metal detector

Metal detector treasure hunting comeback!

The metal detector is making a comeback with treasure hunting enthusiasts back out again looking for ancient loot. But in the United Kingdom, this has led the government to rethink the law on ancient artefacts dug up by amateur enthusiasts.

Changes are being made to the 1996 Treasure Act (yes, such a piece of legislation exists!) that will re-define metal detector finds as treasure. That’s if they are of major historical or cultural significance. Which means, you can’t make off with them so easily. Or at least, that’s the idea.

The normal definition is that a find has to be over 300 years old, made of gold or silver or found alongside artefacts made of precious metals. In 2014, a Roman figure of a man nearly left Britain for a private collector because it didn’t meet these criteria. The export was stopped at the last minute.

DISCOVER: My quest for Templar treasure with the History channel

Roman statues cast in bronze have slipped through the net and disappeared, which is very sad. New rules mean that will no longer happen. Or at least, if it does – it’ll be illegal.

I was given a metal detector back in the 1970s when I was about 11 years of age. Epping Forest was at the top of my road and I got hopelessly addicted. Those beeps and whines of the machine were great fun. Unfortunately, despite the huge amount of history in the area where I grew up – Roman, Saxon and medieval treasure eluded me.

In recent years, I’ve spent a lot of time visiting Paris with work. And I’m very aware that many metal detector enthusiasts make their way to the battlefields of the two World Wars looking for artefacts. I suppose because my father was alive during the last War I’m a bit queasy about this.

So are the French authorities. At the Gare du Nord rail station in Paris there are placards held up by employees warning Eurostar travellers that if they smuggle stuff out then there will be consequences.

Who was Britannia on the old penny coins?

Britannia is a female personification of Britain. She wears flowing robes, carries a spear and shield and sits on a rock. For centuries she appeared on the British penny coin and then on other coins after a major change to the currency (decimalisation) in 1971.

The Romans created Britannia. She first appeared on coins under the Emperor Hadrian. One theory has her as a subdued ancient Briton sitting mournfully on her rock, resigned to being part of the Roman Empire.

After the end of Roman rule in England and Wales, Britannia disappeared. Until 1672. A gap of fourteen centuries. Then under king Charles II, up she popped on the penny coin. There were certain changes though. On her shield was the flag of the Union of Britain and Scotland.

But who was this 17th century Britannia modelled on?

DISCOVER: The strange green children of Wulpet

It seems that Britannia in her trident and helmet on the old penny coins was one of the mistresses of Charles II. The so-called “Merry Monarch”, who ruled after the grim puritan interlude of Oliver Cromwell, had an insatiable libido.

He famously carried on an affair with London street girl Nell Gwyn, who started life selling oranges outside the Drury Lane theatre. But it wasn’t Nell that we see as Britannia on the penny coins.

No, it was a lady of impeccable breeding. Frances Stuart, later the Duchess of Richmond, was a fabulous beauty according to that great diarist of London life, Samuel Pepys.

She looked down on Nell but in the final analysis, they were up to the same game – using sex for influence at court. And both at the beck and call of the lascivious king.

One French visitor sniffily carped that it was hard to imagine less brains with more beauty than Frances Stuart.

But for a women dismissed as dim but pretty, she actually made a large fortune out of manipulating the king’s affections. Here I am on Yesterday TV’s Private Lives of the Monarchs talking about Frances and her presence on our coins.