Any parent will know that sometimes when you buy a gift for your child, you’re actually buying it for yourself. In order to dispel of the feeling of selfishness in doing so, you convince yourself it will be educationally beneficial in the long run.
This was what I told myself when I bought our four-year-old son a metal detector for his birthday.
I’m not sure what sparked my fascination for do-it-yourself archaeology. Perhaps it was the 20 seasons of Time Team, or maybe even a Coronation Street storyline when characters Roy Cropper and Spider found what turned out to be a Roman settlement while setting up camp in Audrey Roberts’s garden flower beds. Either way, I seem to possess an innate need to dig. When all the other children were building sandcastles on the beach, I was always busy digging holes, fascinated by what was lying beneath. From the age of seven, I made sure to ask Father Christmas for a metal detector, but it never came. It may sound like a strange childhood request, but for me, this contraption was a time-travelling tool. After all, buried artefacts are like ghosts – they live among us and expel a haunting demand to be found.
My partner and I once had an argument because I was choosing to retire to the bedroom earlier and earlier rather than spending time with him after the children had gone to bed. He envisioned me involved in some incandescent affair with another man, exchanging frantic, passionate texts. To his surprise (and my somewhat embarrassment), I informed him that I’m addicted to watching unsteady camera footage of live metal detecting on YouTube. When I’m not doing that, I’m usually gorging on back-to-back episodes of Detectorists, the BBC4 comedy starring Mackenzie Crook and Toby Jones as metal detecting enthusiasts. I think I’d make a wonderful addition to their committed club.
[see also: History shows that in times of crisis we bury our treasures. What will archaeologists find of us?]
After many years of yearning, I got my opportunity. My son’s birthday coincided with the start of the Covid-19 lockdown, when my family, like so many others, seemed to walk more than The Proclaimers. We did this every day in our hometown of Bolton and the surrounding area. The Lancashire countryside is refreshing and lovely, but after a while, the colour green gets a little monotonous. I began to think a metal detector might give our aimless missions a purpose, or at least lighten the mood, and my son’s birthday was the perfect excuse. He ripped off the wrapping paper, desperately looking for signs of Spiderman, puzzled by what he found instead. “A walking stick?” he asked. “No, no darling,” I insisted. “This is a pirate’s treasure finder.”
We immediately set out on an adventure to excavate the remnants of lives once led, in a field opposite our house. We held the detector together and slowly walked, eyes fixed on the ground beneath us. After 30 minutes of silence (and wondering if the damned thing was even working) we finally heard it: “Bleep!”
Nothing quite prepares you for that noise. At that moment, in your mind, something spectacular lies under your feet. I pulled out my hand shovel and cut what we detectorists’ like to call a “plug”; my son’s job was to carefully remove the worms from the process of unearthing. Our first potential find, we were excitedly debating whether we had found a bag of gold coins, Bronze Age battle tools or maybe a royal ring.
At last, after much rooting, a small square packet appeared. The writing said Durex. I told my son it was a pixie crisp packet and we’d best put it in the bin.
These days, we know the different tones to listen out for so we’re spared that disappointment. But I still smiled to myself that day. What we’d found in the ground was the prevailing memento of a couple’s young love. It was still, in its own way, a form of history.
Throughout this pandemic, metal detecting has become our escape. The pounding sunshine of that first spring lockdown enabled us to stay out from morning until early evening. The very nature of time ceased to exist. It’s an odd thing, but the present time seems to stand still as you desperately attempt to find your way back to an earlier one. It taught us patience, solitude, quietness and teamwork. Life no longer became about what we could see; it was about what we imagined.
We have not yet found anything of historical significance, but each and every thing is treasured by my son. His favourite is something we found in our own garden: a toy replica gun with the word “Dakota” embossed on to it. We imagine a child playing deliriously for hours on end. The object is an ode to youth and joy. The owner’s fingerprints may no longer remain, yet residual meaning lingers.
I have found metal detecting a reminder that often our most treasured items aren’t valuable; they’re the ones that give you life. When we depart, the commodities that we once held become our footprints. We trace these footprints because by understanding the people that came before us, we may be on the path toward understanding ourselves.
[see also: “I deal in details”: sweating the small stuff with Toby Jones]