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18 September 2014
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Treasure Troves: What Happens to Finds?

By Julian Richards
Image of British Museum
British Museum, London  

Who cares about what happens to objects found during an archaeological dig? Julian Richards tells you what belongs to you, to the landowner, to the Crown - and about the regulations that help you look after your finds.

Safeguarding finds

For centuries the collection of antiquities, which was the preserve of the wealthy and aristocratic only, was carried out in Britain - and elsewhere - without any regulation at all.

Objects from the British Isles, or perhaps collected abroad during a rich young man's Grand Tour of Europe, were amassed in great numbers, often with little regard to precise provenance and certainly with no regard for any legal process. Although many of these collections now form the basis of the displays of some of our greatest museums, these practices were contrary to the interests of scholarly enquiry, and could not continue.

'... it became widely understood that excavation without proper recording ... is irresponsible ...'

In the same way, excavations of the 19th century were often carried out in the spirit of the collector, and with little record. As a result, museums are often full of objects which, although of considerable artistic and intrinsic beauty, lack the provenance that would enable their true cultural value to be realised.

In the 20th century it became widely understood that excavation without proper recording, and without the possibility of analysing and publishing any findings, is irresponsible and, where threatened sites are concerned, inexcusable. In the last few decades there has also been a huge increase in metal detecting, and with this there has also come the realisation that the legal framework governing the protection of sites, the ownership of finds, and the definition of ‘treasure’ all require a thorough overhaul.

Published: 2005-01-24

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