Treasure Troves: What Happens to Finds?

By Julian Richards
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.
British Museum, London  

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.


Detail from the Elgin Marbles
Detail from the Elgin Marbles
Many of the objects housed in today's museums were obtained as spoils of war - for example, collections of artefacts seized from Napoleon’s forces after their defeat in Egypt in 1801.

Other objects may have been seized, or even traded, from indigenous peoples whose descendants may wish for the return of items that to them have a great cultural and spiritual significance. And then there are those cases in which objects were removed with the agreement, at the time, of a country’s authorities, but in circumstances that today would not even be contemplated.

'Today there are strict rules for the import and export of cultural objects ...'

The most celebrated case is that of the Elgin Marbles [treasure_troves_fact_file.shtml] , a decorative classical Greek frieze, now housed in the British Museum in London. It originally adorned the Parthenon in Athens, from where it was removed by Lord Thomas Elgin between 1803 and 1812. Greece has campaigned for the return of the marbles since its independence from Turkey in 1829, but all claims have been, and continue to be, rejected by the British Museum.

Today there are strict rules in Britain for the import and export of cultural objects from abroad, but the question of what to do about objects acquired in times gone by remains. If the role of national museums is, as stated by the British Museum, to ‘illuminate world cultures’ how could this be done if objects from around the world had to be returned to the country of their origin?

In a recent visit to the British Museum, Nelson Mandela did not demand that the museum’s spectacular collections of Benin bronzes should be returned to the country of their origin. He celebrated the fact that in London it was possible for the wider world to appreciate the artistic and cultural achievements of the African continent.

Treasure Act

Image of a metal detector
A metal detector surveys a field
In comparison with many other European countries, the rules that govern the ownership of ancient artefacts found in the British Isles are comparatively relaxed. Until quite recently, any artefacts, with the exception of those that could potentially fall under the definition of 'treasure trove' (basically gold and silver), were the property of the person who owned the land on which they were found.

Originally the laws regarding ‘treasure’ and ownership was largely decided on the basis of whether an object or a collection of objects had been deliberately hidden or was a casual loss. But these medieval laws were not suited to a world where increasing numbers of artefacts were being discovered by users of metal detectors.

The Treasure Act (1997) redefined the meaning of the word treasure, and put more emphasis on the cultural and archaeological value of objects rather than simply on their value as precious metal.

Defining treasure

Image of a Viking coin
A ninth-century Viking coin found in York
If something is discovered that falls under the new definition of treasure, then the finder should report the discovery to the coroner for the district in which the find was made. This must be done within 14 days of the date when the find was made, or of the date at which it was first realised that the find constituted treasure.

The report can be made in person, by letter, fax or phone and the coroner will acknowledge the report and issue instructions as to where the find should be taken, often a local museum or archaeological organisation.

The definition of treasure is as follows:

The following types of object are not treasure:


Image of skeletons
Skeletons found in Spitalfields, London
Human remains, which are specifically excluded from the terms of the Treasure Act, cannot in fact be ‘owned’, as the law considers that 'there is no property in a corpse'. In addition, human remains can only legally be disturbed or removed from where they are found under a licence issued by the Secretary of State.

These regulations were initially drawn up to govern the exhumation of human remains [treasure_troves_fact_file.shtml] from graveyards but is applied to human remains of any date. Part of the licence governs the final location of the remains. These should either be reburied if this is considered to be appropriate, or placed in a museum if the remains are considered important enough to warrant future study.

'Archaeologists working on site have no claim to any finds that they make.'

So, with the exception of human remains and those objects that fall under the terms of the Treasure Act of 1997, all other objects of any date are the property of the owner of the land on which they lie.

In the case of archaeological excavations, before work starts on site, an agreement is ideally drawn up governing the ownership and final deposition of any finds. This will usually involve the museum whose collecting policy covers the area in which the site lies. Archaeologists working on site have no claim to any finds that they make.

Portable Antiquities Scheme

Image of a Viking comb
A Viking comb found on Orkney
Today, leaving aside those that come from archaeological fieldwork or excavations, most finds that are made are as a result of metal detecting.

The Treasure Act makes it a legal requirement to report any finds that fall under its definition, but beyond this, metal detectorists in many cases draw up agreements to divide any finds with the owners of land where they are searching. However, once an object has been removed from the place where it was found (its context [treasure_troves_fact_file.shtml] ) then much potentially valuable information has been lost and so, in 1997, the Portable Antiquities Scheme was set up.

'These finds have provided new insight ... and have revealed whole new classes of medieval objects ...'

The scheme was established to encourage the reporting of finds, of all types and all periods, through a network of Portable Antiquities liaison officers, currently ten in number. In the past few years tens of thousands of new finds have been reported, recorded and their find spots added to the relevant Sites and Monuments Records.

