‘East Anglia is one of the best places to metal detect in the world’
- Credit: Archant
Suffolk resident Joe Edwards-Gill and has been metal detecting for two years – and has uncovered a number of treasures from years gone by.
Joe Edwards-Gill, of Homersfield, has spent the last two years metal detecting across Norfolk and Suffolk, after taking a shine to the hobby when he was 33.
Joe, who works as the head of performing arts at the Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, first stumbled upon metal detecting while watching TV one night, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“My wife and I started watching Mackenzie Crook’s Detectorists television series after some of our friends appeared as extras in one of the episodes,” he said. “I’ve always been a bit of a closet history geek, so the idea of digging up artefacts from the past was intriguing.
“After watching about three episodes, my wife turned to me, no doubt saw the spark of wonder in my eyes and said with resigned amusement, ‘You’re going to be a detectorist, aren’t you’, which was a statement, not a question.”
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Filled with inspiration and a keen sense of adventure, Joe set out and began to scour nearby fields to see what he could uncover.
“What I didn’t realise then, of course, is that East Anglia is one of, if not the best place to metal detect in the world – and I live here!
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“I started off by detecting a horse paddock owned by some friends I know through doing local amateur dramatics. They saw that I do everything properly – I research and care for all of my finds, and I hand in anything older than 300 years to the Portable Antiquities Scheme for recording. They then recommended me to the farmer who owns the field next to their house and he said I could do his whole farm.”
With an entire field to explore, Joe is incredibly grateful for the opportunity, as metal detecting isn’t simply just a case of heading off and going where you like, as all land in the UK is owned, and prior permission must be granted by a landowner before metal detecting.
“One of the hardest bits about the hobby is finding places to go. Many have to rely on organised group digs in order to detect inland. The Crown Estate has granted blanket permission for metal detecting on their beaches, but beaches tend to have more modern items and I like to find the really old stuff. I’ve tried beach detecting, but I just find it less exciting,” he explained.
“Getting permissions in Norfolk and Suffolk is especially hard, since everyone wants to detect here. Some farmers don’t want anyone on their land and most others already have a detectorist or club who already searches their farms, so I’m very lucky that I have a whole farm to search.”
While he may not have as many years under his belt compared to other detectorists in the field, Joe has still found his fair share of rare and fascinating finds – with his first discovery dating back to the 19th century.
“My first proper find was a silver George III ‘bullhead’ shilling from 1818. When I got home, I researched the coin, as I wanted to know how much it would have been worth to the person who dropped it, and anything else that might be of interest which I could relay to the landowner. I found out from the internet that 1818 is the rarest year for milled silver shillings.”
From then on, Joe was hooked. His George III bullhead shilling now sits in his display case at home, alongside many of the other finds that he has dug up.
“I don’t think I could ever sell any of my finds. They are all too precious, and worth far more to me than money.”
Back in May last year, Joe made one of his rarest – and most ancient – discoveries.
“I took my detector round to see a family friend who lives in a house which is close to the farm where I detect. He said, ‘show us how this thing works then’, so I switched on my detector and immediately got a great signal.
“We got excited and dug down to discover a piece of scrap aluminium. Not encouraging. But I set off down the garden path and soon got another signal, sounding almost identical. I boldly predicted more aluminium scrap before cutting a neat plug of soil and gently lifting it out of the ground.”
What Joe pulled out was not a piece aluminium, but rather a round disc with writing around the edge.
“It was a coin, but not just any coin, this looked older and thinner than anything I had found up until that point. Modern ‘milled’ coins are thicker because they are made by machine - this was clearly made by hammering a piece of metal, by hand, between two dies – which is a sign of age.
Joe took his discovery, and carefully washed it with distilled water and a soft brush.
“Staring up at us was the portrait of the Emperor Carausius who usurped rule of Britannia and Northern Gaul in the late 200s AD for a few years before he was murdered, Game of Thrones-style, by his finance minister. He then got his comeuppance though when the proper Roman Emperor showed up with the legions from the continent. There it was, my first Roman coin!
“It was like the floodgates had opened. The following week, I found my first silver medieval hammered coin and it was a belter. Finding a ‘hammy’ is high on every metal detectorist’s bucket list - it’s a rite of passage.”
This hammered coin was a type six ‘sword type’ penny of King William I, minted in Lincoln at around 1083 by a moneyer called Thiersten or Thorsten.
“Apparently, type six pennies are the rarest type for William I, whose coins are scarce anyway, and this mint and moneyer combination rarer still. The coin is currently still being recorded by the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Corpus of Early Medieval Coinage at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.”
Other hammered coins that Joe has managed to detect include those featuring portraits of Henry II, Henry III, Edward I, Edward III, Henry VI, Elizabeth I, James I and Charles I.
While finding coins is exhilarating, Joe’s favourite finds are actually in fact artefacts. “Coins pass through many hands and would, if they could speak, have incredible stories to tell, but I have a real passion for artifacts which would have been treasured possessions of their owner.
“I love to feel a connection with a real person who stood on that spot, perhaps 2,000 years ago and breathed the same air and saw the same view.”
Some of the more treasured possessions that Joe has found include five Roman fibula brooches.
“It seems that no one had gotten around to inventing buttons in the first century AD, so people would fasten their clothes with what are essentially decorative safety pins known as fibula brooches. Usefully, fashions changed relatively quickly back then so it’s possible to date them to within 50 years or so sometimes. I have four from the second half of the first century AD - around the time of the Rebellion of Boudicca which were all found in one corner of one field, now known as ‘the Roman field’. I have also found another one from the second century AD in a field at the opposite end of the farm.”
With a number of finds proudly displayed on his shelves or kept in museums, Joe’s favourite artefact has to be his 12th century medieval matrix seal, which he found shortly after starting his Youtube channel.
“It would have been a very important item to the person who owned it, and they are uncommon because they were often destroyed on purpose when the owner died to prevent identity fraud. My wife and I used some sealing wax to make an impression of the seal, and while the name is not completely clear, we think it reads S’ ROGER DE GOSPLY or COSPLY, with a symbol comprised of a sword with two longbows. I wonder if it belonged to someone who fought in the Hundred Years War.”
Joe, who was working fulltime as a teacher during lockdown, now has more time on his hands, and hopes to uncover some more treasures before school is back in session.
“All of my best fields are still under crop but the ‘Roman field’ is going to be cut in the next week or so and I can’t wait - I should be able to get some detecting in before term starts again.
“Metal detecting is like grown-up Christmas. Every time you get a positive signal and start to dig, you get a rush of endorphins and ask yourself ‘what’s it going to be?’ The feeling is like opening presents when you were six years old - it never goes away. The great outdoors, fresh air, nature and potential treasure. What’s not to love about that?”