Metal Detecting in Europe – Belgium, case for Flanders.

Belgium is a Federal State. This means that some National competencies are managed by the Federal Government and that Regional competencies are dictated by the regions.

Laws are made by the Federal State; Decrees are Regional laws made by the local Governments. There are 4 regional Governments: Flanders, Wallonia, Brussels and the German Community (in the East of Belgium). Heritage is one of the competences that have been transferred from the Federal to the Regional Governments. Heritage includes also archaeology. All 4 regions regions have the same definition in their decrees regarding Metal Detecting: “It is forbidden to use a metal detector to search for archaeological artefacts and archaeological sites.“

Since April 2016, Flanders adopted a new point of view, allowing registered Metal Detectorists to search for archaeological artefacts and archaeological sites. This new law came after a long process of reflection by the government. To begin with, about a decade ago, some detectorists complained to their local politicians that they were mistreated by archaeologists, forest guards, police and law enforcement in general as it was not forbidden to use and search with a metal detector, provided that you didn’t have the intention to search for archaeological artefacts and sites. In practice this resulted in the discrimination for a minority of metal detectorists. Some politicians, after receiving a letter from a detectorists, decided to raise this issues in Parliament. Politicians where concerned that archaeologists took advantage of the sentence in the decree that said: ‘it is forbidden to search with a metal detector’. Some archaeologists for example literally removed detectorists from the fields they were searching on, claiming that archaeologists were the only group of people allowed to legally search for historical artefacts. This was seen as overreaching their authority, as can be seen in transcript of this parliamentary debate:

“In recent months the Flemish metal detectorists were increasingly the victims of misinformation, harassment, intimidation and verbal aggression. Detectorists were chased by archaeologists who had no right to do so. Hobbyists who offered their services on excavations were greeted with verbal aggression. Archaeologists in service of the government’s (ed: Heritage Agency) misinformed the general public about the law regarding metal detecting.”  The full transcript of this session can be read on:

Then, on a European level, in 2005  Faro Convention on the Value of Cultural Heritage for Society was adopted. It entered into force on 1 June 2011. To date, 17 member States have ratified it: Armenia, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Georgia, Hungary, Latvia, Luxembourg, the Republic of Moldova, Montenegro, Norway, Portugal, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine and “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”. In addition, 5 States have signed the Convention: Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Italy, and San Marino. The signing process is underway in a number of other member States of the Council of Europe (Bulgaria and Finland). (ed: quote as described on the website of the Faro Convention: )

It was extremely important for Flemish metal detectorist so let’s take a closer look at some articles of this Convention:

Article 1 – Aims of the Convention:

  1. recognise that rights relating to cultural heritage are inherent in the right to participate in cultural life, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; (ed: remember the discrimination in the first part by archaeologists towards detectorists)
  2. recognise individual and collective responsibility towards cultural heritage;
  3. emphasise that the conservation of cultural heritage and its sustainable use have human development and quality of life as their goal;
  4. take the necessary steps to apply the provisions of this Convention concerning:
  • the role of cultural heritage in the construction of a peaceful and democratic society, and in the processes of sustainable development and the promotion of cultural diversity;
  • greater synergy of competencies among all the public, institutional and private actors concerned. (ed: which means governments who signed or ratified the convention has to create a sustainable framework allowing metal detectorists to participate and share their competencies)

Article 12 – Access to cultural heritage and democratic participation

The Parties undertake to:

  1. encourage everyone to participate in:
  • the process of identification, study, interpretation, protection, conservation and presentation of the cultural heritage;(ed: “study” and “presentation”: allowing metal detectorists to analyse, search and report their finds)
  • public reflection and debate on the opportunities and challenges which the cultural heritage represents;
  1. take into consideration the value attached by each heritage community to the cultural heritage with which it identifies;
  2. recognise the role of voluntary organisations both as partners in activities and as constructive critics of cultural heritage policies;(ed: which means that every National Metal Detecting association should be heard by the local governments and should receive acknowledgment of their existence)
  3. take steps to improve access to the heritage, especially among young people and the disadvantaged, in order to raise awareness about its value, the need to maintain and preserve it, and the benefits which may be derived from it.

