Delingpole on Friday: Metal Detecting.

Sometimes, I don’t mind telling you, the due date comes round for yet another Delingpole on Friday and my heart sinks. It’s not that I don’t love you and it’s not that I don’t like writing – here more than anywhere because it’s the one place I can swear freely and release the hounds and tell it completely like it is. But the fact remains that the pay at Bogpaper Towers is shit – non-existent, in fact – and there are many things I would rather be doing for free right now than using up brain cells and getting RSI on my laptop.

One of them is metal-detecting.

Metal-detecting is an incredibly anti-social hobby. You and your headphones in a field for hours on end in your solitary obsessive Gollum world. No one can come with you – not unless they’ve a detector of their own, or an exceptionally high boredom threshold. Nor can you even bring the dog because as soon as it sees you start digging it’ll come over and insist on helping in a most unhelpful way.

And I haven’t got on to the even more crap part yet: the hours you waste digging and scouring and sifting, then hole-enlarging and re-scouring and re-sifting, for what turns out, at long bloody last, to be a sodding bullet, or cartridge case, or bit of unidentifiable, lead-like metal.

True, you get better at it. The longer you spend in the field, the more your ears become attuned to the different tones of bleep given off by different kinds of metal. (You learn, especially, to ignore the tell-tale ugly, dying low note which indicates iron). But if you start getting too picky or impatient, you’re likely to end up overlooking something worthwhile.

The other day, for example, I was sifting, apparently fruitlessly, for one of those tiny pieces of metal so elusive that after a time you give up and move on. But then, just as I was about to fill in the hole in disgust, I caught sight in the spoil of a small uneven disc. Tutting, I shoved it in my pocket, and moved on.

Why did I tut? Well, yes it was probably a Roman coin but Roman coins aren’t uncommon and this one, like the previous two I’d found, looked worn beyond recognition. It certainly wasn’t a patch on the much more exciting thing I’d unearthed the week before: an Edward I silver long cross penny.

Still, when I took it home, I gave it a cursory scrub, just in case. And lo, something extraordinary happened. It was a bit like staring at one of these geometric pictures in which floating shapes magically reveal themselves. One moment I saw just bronzy murk; the next, a wolf’s head, and a star above it, and on the other side a head engraved with a detail and quality which made a mockery of the crude head on my Edward I stamped coin.

It made you marvel anew at just how much we lost during the Dark Ages. I don’t know when this coin dates from but let’s guess it was from the 1st century AD – a millennium and more before the era of Edward I. Yet the gulf in artistic and technical quality was almost as great as that between a kindergarten class and the Royal Academy.

Scary, isn’t it, to think how brutally the skills and sophistication of a once mighty empire can be erased by time. It’s one of the reasons, of course, why the glory that was Rome remains so perennially fascinating: the appalling fact – which would be almost impossible to credit if there weren’t so much evidence – that even a culture as civilised and powerful as the Romans created can vanish just like that at the whim of contingent history.

Will the same thing happen to us? Well, we’re certainly going the right way about it. One of the things that did for the Romans was currency debasement – or quantitative easing as we know more generously call it. You could argue that it isn’t so much a cause of the problem, as a reflection of how dire things are. But from whichever angle you view them, the auguries aren’t good. (You’ll find more details in this fascinating report by the Real Asset Company)

Here’s how US author Joseph Tainter put it in his classic The Collapse of Complex Societies:

“By debasing currency, increasing taxes and imposing stringent regulations on the lives of individuals, the Empire was, for a time able to survive. It did so however by vastly increasing its own costliness and in doing so decreased the marginal return it could offer its population. These costs drained the peasantry so thoroughly that population could not recover from outbreaks of plague, producing lands were abandoned and the ability of the state to support itself deteriorated.”

In Britain this process accelerated from about the 2nd Century onwards. One of the explanations sometimes advanced for the occasional hordes that treasure hunters find is that they represent the fulfilment of Gresham’s Law, whereby bad money drives out good. That is, the silver content in the coinage was being so reduced that people would store good coins for the future rather than squandering them.

This is also, by the way, the explanation for the design of that Edward I silver penny I found. It’s called a “long cross” because the cross extends right to the edges. The reason for this was so as to prevent the common practice of “clipping”, the subtle devaluation process whereby the edges of the coin are nibbled away in order to be melted down. Edward I made clipping punishable by death.

But look this is ridiculous: instead of writing these words I could be out there, right now, finding more cool shit.

All right, so the ratio of hours spent to value accumulated is lower than the minimum wage (that Edward I coin is worth, at a push, £40 – and probably took me 20 hours of dead time to find). But as you may detect (ho ho) from all that quite interesting stuff I’ve said above, being a sad, pathetic, spotty, lonely treasure hunter is about much more than just the money.

5 comments on “Delingpole on Friday: Metal Detecting.

  1. Chris
    September 13, 2013 at 4:22 pm #

    It also gets you away from the wife and kids for a couple of hours. Those hours of no nagging have got to be worth more than money can buy.

  2. Kitler
    September 13, 2013 at 11:16 pm #

    Well occasionally a few small finds can lead to some very interesting archaeology such as pushing back the date of my home village from maybe late Saxon times to 2nd Century Roman.

  3. Eric Worrall
    September 14, 2013 at 1:09 am #

    Next time you visit Australia, try your metal detector in Wedderburn. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wedderburn,_Victoria

    The locals find so much gold, they can’t be stuffed cashing it all – ask anyone in the pub, and they’ll pour thousands of dollars worth of gold nuggets onto the bar, the souvenirs they didn’t want to be parted with. This actually happened – we asked about nuggets, and 3 locals nearby simultaneously poured their gold onto the bar, to show us what they had found.

    Wedderburn’s main industry is cheating the unemployment system – jobs there are scarce, but you can easily make a (tax free) income of 10s of thousands of dollars per annum prospecting for gold. So a lot of locals do both – claim benefit, and sell any nuggets they find on the black market, to avoid having to declare income which would impact their unemployment benefit.

    The pub is a busy, friendly place, night or day. Beer is cheap and plentiful. Accommodation is cheap. And you never know – you might find a life changing lump of gold.

  4. James Eadon
    September 14, 2013 at 6:17 pm #

    “Metal-detecting is an incredibly anti-social hobby” – Should I be worried? Next thing you know, you’ll be writing the BP Geek Column

  5. Ivor
    September 20, 2013 at 11:12 am #

    Dead time?

    Hardly.

    That time spent is a shortcut to value.

    The reason you write for money is not primarily because you enjoy it, but because you need the money.

    To spend on things.

    Things you value.

    But time spent metal-detecting IS something you value.

    You don’t need to write articles to get money to buy it.

    You can just do it.

    “……….more than just the money”?

    Quite.

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