Bleep bleep! I’ve detected a real national treasure: Len’s been hunting for buried treasure for 20 years and now he’s found a priceless statuette. JANE FRYER discovers how he is one of a hidden army that’s pure British gold
For more than 20 years now, Len Jackman, 66, has been searching for buried treasure. Every day, come rain, sun, sleet or storms, he buckles on his knee pads, pops on his collecting pouch and wellies and picks up his coffee flask, lunch box, spade and his trusty Minelab Equinox metal detector, complete with customised carbon fibre shaft for better handling.
He then waves his wife Denise farewell and heads out into the fields surrounding his home near Witney, Oxfordshire.
And there he’ll be for the next few hours, walking up and down the furrowed fields, his £600 gadget swooping backwards and forwards, headphones on and ears cocked and straining for the magical bleep, bleep, bleep of ancient buried gold.
Jane fryer finds a small metal clasp while searching for riches with Len Jackman
Which, mostly, has proved rather elusive.
‘Usually, I come home and Denise says: “Have you found anything, Len?” And I say: “Eff all again” . . . just like they do in the TV show the Detectorists! But I don’t care if I just find a nail. It’s still such a thrill!’
Of course, every so often there’s the occasional find — a crotal bell which once hung round the neck of an animal with a rattling metal pea inside; an old locket with an intricate design; and a selection of Roman coins — ‘2,000 years old, at least’.
‘Just think, all the time that stuff’s been in the ground!’ says Len, aglow as he cradles what look suspiciously like a pendant circa 1970 in his giant paws.
But finally, his luck changed. He came across a 2,000-year-old Roman figure sitting in a large Flora margarine tub.
‘The minute I saw it, I just had a feeling,’ he says. ‘The colour, the weight. I thought it was important and very, very old.’ Although, technically, he did not actually detect it.
It all started last December when Len was hunting a new stretch of fields near his home. He was chatting to the landowner who then showed him a small broken statuette, found on the land 15 years earlier by a fellow detectorist, dismissed as a copy, dumped in the Flora tub, and left in a room off the kitchen.
She haunted Len, who knew she was something special. And when, six months later, he’d unearthed a few bits and bobs himself, he asked the farmer if he could take her along with his own hoard, to be identified and dated at the Museum Resource Centre in nearby Standlake.
The landowner agreed and Len lovingly swaddled her, plus body parts, in white tissue paper and placed her in a large sandwich box.
‘The little head and the little arms were separate, so I got a plastic bag and popped them in. I was very careful. I knew she was important.’
The minute the expert saw it, she was on the phone, one thing led to another and, last week, Len and Denise were up at dawn to attend the big unveiling ceremony at the British Museum.
Toby Jones and Mackenzie Crook in the third series of Detectorists
Because Len had brought to light a 2,000-year-old, silver-eyed, copper alloy and lead statuette of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom.
The mere sight of her sent historians, archaeologists and the curators at the British Museum into a frenzy and turned the orderly lives of Len, Denise, a legal secretary, and their two cats Rosie and Polly, upside down.
Len became an instant celebrity. News channels from around the world wanted to interview him.
‘They’re talking about this in Australia!’ he says. ‘It’s all very strange. We haven’t landed back on the floor yet.’ Meanwhile, Len’s fellow detectorists were thrilled for him and green with envy in equal measure. Because as anyone will know who has watched the Jackmans’ favourite show, BBC4’s award-winning Detectorists, starring Mackenzie Crook, Toby Jones and Rachael Stirling, there is an entire metal-detecting community out there.
‘The programme is very, very true to form,’ says Len.
So there are websites, Facebook groups, YouTube channels (Len’s personal favourite is iDetect, by a chap called Harry which has over 28,000 subscribers) and two dedicated magazines, The Searcher and Treasure Hunting. Some detectorists hunt in pairs, others prefer organised one-day rallies with an entrance fee.
Len, however, prefers to search alone ‘so I can’t fall out with anyone’.
Last year, though, he splashed out and bought Denise her own detector — an XP Deus that cost over £1,000.
