The findings of detectorists help us understand history. (14.06.2016)
Text and photos: Aivar Pihelgas
Usually in the spring or autumn, when the fields are empty and have the smell of freshly tilled soil, you might notice men who seem to wonder around, headphones on, metal detector in one hand and shovel in the other. Those who are familiar with the field know that there are about 400 to 500 detectorists in Estonia who have purchased a metal detector and try their luck by searching the ground. I was lucky to have spent half of a day with Raoul Annion – a detectorist and an archaeology enthusiast. He is not just a treasure hunter; he is a professional whose goal is to broaden our knowledge about the past.
Metal detector was not invented in the recent history but the evolution of this invention has been noticeable. Today’s metal detectors are more accurate, they give information about the size of the finding and how deep in the ground it lays and even about the type of the metal. The latter is especially important because our fields are quite rich in metal pieces – horse shoes, parts of the agriculture machines, nuts and bolts, pieces of projectiles etc. An ignorant ear reacts to every peep and the excitement brings pictures of a hidden treasure in front of the eyes. Next, the shovel comes in handy. The ground is dug up to find the treasure. For finding the small piece of metal in the dug soil, a smaller metal detector is usually used. Usually, all you find is some kind metal garbage that may be worth something in 500 to 600 years – beer bottle cap, metal button, aluminium cup handle, and cigarette box lid. From the edge of the field we found caps of two wine bottles and one vodka bottle. Cultural history wise, we probably discovered ancient tractor operators’ gathering place where the difficult life of the time was forgotten by drinking intoxicating liquids and carrying through other rituals of the time.
But at the same time, it was surprising how many things we were able to find in one day that actually seemed “rare“ to a beginner like me. Wondering around on two fields, we were able to find many copper kopecks from Tsarist era and even an ore coined by the Swedish king. The whole handful of old metal buttons and a small piece of metal on which an ornament can be seen that refers to the fact that it may be a fragment of quite old jewellery. We found all those things in just half a day. The abundance of the findings shows that these fields are not just any fields. These fields are currently researched as part of the “Ajakihid“ (translation time layers) project. The most interesting findings are going to be laid out at an exhibition in a new building of Estonian National Museum. Based on the findings, we can say that there has been life in that place for more than 100 years.
Unfortunately many findings get lost due to getting easy profit. Many findings just “disappear“ and for history’s sake, these lose a big part of their importance because no-one knows their exact finding location and many small details are left unnoticed that could lead specialists to a lot of information. That is why, it is very important to mark down all the finding places. For capturing the findings and fixating the finding locations, Raoul uses Nikon’s water and shockproof digital camera COOLPIX AW 120. Today, Nikon has already launched an advanced COOLPIX AW 130 camera. This is 16 megapixel camera that enables you to dive up 30 metres, is shockproof up to falling from 2 metres, cold proof up to the temperature of -10°C and dustproof. Since this camera has a built-in GPS, it makes it easy to fixate the location of the finding while photographing them. I addition, this camera’s software also features a map that makes it easier to orientate. Since the hands are often dirty, it would be very hard to use any other camera or phone for photographing the items.
Nele Kangert from National Heritage Board comments
As a result of the work of the detectors interested in history, a lot of artefacts have been found in the recent years including habitats of the people of the time, funeral and working places etc. And also different single findings and treasures that give the archaeologist information about the trading, movements and everyday life of people centuries ago. Having a metal detector is not enough for going on a search. According to the Heritage Conservation Act, one must have completed a course and have a permit in their pocket. And of course, the land lord also has be aware and agreed. During the course, the future detectors are given the basic knowledge and guidance on how to act when finding something so that the information value of the finding and its location would not decrease. Documenting the locations of the findings is very important because the finding place of the item, its relation to other findings and the surrounding environment is exactly what gives the item meaning, data and background story. GPS device and a camera are very important tools of a detectorist interested in history. A camera that features a built-in location detecting device makes the documenting work a lot more informative of course.