LONDON — In the United States, when metal detectors hit it big, it is usually by finding familiar riches: lost engagement rings, expensive jewelry or coins of untold value. In Britain, the biggest successes often involve discoveries of treasures from ancient eras — like the 3,000-year-old ax that a teenager unearthed in eastern England in September.
The 13-year-old, Milly Hardwick, said that she, her father and her grandfather had been out in a field with metal detectors for several hours on a Sunday in Royston, England, and had not found a single item. Then, just after a lunch of sandwiches and cookies, they tried a different part of the field, where an organized dig was taking place. After about 20 minutes of searching, Milly said she heard the high-pitched beeping noise — “a lovely-sounding signal” — that indicates a possible find.
Her father rushed over and started digging. About 10 minutes later, he pulled out an item that resembled part of an ax, he said.
“I was just shocked,” Milly said. “We were just laughing our heads off.”
Milly, her father and her grandfather started dancing out of excitement, she said. They kept digging and found a hoard of other artifacts, including socketed ax heads, winged ax heads, cake ingots and blade fragments made of bronze. Milly’s findings were reported last month by The Searcher, a magazine about metal detecting.
Lorna Dupré, the chair of the Cambridgeshire County Council’s environment committee, said the council confirmed that 200 items, believed to be from the Bronze Age, were found. Milly and her father and grandfather found about 65 items in one hoard. Archaeologists later found a second hoard 8 feet away.
The Bronze Age in Britain lasted from 2,300 B.C. to 800 B.C., during a period referred to as prehistoric England, before there were written records, according to English Heritage, a charity that manages historic monuments, buildings and places. (The circular earthwork of Stonehenge, for comparison, was built around 3,000 B.C., and its central stone settings were created around 2,500 B.C.) Around the start of the Bronze Age, the first metal weapons and jewelry began to arrive in Britain, and people were buried with these items in individual graves.
Amanda Rose, a spokesperson for Peterborough City Council, said little is known about what was happening around Royston during the Bronze Age but that the area was fairly well settled at the time.
“It’s good farmland with water, and Bronze Age settlements, usually farmsteads or small clusters of round houses, are fairly frequent,” she said.
Bronze axes, she said, are “common enough that you would expect to find one, but rare enough to be excited when you do.” She added, “What’s unique about this one is the number of finds in one place, making it a hoard.”
She said that if a coroner declares that the Royston find meets the government definition of “treasure” — objects made of at least 10% gold or silver that are at least 300 years old — then a committee will set the value of the items. (When treasure is found, the finder does not own it, and it is illegal to try to sell it, according to government guidelines.)
Dupré said that if a museum wanted to acquire the objects, then the finder and the landowners could claim a reward.
“This is of course a very exciting discovery, but we are unable to say anything further until investigations have concluded,” she said in a statement.
Milly said she would wait to see whether she would win any reward before making plans about how to spend it.
Over the last two decades, museums around Britain have acquired more than 5,000 artifacts that were found by members of the public, including Bronze Age axes, Iron Age cauldrons and Roman coin hoards.
Last year, the British government expanded its definition of treasure. The growing popularity of metal detecting as a hobby meant that more historical objects were being found, including some of archaeological significance that did not meet the previous “treasure” definition, which had been in place since the 1990s. In 2019, 1,311 pieces went through the process in which a committee determines whether an item should be considered treasure, the highest number on record. In 1997, 79 pieces were found.
A handful of hobbyists have found extraordinary artifacts. In 2014, a man with a metal detector found a hoard of gold and silver in Scotland that was more than 1,100 years old, a trove that experts called one of the most significant archaeological finds in Britain of this century. A spokesperson for National Museums Scotland said the organization paid almost 2 million pounds ($2.6 million) for the items, which are on temporary display at the Kirkcudbright Galleries, a museum close to where they were found.
Since her discovery, Milly has gone out on most Sundays with her grandfather and father in search of more items. She said that when she grows up, she wants to be an archaeologist.
“The Romans have been there, everyone has been there — and we’re the ones to find it,” she said, laughing at the absurdity of finding a centuries-old ax in that particular field in Royston. “It’s crazy.”