On Saturday, an unusual bustle roamed the town of Vicq, about twenty kilometers southeast of Chaumont. In the middle of the European Heritage Days weekend, the 162 inhabitants of this Haute-Marne countryside welcomed nearly 300 people. However, it was not the old village church that attracted this crowd, nor even a bucolic appetite for this small piece of Champagne territory, but the passion for detection.
Saturday morning, around thirty volunteers inaugurated the Vicq “detection rally”, a competition in which participants comb, with their metal detector, private land in search of 1000 tokens hidden underground. Organized by the Vikings Détect.52 section of the local Relaxation, Leisure and Sports (DLS) association, the event is experiencing record attendance in this third edition. “It’s working well!” says Chantal Dezan, president of DLS. Enthusiasts arrived from all over France and neighboring countries. We have Belgians, Swiss and Luxembourgers!” The event, however, shook archaeologists off their hinges.
“No, detection is not a leisure activity,” insists a collective of Champagne archaeologists in a petition posted online on September 15 to demand a ban on this gathering “promoting an illegal and destructive activity.” “Organizing this event in the middle of the Heritage Days weekend is not innocent, it is a provocation,” argue Marion Bernard and Fabien Langry-François, two archaeologists at the origin of the petition. This type of event, which flirts with illegality, in reality prepares participants for the excavation of archaeological objects with their metal detector, a practice prohibited, without prior administrative authorization, by article L. 542-1 of the Code of heritage”.
“I contacted the public prosecutor and the gendarmerie,” explains Thierry Bonin, deputy regional curator of archeology at Drac Grand-Est. Under the guise of leisure detection, the detectorists will dig up sections of land where vestiges could be found, while the town already lists five archaeological sites, dating from Prehistory to the Middle Ages. That this is organized on private land changes nothing. The fact that the precise location of the rally is not publicly indicated finally adds a layer of opacity to this demonstration.
These accusations are rejected by the organizers of the Vicq rally, the opening of which took place without a hitch. “The Drac tried on Thursday to have our meeting canceled by suggesting that we did not have prefectural authorization and that we were looters. But we are not doing anything illegal since we are burying tokens,” assures Chantal Dezan, with the support of the mayor of the town, Jacky Horiot. “The police came to see what we were doing and, for them, everything was in order,” she added on Saturday evening. Scandalized by the reaction of the Drac, the president of the association insists on the “friendly and family” nature of the day: “the arrival of 300 people also benefits the surrounding lodges, at the end of the summer season”.
Helpless in the face of the precautions taken by the association, Thierry Bonin does not intend to give up and recalls that an important lever for action in the face of this type of gathering lies in the hands of the communities. “It is the heritage of the municipalities; they could better grasp it and act directly in favor of their protection.” Contacted the day before the event, the community of communes of Savoir-Faire, to which Vicq belongs, assured that it was not associated with the organization of the rally.
The archaeological community has been wary of the activity of detectorists for many years. Distrust has increased since the Covid-19 pandemic and its successive confinements. The practice now has more than 250,000 believers according to the French Metal Detection Federation. This national reference organization, to which Vikings Détect.52 is attached, defends on its website “leisure detection” intended to “clean up soil” and “search for missing objects”. Without forgetting to praise the “inexhaustible source of knowledge” that this activity constitutes “for those who have a strong interest in History and the preservation of Heritage”.
Considering themselves stigmatized in France, detectorists observe with envy the “virtuous collaborative system” put in place by legislation in the United Kingdom or in the Scandinavian countries. The archaeological news of these countries is regularly spiced up with announcements of prodigious discoveries made by amateur researchers transformed into treasure hunters. One of the latest – the find near Stavanger, Norway, of a hoard of jewelry and gold medallions dating from the Iron Age – has been described as the “find of the century” by experts. Norwegian conservatives.
However, a series of conferences and exhibitions presented in recent years from Paris to Marseille have reminded us of the disastrous consequences of the activity of detectorists for scientific research. Because pulling objects from the earth is a profession. And digging up the inevitable remains on which these wanderers end up coming across amounts to destroying data surrounding the property in question.
“It is crucial to study objects in their context, because this can, for example, make it possible to date an entire excavation layer. Otherwise, research definitely loses information,” archaeologist Vincent Michel reminded Le Figaro in July. “Broadly brandishing the concept of “leisure detection” has the sole ambition of circumventing the law”, also decides the general curator of heritage Xavier Delestre in his book Archaeological looting, the orphans of history (2021 , Drac Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur).
The dialogue of the deaf thus continues through prevention campaigns concocted by the various players in French archeology and festive gatherings of budding detectorists. The acrimony of each side is transferred to social networks where, like climate specialists harassed by climate skeptics, archaeologists must now clash on a daily basis with supporters of detection. “On Facebook, detectives tell us that we don't know the law, that it isn't clear or that the Heritage Code only applies to professionals,” says Fabien Langry-François. There still remains a vast amount of educational work to be accomplished.”