One of the smallest departments at Cambridge – Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic (ASNAC) – has transformed what we know about a period once called the 'dark ages'. By forging relationships with metal detectorists and coin collectors, researchers in ASNAC have ensured that the coins they find tell us as much as possible about Anglo-Saxon society.

Coins are more than fodder for book covers, they are a rich form of evidence about visual culture and the economy

Rory Naismith

The Corpus of Early Medieval Coin Finds has proved invaluable. It has provided us with a research tool when cataloguing coins for auction … and allows us to create a provenance for each coin which will remain with the coin into the future

Spink and Sons Ltd

The small army of metal detectorists who scour the countryside turn up thousands of Anglo-Saxon coins every year. But it's thanks to the work of ASNAC's Dr Rory Naismith and the late Dr Mark Blackburn that we have been able to translate these finds into a richer understanding of a period of history once referred to as the 'dark ages'.

Since the 1990s, Blackburn and later also Naismith have worked closely with metal detectorists and coin collectors. By sharing their scholarship as widely as possible through electronic databases, talks and exhibitions, they have transformed attitudes about the heritage value of early medieval coins.

As a result of their work, we have all benefited. By knowing more about the academic significance of their finds, metal detectorists now search more responsibly and record and report their finds more fully - and collectors pay more for coins with reliable find-provenance. All of which helps preserve our cultural heritage.

And this larger volume of well-recorded single finds has revolutionised academics' understanding of the Anglo-Saxon economy, helping, for example, to identify settlements or market places and revealing the years between 680-740 as a period of peak coin-use.

From threat to opportunity

Metal detectors are not new – the technology has been around for almost a century – but since the 1980s, metal detecting has become a hugely popular pastime. Driven by affordable technology and English law (which, unlike legislation in Scotland and continental Europe, allows people to search for finds provided they have the landowner's permission), metal detectorists are responsible for turning up the vast majority of Anglo-Saxon coins in England.

But this rise in popularity has been mirrored by growing concern among academics, particularly archaeologists, that important finds might go unrecorded and vital archaeological evidence could be lost. Early medieval coin specialists, however, view detectorists as an opportunity rather than a threat, a spirit of collaboration exemplified in ASNAC.

Anglo-Saxon art in the round

Relationship building between academia and the commercial world of coins has been central to Naismith and Blackburn's work. Blackburn's research led to the 'Coin Register', a list of early medieval coin finds published annually in the British Numismatic Journal since 1987.

And in 1997, with a grant from the Leverhulme Trust and the British Academy, he established the Corpus of Early Medieval Coin Finds. This national online database of coin-finds from the period 410-1180 is the largest of its kind in the world. Today, it contains images and information on more than 10,000 single finds plus 50,000 coins in museum collections.

Through talks at conferences and to local societies, Naismith and Blackburn's work has reached a wide audience of coin collectors and metal detectorists. And thanks to the Fitzwilliam Museum's exhibition 'Anglo-Saxon Art in the Round', which in 2008 attracted 20,000 visitors before travelling throughout East Anglia, Cambridge scholarship on coins in the age of Bede, Beowulf and the Lindisfarne Gospels has engaged an even wider public.