These finds have provided new insight into Danish Viking settlement in East Anglia, have shown the hitherto unsuspected importance of the East Midlands in the Iron Age, and have revealed whole new classes of medieval objects, among them dress fittings such as brooches and clasps. Perhaps more importantly this liaison has helped to break down some of the traditional hostility that tends to exist between archaeologists and those who use metal detectors.

Planning decisions

Image of an archaelogical dig
An archaeological dig gets going in Yorkshire
Most fieldwork in Britain and Ireland is carried out as a direct result of development pressure - what used to often be referred to as ‘rescue’ archaeology.

Fortunately, the days of salvaging sites from the jaws of mechanical diggers are over, and archaeology today is firmly embedded within the planning process. Most county or regional planning authorities now have a team of archaeologists who are responsible for maintaining a record of all archaeology within their designated area.

The Sites and Monuments Records [treasure_troves_fact_file.shtml] (SMRs) mentioned above are invaluable research tools but are primarily used to inform planning decisions. The process by which an archaeological investigation is initiated will usually start with a planning application or preliminary enquiry by developers to the planning department.

'... archaeological evaluation is intended to discover the potential of an area ...'

The archaeological team within the planning department will then consult their SMR which, within the application area, may carry records of known site or previous discoveries.

However, even if nothing is recorded, a Planning Policy Guideline allows for the investigation of threatened areas before a decision is made about granting planning permission. Such archaeological evaluation [treasure_troves_fact_file.shtml] is intended to discover the potential of an area so that an informed decision can be made about its future.

Site surveys

Image of Julian Richards
Julian Richards uncovers the past at a Roman dig in Winchester
The evaluation or assessment of a site is carried out at the expense of the proposed developer, and can involve a whole range of investigations. These could include an aerial or geophysical survey, or fieldwalking [treasure_troves_fact_file.shtml] and the excavation of test pits or machine-dug trenches.

At this stage, or even earlier, the developers may engage an archaeological consultant to provide expert advice and facilitate communications between developer and planners. The museum where it has been agreed that the finds and records will eventually be deposited will also be involved before excavation starts.

'The ideal solution for buried remains is to leave them where they are ...'

If this first stage of investigation reveals archaeological remains, then decisions will be made by the planning department archaeologists, sometimes with advice from other bodies, about the need for preservation or further excavation.

The ideal solution for buried remains is to leave them where they are (preservation in situ [treasure_troves_fact_file.shtml] ), but if they are not considered sufficiently important or the development need is overriding then full excavation will be considered. This is often referred to as ‘preservation by record’.

Subsequent stages of investigation will be organised along the lines described above for evaluation. In each case, sufficient time and funds will be allowed for full analysis of the finding, the publication of the results and the correct conservation and storage in an appropriate museum of all the records and finds.

National organisations

Image of an archaeological dig
Excavation of a 16th-century hospital in London
Official bodies such as English Heritage, CADW in Wales (CADW means 'to keep' in Welsh), Historic Scotland, and Ducas in Ireland, are responsible for formulating policies for the preservation and interpretation of our archaeological heritage. They also maintain what is known as a schedule [treasure_troves_fact_file.shtml] of ancient monuments, a record of those sites that are considered to be of national importance and are consequently protected by law from damage or disturbance.

These organisations employ inspectors, each responsible for a specific region or type of site, who will offer advice to more locally based archaeologists and planners. Other influential bodies include the Council for British Archaeology (CBA).

'... there should be a clearly defined role for non-professionals ...'

The professional body for archaeology is the Institute of Field Archaeologists, which establishes standards, has formulated strict rules of conduct, and produces guidelines to good practice. Membership of the IFA, either individually or corporately, is now essential in order to work professionally in many parts of the British Isles.

Ideally, at the beginning of the 21st century, all known archaeological sites should be well documented, while those that are of national importance should be protected by law and maintained in a stable state. Excavations, all of which should have clear research objectives, should be carried out by professional and highly motivated field archaeologists.

Within the overall structure of archaeology there should be a clearly defined role for non-professionals, and metal detecting should only be carried out by those willing to share both the objects they find and their information with the archaeological community.

In reality, this utopian state has not yet been reached. Programmes of protection carry on, there is still the impression that professional archaeology has no concern for amateurs, and the bridges being built between archaeologists and metal detectorists are far from complete.

However, progress is being made, perhaps helped by the great upsurge of interest in archaeology spawned by television programmes such as 'Time Team' and 'Meet the Ancestors'. If archaeology can be shown to be not only fascinating but also accessible, then it will thrive.

Published on BBC History: 2005-01-24
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