Wealth of archaeological discoveries online

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Wealth of archaeological discoveries online

Archaeological discoveries by amateur archaeologists on new website

A new website showing Dutch archaeological discoveries, is going online today. Photos and details of pins and brooches, coins, artefacts, fragments of clothing, weapons and much more: all collected by private individuals. And that’s what makes it so extraordinary.

The website Portable Antiquities of the Netherlands, abbreviated to PAN, is a huge step forwards for Professor of Archaeology Nico Roymans and the project coordinator, Stijn Heeren (VU Amsterdam). PAN throws the door wide open for providing access to all those tens of thousands of ‘artefacts’ that are currently in private collections, many of these amassed by amateur archaeologists using metal detectors.

thousands of amateur archaeologists

It is estimated that there are a few thousand of these amateur archaeologists currently in the Netherlands, all with their own collection of discoveries. Taken together, these collections are of great scientific value, but they have never been systematically documented. PAN will change all that. Collectors can report spectacular discoveries, such as gold jewellery and silver coins, but also simple finds such as fragments of pins or brooches for fastening garments (‘fibulae’) and armaments.

The publication of all these discoveries is invaluable for scholars, heritage specialists and planners. Things that would otherwise remain tucked away in cupboards or hung on the walls of thousands of Dutch homes are now accessible to everyone. This megaproject has been made possible by an investment of almost two million euros by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO).

Amateur archaeologists in search of hidden artefacts with metaldetectors. Baak (Gelderland). Photo: PANAmateur archaeologists in search of hidden artefacts with metaldetectors. Baak (Gelderland). Photo: PAN

From prehistory through the Late Middle Ages

The PAN project focuses on all periods from prehistory right through the Late Middle Ages. ‘More than ten thousand discoveries were reported to our organisation in the space of six months,’ an enthusiastic Roymans told us, ‘and as of today, the first descriptions and photos are ready to be consulted on the website. Hundreds more will be added every month. This is only the start. A team of registrars is still visiting the collectors at home but the intention is that in the future, people will be able to upload their own photos, descriptions and the location of the discovery. We have already made some very extraordinary discoveries, I can tell you.’

Did you know? Before the invention of buttons and zips, fibulae were simply the main way of fastening garments together. Everyone wore them.

Gold-plated fibula from the 4th century after Christ. Found in Goesbeek (Gelderland). Photo: PANGold-plated fibula from the 4th century after Christ. Found in Goesbeek (Gelderland). Photo: PAN

Roymans: ‘Not all discoveries made by amateur archaeologists are of museological value, never mind commercial value. Our archaeological depots are full of stuff like garment pins and brooches – you can buy them for a euro each at fairs. Before the invention of buttons and zips, fibulae were simply the main way of fastening garments together. Everyone wore them so there were numerous in circulation. However, the scientific value of these finds is significant, especially if the spot where the objects were found is known. The PAN website will eventually unveil the areas in which the pins – and all these artefacts – circulated and where they were rare.’

Golden coins and a hairpin dated from the 4th century A.C. Both found in de Wijhe (Gelderland). Photo: PANGolden coins and a hairpin dated from the 4th century A.C. Both found in de Wijhe (Gelderland). Photo: PAN

The beginning of PAN

How did Roymans and Heeren come up with the idea for PAN (Portable Antiquities of the Netherlands)? They were both amateur archaeologists once. As a teenager, Roymans was an enthusiastic amateur archaeologist in Bladel in the Dutch province of Noord-Brabant, while Heeren used to dig about in a burial mound on the Regte Heide near Goirle in the same province when he was a boy.  Roymans then knew that he wanted to study archaeology but Heeren took a longer route, studying history first. Roymans: ‘Historians start from written sources; no new sources emerge – certainly for the older periods. In our study of the past, we archaeologists are able to access more and more new sources. Pottery, stone, bronze, a landscape, an arrowhead… you didn’t have detectors when I was young. I found flint and pottery with my naked eye. The most important discovery I made when I was young was a Celtic gold coin, dating back to around 50 BC. It is now in the Dutch National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden.’

Every treasure hunter hopes to find the proverbial pot of gold Roman coins
- Nico Roymans

The titles to all these archaeological objects are regulated by law. The finder and the landowner share the value of discoveries. But almost none of the finds is commercially valuable: their scientific value is many times greater than their commercial value. Occasionally this is not the case and problems can occur. Just think about the proverbial pot of gold Roman coins that every treasure hunter hopes to find. PAN plays no part in arranging the question of ownership but does inform amateurs of the law and, if necessary, can mediate when finds are sold, lent or given to a museum.

Wide distribution of discoveries

Heeren: ‘PAN will provide us with information on the magnitude and wide distribution of all sorts of discoveries. Objects we recently thought of as very special now turn out to be widely disseminated. An example: distribution maps depicting the occurrence of garment pins and brooches from the Late Iron Age show the Netherlands to be almost empty. They give the impression that the Netherlands took no part in the exchange of goods at that time. Amateur archaeologists’ collections that we now have access to have brought at least fifty examples to light, however. It would appear that the areas between the Dutch rivers were very active in the European exchange networks. All the existing maps concerning the distribution of discoveries have instantly become obsolete. Sensational.’

Flat axe from 2500 to 1800 B.C. Found in Opmeer (Noord-Holland). Photo: PANFlat axe from 2500 to 1800 B.C. Found in Opmeer (Noord-Holland). Photo: PAN

‘Discoveries in the Netherlands are not evenly distributed,’ according to Roymans. ‘Sandy soil is not very good for preserving metal objects, whereas clay soil preserves metal well. What is striking is the astounding wealth of metal objects that have come from simple Batavian settlements dating back to Roman times in the area around the Dutch rivers. The settlements generally consisted of a few simple wooden farmhouses that looked fairly prehistoric, but the metal discoveries that came from there indicate intense ties with the Roman army. Fragments of armaments point to Roman soldiers – possibly discharged – on the site, and styluses, inkpots and seal boxes (used to seal letters) are an indication that the residents were familiar with Latin written culture.’  

Recognition

The next phase of the project will involve volunteers being trained to enter collections into PAN themselves. It is important that PAN provides amateur archaeologists with recognition for their search activities through the fact that their discoveries are finally being given serious attention. PAN also serves an educational purpose; the general public will be able see which archaeological finds have been reported in their municipality, thus enriching their historical awareness.

PAN’s results are relevant for our country’s spatial planning: the discoveries reported by means of PAN can be taken into account when all sorts of decisions are taken about new developments or the redevelopment of land.

The PAN project (Portable Antiquities of the Netherlands) is coordinated by VU Amsterdam.  In four years’ time the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands will take over the maintenance of the website.


The photo in the banner shows a discovery of musket balls in Baak (Gelderland) during a detectorday (PAN)