Finding buried treasure and keeping it (quiet)

There is, as you probably know, no agreed position between various nations on what is a reasonable level of metal detecting to allow. I have argued about this on Martin Rundkvist’s Aardvarchaeology about this, and he has recently posted on the issue again, provoking quite an argument elsewhere; while Sweden is being forced by the European Commission to come up with ways to allow metal detecting, however, in other countries they are trying to ban it entirely. I only really know about the situation in the UK, where the law only demands that precious-metal objects of 300 years age or more be handed in. Importantly, single finds of coins are excepted from this and don’t currently count as treasure. As long as you only find one, and no reason to suppose it was deliberately concealed, you can legally claim it yourself, saving certain rights of the landowner. The government and the world of archaeology would like you to report it, and structures exist for you to do so, but there is no sanction if you don’t. Of course, even it were declared treasure, you’d be compensated, but the Treasure process can take as much as three years to pay out and most people who care about the money would rather see it quicker, we have found. Martin thinks the situation needs some tuning to include copper alloy as treasure and others, lamenting the loss of the Crosby Garrett Roman helmet to a private bidder precisely because, being made of copper, it didn’t qualify for crown protection, would presumably agree that some changes need to be made.

The counter-arguments, such as they are, are that the more difficult and expensive we make the process for detectorists, the less will actually be reported and the more will be sold on the black market. Yes, the force of the law will be against these people, but when did you last read of someone being prosecuted for night-hawking? It’s not much of a disincentive. So any restriction is a potential threat to what data we do get reported, which experienced detectorists visiting the museum where I used to work estimated (and there is no way to know) is perhaps ten per cent of all finds. That implies a lot just going straight into pockets.

Now I learn from David Beard’s Archaeology in Europe that, in response to The Crosby Garrett Affair (surely the name of an indie group’s side project), the Council for British Archaeology, which has been generally pro-detectorist in the past, is arguing for a reform of the Treasure Act,

to incorporate Roman base metal hoards and single finds of Roman and Anglo-Saxon coins made of precious metal.

Now, back where I used to work, there is a database (put together by none other than Sean Miller) that records precisely those data, saving the hoards, and sources a publication of the results every year in the British Numismatic Journal as a thing called “Coin Register”. (I wrote the query that generates that bit, in fact; a small thing but my own). We—they, now—get about as much information as we have the spare man-hours to process, but I don’t think we’d like to see it go, for all that. Because I see here two outcomes, probably simultaneous: firstly, this will cause much more stuff not to be reported, because people don’t like going through the slow Treasure process (even, to our surprise and annoyance, when it would garner them more money ultimately to do so). Secondly, it will mean that much more of what is reported will have to go through the Treasure process, thus slowing it (and the other work of the Crown courts!) down even more and loading much more work onto the Finds Liaison Officers of the Portable Antiquities Service, an organisation which was having its funding cut even before the new government and its hypothetical axe of doom arrived. I see little way in which this makes things easier for anyone. It makes me wonder if the CBA really understand how much stuff is being found. Only, there’s this database and publication they could look at…

I think, on the whole, I would say that copper alloy finds should be included but single finds should still not. Someone who finds a hoard usually wants to be famous, now, they probably mostly get reported. Single finds won’t make you famous, but they might make you a few quid. If we start restricting that kind of detectoring, we need to have fixed the Treasure process and rebuilt the PAS first or it could kill them both. I realise that nighthawking will still be a problem, and that video above doesn’t encourage me, but I don’t think these measures will solve that nor does that seem to be what the CBA are trying to do, and I don’t think that what they propose will help their ultimate purpose.

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2 responses to “Finding buried treasure and keeping it (quiet)

  1. Treasure Found! – There is a lot to learn from Greg Brooks who claims to have found a 71-ton shipment of platinum ingots worth $3 billion at the bottom of the ocean in the hold of a sunken British merchant ship, Port Nicholson, which was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1942.

    The approximate location of this WW2 wreck has been known for a long time but no one really wanted it bad enough due to its depth and a risky cargo that might include amunition.

    But there is a parallel here for metal detecting. Most of the people I know who metal detect go to all the same places, the parks, the yards, the beach. But very few want to do the research and the work to take on the hard locations like the woods where there used to be a town 100 years ago or to research old revolutionary war camps or sites that are not protected battlefields.

    Heck i recall a friends dad pointing out a site on the hudsonm river one time and saying that was where they loades ships during the revolutionary war. WOW I thought i bet there are some finds there. But I never went. The bank was a little steep and muddy and hard to get to…Sound familiar?

    The point is if you want to find the good stuff, the really valuable stuff then you have to be like Brooks and do the research and go where others are unwilling to go!!

    Mark

    • There is, certainly, the phenomenon known as detector bias, where we get a messed-up distribution of certain sorts of artefacts which favours places it’s easy to use a metal-detector in. This is one of the reasons there are so many Anglo-Saxon finds from East Anglia, though it does also appear that the area was economically more active then relative to the rest of the island than it is now. Of course, for the archæologist, rather than the treasure hunter, good is not necessarily the same as valuable. The shiniest most spectacular piece of metalwork ever has almost nothing to tell us archæologically if we don’t know where it was found and what its archæological context was, and on the other hand the chance to dig a whole village site, even if no metalwork comes up at all, is often invaluable in terms of knowledge, because the context is intact and controlled. There’s a really nice post about this on the dormant archæology blog Then Dig you might find entertaining.

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