It was not a success. ‘I went once,’ she says. ‘A bitterly cold day and we were out for about four hours and I found nothing. That was enough.’
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So now she sticks to her cross stitch embroideries. Though she’s always on hand to help Len clean his treasures under the tap with an old toothbrush and sweep up the mud from the floor of their immaculate home.
Len first caught the bug 20 years ago when he was working as a lorry driver at a nearby gravel pit, and a colleague mentioned he was a detectorist.
‘I thought: “Ooh, I wouldn’t mind doing that!” ’
So he bought himself a Viking metal detector for about £100, asked a local landowner if he could hunt on his land and that was that. It was the perfect hobby for Len. ‘I’m not interested in sport at all. I just really like walking round fields,’ he says. ‘And what I find might look like a load of old junk to some people, but I’ve always liked history, it’s just a shame we didn’t do more at school.’ He left aged 15 to work first as a tractor driver on a farm, then a coalman, before joining the gravel pit.
‘I worked there for 38 years and eight months — all sitting down — so it’s nice to get out for a walk,’ he says.
Until the Minerva his finds have been modest. Even so, like many detectorists, Len is rightly obsessive about secrecy. His number is ex-directory.
He makes me promise not to divulge the name of his village, or include photos of his car, in case he’s followed. The location of the Minerva is top secret and must remain so. He even has a detectoring alias: ‘Alien.’
‘Last week, a drone was following me!’ he says. ‘You have to be careful.’ Because while Len is a stickler for the rules — always seeking permission from landowners, declaring any interesting finds and carefully refilling any holes — some detectorists are not so responsible.
‘I once had to tell another detectorist to clear off because he didn’t have permission!’ says Len. ‘People don’t read the rules. They just
pick up a detector and think they can go anywhere when, of course, you can’t even go on public footpaths unless you have permission from the landowner.’
Even worse are the ‘night hawkers’, detectorists who come out under cover of darkness. ‘They go out at night and dig holes and steal treasures,’ he says. ‘They give us a bad name. They spoil it for the rest of us who do things by the book.’
(The Minerva is one of 78,000 archaeological items unearthed by the British public last year and voluntarily recorded with the Portable Antiquities Scheme, managed by the British Museum.)
By now, we’re standing in sticky mud in a ploughed field at a secret location near Witney, in an area that used to be awash with Romans. Because Len has kindly agreed to bend his own rules and, just this once, detect a deux, giving me a lesson in how to ‘play’ a field.
‘They also call it swinging. So I say to Denise: “I’m off swinging,” and she says: “I hope not, Len!” ’
He shows me how to turn on my detector — Denise’s languishing XP Deus. How to twiddle the knobs to tune different metal types in or out and how to swing it ‘low and slow’ in smooth arcs just above the mud.
Today it is bright and dry and glitteringly cold with a biting wind, but the chill just bounces off Len.
‘I never feel it. I could go on for hours,’ he says. ‘Sometimes I get so engrossed I forget to eat my packed lunch!’
The Romano-British statuette of Minerva which was found in a margarine tub in Hailey, Oxfordshire
You’d think that, just perhaps, a once-in-a-lifetime find like the Minerva — which has not yet had a monetary value ascribed to it, but is already wanted by a number of museums — might take the edge off future hunting. But no. ‘People ask me if I want a reward, but the biggest reward I could ask for is to walk round these fields and not be bothered by anyone.’
I can see his point. Because despite the juddering cold, it’s rather nice walking across a stubbly field in thin wintery sun, waving Denise’s next to new XP Deus. Even better when it lets out a volley of beeps: Len rushes over and, after a bit of digging, a lot of probing and scrabbling about through the soil, we unearth an ancient buckle.
‘Beginners’ luck!’ says Len, who brightens up no end when I give it to him for his collection. ‘Could be medieval!’ he beams. ‘I couldn’t say for sure, but definitely old.’
And then he’s back in detectorist heaven, walking up and down, sweeping his machine — and dreaming of another beautiful Minerva.
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