have done rummaging around the insides of poor old President Garfield looking for a bullet. Where is Alexander Graham Bell when you need him?
Bog Lurker whips out the vibrator I saw him using earlier. “You need one of these,” he says.
“Right. Do the vibrations help break up the soil? “
“What? It’s a pinpointer. It’s a hand-held metal detector that helps you find stuff in your hole. Here, have a go with it. Push that button there and probe around in your hole with it.” Oo-er, missus. We’ve only just met.
I do as I am told and immediately Bog Lurker’s vibrator starts to shake, emitting a high-pitched whine. Below its pointy end in a lump of earth lies my first treasure!
“It’s in that ball of soil there,” he says helpfully as I hand his pinpointer back to him. I can feel my heart beating fast. My hands are quivering as I start to break open the small clod of earth. I can see something! I don’t think it’s a coin, though. The soil falls away to reveal what looks like a small, empty tube of toothpaste. I can make out the word ‘COW’ on it.
“Moo tube,” says Bog Lurker.
“Cow ointment tube. You’ll dig up hundreds of those buggers.”
Wesley finds Roman treasure at his first attempt. I turn up a discarded tube of cow medicine. It seems that some farmers and vets are litterbugs, tossing aside spent tubes of unctions willy nilly. Alas, for the detectorist, even today’s modern machines cannot, with any great certainty, spot the difference between these particular bits of rubbish and a George III silver sixpence. I begin to understand Alexander Graham Bell’s frustration on his fruitless bullet hunting expedition.
Not to worry. Wesley wasn’t put off when at first he dug up a spoon. I pocket the cow tube, fill in my first hole, stamp down the soil and head off again. Until today, I didn’t quite appreciate just how much metal there is buried in the ground. There is tons of the stuff – and as the morning progresses, I lighten the load of Mother Earth quite considerably.
Over the course of the next three hours in no particular order I find: more moo tubes, nails, ring pulls, parts from a plough, soft drinks cans, beer cans, screws, unidentifiable bits of metal, pieces of aluminium foil, chunks of lead, a bullet, shotgun caps, half a horseshoe, a bike pedal, a door handle and a 1957 half penny piece. Unlike Wesley, I doubt I will make the national press with this lot.
Meanwhile, my pockets are bulging with scrap metal. My trousers weigh a ton. Walking across the field is like wading through treacle. At one point my trousers slip over my hips, dragged downwards by the inevitable force of gravity. I briefly stand in the field in my underpants, metal detector and spade in hand. I am the Brian Rix of metal detecting. Sweatstain looks up from excavating a hole and swiftly looks away again. It’s rude and inappropriate to stare at the afflicted.
I hitch my pants up and head back to the car, one hand on my belt, the other holding my detector and spade. I waddle like an obese duck. Stevie, Mr. and Mrs. Mentalface, Bellend and Arthur Scargill are already back at their cars having lunch as I clank my way past them to disgorge the contents of my pockets into the boot of my car.
“How’d you get on?” asks Bellend.
“Not too great,” I say. “I found an old half penny.”
“Hey, at least it’s a coin,” says Stevie, encouragingly.
“I guess so.”
My face must have been the epitome ofcrestfallen. “You’ll have to get used to disappointment,” says Stevie. “Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you will dig up a load of old rubbish. But then you’ll get something like this which makes up for all those ring pulls and shotgun caps.”
With that he pulls out a small plastic box from his finds pouch, opens the lid and takes out a coin. He pops it into my palm. “Roman,” he says. “Emperor Constantine. Copper alloy, London mint from about AD320, I think.”
I stare at it. It is a beautiful object and in fantastic condition for something that has been in the ground for nearly 1700 years.
“You found that here today?”I ask.
“Yep, just over there by that tree. Arthur got one too, bit later though, AD360. Julian the Apostate, you reckon Arthur?”
“Let’s see what the afternoon brings,” says Stevie. And with that he is up and off again in search of more Roman coins. Arthur Scargill nods, biting into his sandwich.
The afternoon brings me more rubbish, although I am quite pleased when I turn up a complete horseshoe. Maybe this will bring me a bit of good fortune. It does to some degree. Before the day is done is have my first button, my first buckle and a Victorian penny, and just as the light begins fade, a three penny bit from 1941.
It strikes me that my pre-decimal coin hunting is following a linear progression in terms of value: farthing, half penny, penny, thruppence. At his rate I won’t hit a Saxon hoard until I am 87.
Back at the car at the day’s end, Stevie comes over to ask how my afternoon session went. I show him my coins, the buckle and the button.
“Ooh,” he says. “Forklift! Come and have a look at this will you.”Forklift wanders over.“He knows his buttons,” Stevie says in an aside.
Forklift is a big fellow. In fact he is massive, sports a ponytail and has spidery tattoos on his neck and hands. He looks like a Hell’s Angel. He takes my button and looks at it closely.
“Oh what a nice button,” he coos, turning it over in his shovel-sized hands. It seems somewhat incongruous to see a man who looks as if he could be an axe murderer ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ over a small – and to my eyes nondescript – button.
“Medieval,” he says. “Congratulations. A nice example of a lead button, probably from the 1300s. WELL SAVED.
“Cheers,” I say, taking back my button.
“You should report it,” says Forklift. “Something as early as that should be reported and recorded.”
“To whom?” I ask.
Surely the police won’t be interested in trying to track down the long- dead owner of a medieval button. These days they struggle to return TVs and jewellery to the victims of burglaries, never mind lost bits of medieval clothing.
“The local Finds Liaison Officer,” saysStevie “They record anything of interest, where it’s found and what have you. Look them up on the Internet and you’ll be able to find out what you have to do.”
“Right, I will.”
And so ends my first metal detecting expedition. I have learned a lot. I learn I need another new spade – my left arm feels like it has been employed in a day-long arm wrestling match with Forklift. I learn I could do with a dildo-like pinpointer to narrow down exactly where the shotgun caps and Coke tins lie in my holes. I need a pouch in which to squirrel away my finds so that I don’t acquire the nickname ‘Captain Underpants’. [Too late – John]
I also learn that finding something as ordinary as a button can leave you feeling quite elated. Perhaps not as elated as that lucky old bugger, Wesley, but nonetheless I ‘saved’ a 700-year old button, a button that possibly popped off the shirt of a poor peasant working in the very fields in which I stand.
“I feel strangely moved.”