Caught by the River

Cartographical Realities: On Landscapes of Detectorists

Will Burns | 9th August 2020

Will Burns assesses the Uniformbooks-publishedLandscapes of Detectorists’ — a consideration of the programme’s engagement with landscape, its ecological resonances, and its attention to place and identity.

Are there any aspects of our lives that have come under such scrutiny, such pressure, such change these last months than our relations to the places we live and our understanding of leisure—and perhaps more important than either of those in isolation, how the two things might interact? Walking, running, birding, gardening. Those strange three months or so of the lockdown measures forced many people to reappraise their environment. These two themes, if that’s not too prosaic a word, are central to Landscapes of Detectorists, a wonderful study of the equally wonderful television programme published by the always wonderful Uniform Books. Edited by Innes M. Keighren and Joanne Norcup, who both also contribute an essay each, the book presents an academic consideration of landscape, identity, ecology and, importantly, the nature of hobbies, and the meaning they might have as ‘pass-times’ in the landscape.

Keighren’s first essay sets up some of the dialectical tensions that run through the whole book—that of the professional and the amateur (the geographer, or ‘the geography degree’, the professional archaeologist, or the amateur detectorists, the hobbyist), the instinctive, or self-taught, and the academic, the subjective and the objective. In this essay, these tensions play out across the ways in which various characters ‘read’ the landscape. Maps, instinct, academic theories, long hours of practice, and even the meta-reading of landscape that the show invites from us as viewers all come into Keighren’s purview.

The second essay in the book, by Isla Forsyth, examines a similar dialogue between the artefacts of ‘big’ history and the quotidian material more often unearthed by Lance and Andy. The tension here is set up as not simply that of success/failure, but also, Forsyth suggests, one of disrupting, to the point of disquiet, our sense of time. The near-past, the present, the ancient past—the process of detecting itself as an act in tension with ‘professional archaeology’, but also as an act of democratisation, of knowledge-expansion, and most importantly as an act that has an innate and intimate relationship to the everyday, the mundane, and therefore, in some important ways, becomes a kind of shadow archaeology of the unnamed in history. Forsyth’s beautifully wrought essay suggests not only the inherent value in the quotidian nature of most detectorists’ finds as testament to the history of the everyday, but also that the slipperiness of time as objects jostle for position in the strata of the soil creates the ‘uncanny geographies’ that arise from finding objects that are located in memory somewhere between history and the present day. There is an eco-political dimension to this too, of course, in that the speed of technological and material fashion over the past two or three decades has fast outstripped the ‘physical life of objects’ that are everywhere to be seen as throwaway, detritus, or as Andy himself says in the show, ‘landfill’. 

The third chapter offers Andrew Harris’ investigation into ‘the intricate relationship in Detectorists between height and surface, and above and below—a relationship that offers a way of exploring three-dimensional imaginations and experiences of contemporary Britain.’ There is something in that phrase ‘three-dimensional imaginations’ that seems to cut across so much of what makes the original series and this subsequent book so profoundly powerful—that both are such subtle and obviously warm-hearted evocations and excavations of the physical manifestations of a set of constantly shifting cultural, historical and socio-political Englands-of-the-imagination. For Harris, there is an almost de-humanising effect, or set of effects, in the various ‘vertical’ geographies essayed throughout the three series of Detectorists. From the technological fallibility of poor internet connection, to the bad data of a Google Earth watermark throwing Lance’s theories off, through to the ‘thresholds of detectability’ that overhead visual technologies have in-built, and which pose serious ethical questions in relation to modern warfare, in Harris’ essay these various problems are drawn in contrast to the ground-level life of Danebury. Harris posits the naturally airborne understanding of the magpies as coming closest to synthesising an aerial knowledge of the landscape with an actual, practically applicable, method of extraction. It is as if there is something uniquely and inevitably inadequate about the various human understandings on offer. But that there is some value in that fallibility. Something, well, human, or perhaps to borrow Harris’ own phrase, ‘down-to-earth’. Harris’ definition of, and consequent assertion of the ‘groundedness’ of the show is his success—an argument that takes in everything from the body shapes of Andy and Lance while they play a song together at an open mic night, to the act of metal detecting itself—of removal of both object and soil. 

Joanne Norcup’s final essay alights on the subtle commentary on gender roles written into the show. At its most obvious this takes the form of scenes such as that at the end of the first series, which has Lance expounding a kind of personal philosophy of the ‘maleness’ of hobbies, but there are numerous examples of gender expectations being subverted or gently pulled out of shape, and Norcup’s essay elucidates them with a keen eye.  It is the ways in which ‘gender informs how hobbies, knowledge, and landscape are made and understood’ that are of particular importance, and Norcup convinces in articulating an argument that the show’s version of the contemporary English rural—itself an unromantic subversion of bucolic tropes—allows for a complex portrayal of gender roles across numerous contexts. From the nature of male friendship through to the sexual dynamics of various relationships in the show, Norcup successfully builds an argument that this element of human interaction in the landscape provides a good deal of the show’s thrust. And again, it is an argument based on a fundamental truth of relational structures, rather than pure oppositions. Lance’s theory about hobbies for instance, a kind of Cartesian oppositional, male/female analysis, is undermined by Norcup’s own conclusions about Becky’s input into Andy’s hobby through the couple’s use of time. 

Anyone who loved Detectorists will relish this book, which enriches the multi-faceted ‘geographies’ of the show in much the same way as the show itself enriched the geographies of that particular version of England that it portrayed so brilliantly. In his foreword Mackenzie Crook describes the book as an analysis ‘with such good humour’, and that phrase is important, I think. The book is academic in tone and scope but it retains much of the series’ warmth and gentle comedy. The interaction between the rather stuffy language of the academic essay and quotes from the show becomes, in fact, a kind of formal homage to many of the dialectic relations described in the essays themselves. Mostly, though, the book performs a similar task to the show in that it invites us to engage with all those imaginative and material ideas we have about England, about the nature of home, about the land and how we live in it and with it. About history and what that means. And it’s a book that you cannot help but read love into, which was always how I felt about Detectorists—in every way you may read the phrase. It turns out, in no small part to this brilliant book, I still do. 


Landscapes of Detectorists is out now and available here, priced £12.00.