Article 15 – Undertakings of the Parties

The Parties undertake to:

  1. develop, through the Council of Europe, a monitoring function covering legislations, policies and practices concerning cultural heritage, consistent with the principles established by this Convention; (ed: which means all National or Regional Governments that signed and ratified the Convention should also embed metal detecting as a part of their  heritage laws or decrees; allowing the public to participate in the aims of this convention as stated in Article 1 and 12. And thus be unable to ignore the participation of individuals, associations or clubs to contribute to the process of identification, study, interpretation, protection, conservation and presentation of the cultural heritage)
  2. maintain, develop and contribute data to a shared information system, accessible to the public, which facilitates assessment of how each Party fulfils its commitments under this Convention. (ed: which means all finds reported by metal detectorists should be available for all)

Quite often members of the general public think that archaeologists (the good ones) are allowed to do everything, and have the authority to do so, and that metal detectorists (the bad guys) are not allowed to metal detect. This propaganda issued by archaeologists and the way they communicate it to the public is certainly not in line with the Faro Convention. This misinformation propagated by archaeologists throughout the years created false impression among the police forces, forest guards etc., that it is forbidden to search with a metal detector and that the only people authorised to do so are the archaeologists. Thanks mainly to detectorists intervention and implementation of the Faro Convention, it was agreed that the law makers duty and obligation was to create a clear legislation towards metal detecting and to take out all grey zones of misunderstandings and misinterpretations within the law.

(Foto: Thiel von Kracht)nvdanp_diggers

So, in Flanders the legislators decided to combine the best of both worlds by taking back the (misused) powers of some archaeologists who overreached their authority and (partly) allow the public to participate in heritage protection by creating a new decree allowing metal detectorists to search for archaeological artefacts. This was done by considering both parties as equal and on the same level in the face of the law. The government also recognized the importance of the heritage contribution of both metal detectorists and archaeologists. Or as someone of the Flemish Heritage Agency told me: ‘the only thing that we are interested in is what has been found, where it has been found and where is it stored so that we can study it in case we might be interested to do so.’ Of course, there are specific conditions in place and heavy fines if a registered detectorist breaks the rules described by the decree. Main point however is that the government and its Heritage Agency is only interested to have a fair system which encourages people to automatically report their finds. That’s all!

To become a recognized metal detectorist in Flanders you have to be:

  • 18 years of age
  • Not been convicted in the last 5 years regarding Heritage crime

After the request has been granted by the Agency, the metal detectorist receives an official permit. This permit is a personal identification card, with name and number of the detectorist on it. From the day the detectorist receives the permit, he/she is allowed to search for archaeological artefacts on Flemish territory only. The permit has to be shown to authorities in case of control.

Conditions placed upon the detectorist:

  • Obligation to report all finds the Heritage Agency
  • Not allowed on archaeologically protected areas
  • Always have permission from the landowner
  • Search allowed only during daylight time
  • Search allowed to a maximum depth of 30 cm (depth of plough)
  • Preserve and tag the find with a number obtained from the Agency
  • Allow the Agency or Archaeologists to study the artefact on request

In future, all collected information will be available for the public in an on-line database, similar to the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) in UK. The decree has been voted in 2015 and implemented in April 2016. First evaluation by the Flemish Government and the Parliament’s Heritage Commission of the new laws will take place in 2017.

About other regions: (Wallonia, Brussels and the German Community)

Except Flanders, were the Heritage Agency allows metal detectorists to legally search for historical artefacts, we are not aware of any intention by other Regions to do the same or at least fine-tune the actual legislation to also stimulate the reporting of metal detecting finds. These Regional legislations still forbid to search for archaeological artefacts by metal detecting, without a permission granted by the Regional Agency. However, even when a detectorist finds an interesting object but without having the intention to find an archaeological artefact, it is difficult to report it to the Regional Agency being afraid to be pursued for illegal metal detecting.

In other words: “it is forbidden to search for archaeological artefacts, but if by any chance you find one, it is not possible to report it as the law then assumes that you were searching for archaeological artefacts…” Utopia at its best!

However, an individual is always able to ask for a special permit issued by Regional Agencies to detect on a specific spot. The way it works is practically the same as for an archaeologist requesting an excavation permit. In reality almost nobody takes this route as the paper workload and the time it takes to receive an answer makes such permit almost impossible to obtain.

About Clubs/Federations in Belgium:

There is only one official association metal detecting, (Nationale Vereniging van Detectoramateurs – Association Nationale des Prospecteurs) with a legal NGO structure published in the Official State Journal and operating under the commercial number BE0893137990. As far as we know, there are no other official NGO structured associations or clubs. However, there are many individuals that practice metal detecting and share their adventures on online forums and Facebook groups.

These friends also come together from time to time on organised searches or to organize metal detecting rallies.

Olivier Van den Bergh



Folder in PDF:

Q&A in PDF:

The decree explained:

1 Comment

  1. Hi! So where do I apply for a metal detecting permit in Flanders? I think it’s hard to find any information on the subject.

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