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Discovering the Reigate Hoard: Our Subject Adviser for Metal Detecting shares his greatest find

07 December 2023

The new Subject Adviser for Metal Detecting, Roger, shares how his hobby first began and talks about his life-changing discovery of the largest post-1350 coin hoard ever found in the UK.

Ancient coins - the Reigate Hoard

I became interested in “digging up old things” as a small boy. Our wealthy next-door neighbour owned four acres of land and employed a full-time gardener, who used to dig up old 18th century copper coins. This gave me an interest in digging up old finds.

In my mid-thirties I realised that my days as a club rugby player and cricketer were numbered, and I decided to buy a metal detector.

In September 1990, I had a life-changing experience. In April that year, I and two other local detectorists discovered that a disused council owned playing field in Reigate was being sold off. We obtained permission from the builders and began searching. We found some good finds, and some older ones once the excavations started.

There was, however, a very large signal in the middle of the field, which we all ignored as it was too big to be anything significant and was probably a large drain.

After five months of enjoyable detecting, the construction was about to start. I decided to make one last visit there at 5.30pm on Saturday 22 September. An hour’s detecting produced very little.

At 6.45pm I wandered back to an excavated area and had a cup of tea. I then picked up a very large signal in one corner. I wondered if it was the large signal that we had all ignored earlier. It was getting dark and for some bizarre reason, which even now I cannot explain, I decided to dig.

The groundworkers had already removed 15 inches of soil and I dug out another 6 inches before encountering blocks of clay, in which there were some large strangely discoloured yellowish green worms. I removed the clay and worms carefully and then found myself looking at the top of a broken jug full of vertically stacked coins. 

This is what is now known as the famous Reigate Hoard. The collection of 6,705 coins date from 1278 to 1455. This is the largest post-1350 coin hoard ever recorded in the UK. 138 coins were gold, (of which 11 were French), one was counterfeit and 6,566 were silver. The hoard contained 22kg of silver and gold, hence the massive signal. The discoloured worms had ingested harmless yellow-green silver chloride.

The hoard was excavated the next day under supervision by Surrey Archaeological Society and Surrey Police. During the day I began to learn about the political and legal aspects of the hobby. Surrey Archaeological Society had been incensed by the theft of valuable and historically important material from Wanborough and had started lobbying for stronger legislation, which resulted in the Treasure Act of 1996 and the formation of the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) for recording archaeological finds. 

My discovery led me to become involved with the media, and since then I have appeared in many TV, radio, newspaper and magazine features, which added another interesting dimension to my hobby.

I have thus enjoyed 38 years of metal detecting and 33 years of detecting politics and media coverage. I believe that this will enable me to help u3a members to get involved in the hobby. These are some of my tips for getting started:

The first thing members need to do is to buy a suitable metal detector, read the instructions and maybe test it out in your garden. The next step is to find land to search, which can be very difficult. It often comes down to who you know!  Finally, learn how to deal with your finds responsibly.

u3a members in a metal detecting group can be either very active detectorists or less active “armchair detectorists”. Everyone can benefit by looking through and studying finds made by the group, no matter who actually dug them up. The whole group can learn all about UK metalwork from the Bronze Age to the present day, and their importance to national or local history.

When approached by u3a members who wish to start up a detecting group I would ascertain where they were based and check as to whether I know any local people to contact. I would strongly advise them to contact their County Finds Liaison Officer (details are on the PAS website) and to ask me for advice about detecting on beaches or the Thames Foreshore if relevant.

Two words of advice. Optimism and Perseverance. Never give up, whether trying to find land or when out detecting. Never throw anything out until you are sure that it is rubbish. I recently discovered that two of my old “junk finds” one from 1997, the other from 1987 were of some importance. A local museum wants one of them.

Another thing that is important: Luck. The more you persevere, the luckier you will get.

One more word. Responsibility. There is an old saying in our hobby “You dug it up. Now you’re responsible for it.”. I am sure that u3a members will understand this rather better than most hobby detectorists. Detecting involves a responsibility to the landowner, to archaeology (if the find is over 300 years old), to local history groups (including u3a) and to the local media. Make your finds, and the information they provide, benefit as many people as possible.
If you find a bomb or any other live ordnance, call the police. I have done this 4 times.

One final word of advice, after my experience of ignoring the Reigate Hoard signal for 4 months is “If in doubt, dig it out!”

Responsible, unselfish, public-spirited detecting is good for the hobby and should help all detectorists to find more land to search.

Find out more, and get in contact with Roger for support with your u3a metal detecting group, on the u3a Subject Advice pages.

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