How a metal detector and Google Earth are helping one man uncover the past
Google Earth allows people to explore the world, from big cities to remote countryside. For Peter Welch, it’s a window back in time, helping him discover centuries of history hidden beneath the surface of English farmlands.
Peter Welch is standing in a field in southern England, armed with a metal detector and a shovel. A patch of farmland, surrounded by other patches of farmland, begs the question: Why search this one? 'You’re looking for crop marks, parch marks, circles, unusual features. Anything that doesn’t blend in with the countryside can be evidence of buildings, roads and other structures from centuries ago.' It’s in these outliers that treasures are to be found – and it’s Google Earth that gives Peter the bird’s-eye view that he needs to find them.
Peter has made thousands of discoveries, many of which were over 300 years old, including fragments of swords, ancient jewellery and even a Roman horseshoe, known as a 'hipposandal'. But nothing compares with Peter’s biggest find: a hoard of Saxon coins valued at nearly 2.8 million Australian dollars (AUD).
Peter’s fascination with metal detection began at his parents’ horse-racing yard in 1976, when he used his first metal detector to find old Roman coins and jewellery on the property. He turned his hobby into a full-time gig in 1990, when he founded the Weekend Wanderers Metal Detecting Club. Peter arranges and leads metal-detecting excursions involving experts and novices alike from around the world. It’s the biggest club of its kind in the UK.
'When you’re on the ground, you can’t see signs of the ancient world. To have a perspective from above, it opens up a whole new world.'
Although Peter has been doing this for decades, his success rate of uncovering historic finds has grown since the launch of Google Earth, which helps him research farmlands to search and saves him from relying on outdated aerial photography. In December 2014, Peter noticed a square mark in a field with Google Earth. It was in this area that the Weekend Wanderers discovered the AUD 2.8 million cache of Saxon coins. The coins are now on display in the Buckinghamshire County Museum, by order of the Queen.
While nothing yet matches that discovery in scale, there’s a lot of unexplored land that’s yet to be seen by a metal detectorist. 'You never know, we might strike it big again', Peter says.
'I’m pretty sure it won’t be long.'