Note: Strictly speaking, the following answers are just valid for a single country (Germany), concerning the monument protection law even only for a single state (Bavaria). However, the raised issues do apply more or less globally. Interested readers might want to check their national laws.
Q: Does one need a permit to own and use a metal detector?
Q: Do the monument protection authorities approve amateur archaeology?
A: It depends, but usually not. In some cases the monument protection authorities disapprove all excavations, even if performed by professionals, unless a building is about to be erected in the area in question.
This is a heavily debated and very complex issue. Since the media have to rely mostly on the monument protection authorities as only sources their articles are usually biased. Since they need sensational articles they draw over-dramatic pictures of sinister characters plundering historical sites at night - which is pretty much nonsense, at least in Germany where time and petrol is expensive and hardly any relics have material value. These observations caused me to give a very verbose answer.
In every civilised country there are laws to protect the historical heritage which is good. Some areas are so meaningful to understand the past that just the most professional people should undertake an excavation which always means destruction of the site. It is understandable if private people are usually not allowed to search such sites.
Unfortunately, a tendency among monument protection authorities can be observed to try to forbid amateur researches on every area with just a little historical background no matter in how much abundance such areas do exist in the country in question. This can go so far as to try to forbid all private research by interpreting vague monument protection laws to the extremes. This, of course, cannot be accepted by private researchers and amateur archaeologists. The discussion is still under way. The position of the monument protection authorities differ from country to country, from county to county and in some cases even from archaeologist to archaeologist.
Officially, the negative attitude of the authorities is justified with the alleged harm done by detectorists. This is correct in some isolated cases, and most experienced archaeologists made negative experiences with private searchers, but in general this argumentation is very academic in view of the very limited depth penetration of metal detectors (20-30 cm in 99% of all objects, see section “Metal Detector”). In fact, 99.99% of private searches take place at areas that will almost certainly never be investigated by an archaeologist. Even if the area is ever officially investigated the searchable 30 cm layer of topsoil is usually removed by bulldozers before the archaeological dig begins. Because of all these factors private searches do far less damage than agriculture and building.
In reality the problem seems to be more of psychological than of archaeological nature. The state's archaeologists are used to have the monopoly on historical investigations and find it difficult to part with it. They are used for decades to be the only ones interested enough in local history to actually search. In recent years they suddenly got competition. History, however, belongs to all who care enough about history to go out and search, not just a small group of professionals.
The monument protection laws are little help as they are usually very vague, at least in Germany. They say a permit is needed if someone wants to dig at „historically important“ places – so called ground monuments - but fail to define this term. So the law is interpreted in different ways by different groups and individuals.
The state's archaeologists wish to declare everything as ground monument so a search permit (which will not be issued) is needed everywhere and they can brand all private searchers as illegal. In fact, the favourite term used by the authorities do describe private searchers is “Raubgraeber”, roughly translatable to “black diggers”. When I asked the association of German state’s archaeologists (Verband der Landearchaeologen) for their definition of “Raubgraeber” they preferred no to reply. Their strategy is to stay in the grey areas of vague statements.
Private searchers, on the other side, like to consider as few places as possible as ground monuments so they can search the rest without needing a permit. The most extreme interpretations are put forward by the archaeologists. A high-ranking German state's archaeologist seriously told me that even a World War 2 soldier's foxhole „under certain conditions might be a monument“. Such attitudes do not facilitate compromises in a country where castle ruins can be found at every corner.
In every Central European country there are millions (no exaggeration) of ground monuments. This vast number shows how encompassing the archaeologists interpret the vague laws. In Germany, there are some 500 to 1000 archaeologists who spent a great deal of their time with paperwork. Because of this number ratio the vast majority of the ground monuments will never be investigated by the state's archaeologists.
Serious estimations say that 98% of the ground monuments will be destroyed by erosion, by farming, by construction work etc. without being examined by archaeologists. Luckily, there is no need to investigate all. The important things can be learned by investigating the top 1-2% of the ground monuments. Of course, for private researchers remain more than enough areas to explore if they stay off these few high profile places so the whole conflict is somewhat artificial.
The more restrictive and dogmatic the monument authorities interpret the laws, or the more restrictive the laws are, the fewer private searchers report finds. This in turn does harm to science since many very important discoveries were (and are) made by private searchers. The history of archaeology is full of most important discoveries made by private persons. Some are reported, like the discovery of place of the legendary Varus battle in Germany in 9 BC by a detectorist. But many are not due to searcher hostile laws, like the Qumran scrolls or the star disk of Nebra. In the majority of German states historical finds are taken away from the finder without any compensation. As a result just a tiny percentage of all finds are reported in these states. Such unfortunate laws are a burden for science.
I am sorry to say that many archaeologists are living in the proverbial ivory tower. Unfortunately, this has to be mentioned here since it is part of the problem. They seriously think they just have to interpret a law in a strict way and all searchers will stop searching. Of course, this does not work. Instead, people continue searching in a more clandestine way.
The law is just one side of the situation. De facto searchers can often simply ignore monument and property laws. If a searcher finds an interesting item in a lonely forest just the squirrels will see it – and they do not talk. Ironically, monument and property laws can usually only be enforced with the cooperation of the searcher as he is the only one who knows where, when, and by whom the item was found. The searcher, of course, will not cooperate if the consequences are opposed to his interests. This is especially true if the laws are considered as unjust as the confiscation law mentioned above which is just one example for the legal dangers lurking for successful searchers. So he will keep his mouth shut and enjoy his finds in silence. Though understandable from his point of view, this is very bad for the archaeological knowledge. The only way to incorporate private searchers into the scientific process is to interpret the vague monument laws in a searcher-friendly manner.
In my opinion private searchers have a tremendous potential to add to historical knowledge. Often they know more about the history of a small area than anybody else including the federal archaeologists. They spend years reading every book on their small search area and spent countless months on detector searches so they become experts. To date, this knowledge is used only by few archaeologists though different countries deal in different ways with that issue. This website was partly created to show what private searchers can find and how they can document their finds and conclude information concerning historical events. And to promote a fair cooperation between all of those who search for historical relics – no matter whether they are professionals or amateurs. Luckily, in almost all cases it was possible to report the historically relevant finds shown on this website to the monument protection authorities.
Q: Are found firearms and ammunition subject to weapon law?
A: Usually yes. That even applies to parts of fireamrs like a rifle’s bolt. In this field the most legal dangers are lurking for private searchers. Even the most corroded gun can be - legally – still a firearm. To avoid charges of illegal weapon possession it is necessary to know the national weapon law. Often there is an option to legalize such a find. In Germany finds covered by the normal weapon law such as revolvers, pistols, rifles and World War 2 submachine guns can usually be legalized without too much legal hazzle.
In contrast, air cooled machine guns are subject to the “war weapon law” Kriegswaffenkontrollgesetz KWKG. Though there is probably a way to legalize such finds it is very tedious.
Apart from legal aspects I strongly suggest to avoid old ammunition with calibres larger than 0.5 inch. It is more dangerous than decades ago as the explosives became unstable. Never try to defuse grenades, especially dud grenades. Every year the newspapers report fatal accidents when people tried this.
Q: In conclusion, can private history explorations be done without too much legal hassle?
A: Yes. Every day all over the world people enjoy the search for historical items. Usually people can search for decades without being confronted by these issues. They were mentioned above in detail since the media and the monument protection authorities often give biased and distorted descriptions which required a correction. In fact, historical exploration is the most fascinating hobby I can think of.
Thorsten Straub, July 2006