How to start metal detecting

An activity that’s as much about finding calm as it is treasure, metal detecting’s ability to unearth stories of lives gone by increases pleasure in being in the here and now. Let’s take a look at what you need to know about the pleasures and practicalities of metal detecting in order to get started on the hobby.

Illustration: John Harmer
Words: Carole Anne Strange

How does metal detecting work?

The handheld metal detector, first patented by two people, Gerhard Fisher and Shirl Herr, around the same time in the 1920s, works by transmitting an electromagnetic field from the search coil into the ground to detect targets (any metal objects). When an item is detected, the device will produce an audible response to alert the user. The depth at which a target can be detected depends on factors including the environment and the object’s orientation, material and size.

What are the rules and regulations around metal detecting?

Permissions are needed to search most locations and some areas are strictly out of bounds. Laws vary from country to country. There are also strict procedures in place for dealing with any found artefacts and treasure, including how any monetary value is divided and with whom. In rare instances, unexploded munition and even meteorites have been unearthed, and it’s important that the right authorities are notified.

A sensible way to learn the rules and regulations – as well as to make new friends – is to join an approved detectorist club or association, or train with experienced detectorists. Once you’re familiar with the protocols, you can look forward to spending invigorating days outdoors, with that added thrill of knowing that something special might be just beneath your feet.

What makes metal detecting a fun and fulfilling hobby?

‘When you look at a field full of grazing sheep, you’re probably unaware that there was once a beautiful medieval church there, which was burned down during the wars of independence, or it was the place where 10,000 soldiers camped for weeks before a major battle,’ says Colin ‘Toddy’ Irvine, founder of Metal Detecting Scotland. ‘As a metal detectorist you become more aware of the past and the people that used to inhabit the land around you. Even more phenomenal is you can touch the past by using a metal detector to find some of the millions of lost coins and artefacts that are lying hidden in the soil.’

Toddy is one of thousands of metal detectorists who are passionate about history and the prospect of unearthing items and stories that have lain concealed for hundreds and, sometimes, thousands of years. This curious pastime has gained prominence in recent times, thanks partly to the gentle BBC comedy, Detectorists, starring Mackenzie Crook, who also wrote and directed the award-winning series. The rise in interest is further fuelled by tantalising stories of amateurs discovering rare artefacts and, potentially, treasures with multimillion pound valuations.

In fact, according to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, run by the British Museum and National Museum Wales, more than 91 per cent of finds in the UK in 2020 were made by metal detectorists, which demonstrates its popularity as well as its supporting role in archaeological research and the jigsaw puzzle that makes up the past.

Don’t expect to make a fortune!

Some who discover valuable items are granted a share of their value, but if finding rarities, fame and fortune are the main goals, metal detecting might prove disappointing. Momentous finds are few and far between. The norm is peaceful hours spent sweeping the ground without a sound until, perhaps, a discarded ring-pull makes its presence felt. So, better to focus on enjoying the simple, everyday treasures of being in nature, chatting with like-minded people and stepping away from the modern world while keeping open that tantalising possibility of making a truly earth-shattering discovery.

For more information, visit: National Council for Metal Detecting –; European Council for Metal Detecting –; Federation of Metal Detector & Archaeological Clubs, Inc –; and the Association of Detectorists –