May 3, 2006

Crackdown on rogue treasure hunters within Britain

Posted at 12:53 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

When we hear about looted artefacts, generally the cases are large high profile ones involving pieces which have been illegally exported from another country & are often now held in a museum. Illegal excavations of a different kind happen all the time in this country though, where people discover pieces buried in the ground & break the law by selling them surreptitiously, rather than following reporting their finds to the authorities. A new agreement between metal detector users & archaeologists aims to help define the non-destructive ethical behavior that people should be following. It is worth noting that some of the most important British artefacts in the British Museum were discovered by Amateur treasure hunters working alone, rather than large organised archaeological digs.

BBC News

Wednesday, 3 May 2006
Watching the detectorists
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News website Magazine

Many archaeologists believe they are a vital part of their work, while some dismiss them as mere treasure hunters. Now a new code of conduct is recognising the role of metal detector enthusiasts in mapping the UK’s history.

For anybody who encountered one in childhood, the strange whistles and beeps of a metal detector conjured up a special kind of magic.

Each noise from the contraption would generate a wave of excitement that would subside only when one realised that the unearthing of a rusty horseshoe or drinks can would not lead to a call to be the next Indiana Jones.

Most children became disenchanted when repeated sweeps of the back garden failed to unearth the next Sutton Hoo.

But there are tens of thousands in the UK whose initial excitement has never worn off.

These metal “detectorists” spend their weekends braving driving wind and rain, and have been responsible for a series of spectacular finds in recent years.

  • The Winchester hoard, which included 1kg of intricate gold jewellery, found in 2000 by retired florist Kevan Halls. Archaeologists were fascinated – they were Roman-made but predated the invasion of Britain.
  • The Staffordshire Moorlands Pan found in 2003 is a rare example of a bronze vessel bearing the names of forts along Hadrian’s Wall, possibly as some sort of souvenir.
  • The Hoxne hoard – 15,000 gold and silver Roman coins, many in good condition – found in Suffolk in 1992 by Eric Lawes.
  • A silver Roman coin dating from 271AD found in Chalgrove in Oxfordshire recently proved the existence of Roman emperor Domitian II. The only other coin bearing his image was found in France and had been thought to be a fake until the British find.
  • The Ringlemere Cup found by Cliff Bradshaw in 2001 in Kent was one of only a handful found in Europe. Dating from 1700-1500BC and made of beaten gold, it emphasised the intricate craftsmanship of the early Bronze Age.

What links these five finds is that they were made by responsible detectorists who quickly notified the authorities so the archaeological context could be preserved and the site properly excavated.

Mr Bradshaw says he did not consider himself an amateur archaeologist, but had got a unique thrill from unearthing the Ringlemere Cup.

“It gives you a feeling you can’t put into words. I’m so pleased and proud. The cup is only the second one ever found in this country. It was mind-blowing.”

The detectorist says he was in the area looking for a Saxon burial site, prompted by his discovery of Saxon items, and was baffled when he discovered the cup, at least two millennia older.

“That is how most items are found, by chance, by a chap going around.

“I didn’t do any more searching or digging – I would have been destroying the context.”

Mr Bradshaw and the landowner shared a £250,000 reward and he admits an element of luck is important.

“You can go across field after field, year after year, and some people don’t find anything of significance.

“There are different types of metal detectorist. I keep everything I’ve got, but you get another type who go out with the full intention of earning some money. They will find it and flog it.

“There are right criminals who will go on land during the night.”

To ban or not

It is this minority element that has harmed the image of metal detectorists in the past. In many European countries detectorists are not allowed to operate in order to protect antiquities, but the practice still goes on clandestinely with finds ending up on the black market.

Britain has always had a more tolerant position, although the Council for British Archaeology fought a campaign to ban metal detecting in the 1970s. Things have changed dramatically. Now they are backing the code for the hobbyists and recognising their role in archaeology.

Dr Mike Heyworth, director of the council, says the archaeological fraternity had changed its mind.

“The council in those days took the view metal detecting [by hobbyists] should be stopped and banned. We now recognise the detector is a tool that can be used.”

The council has driven the creation of the code of conduct, which as well as encouraging responsible behaviour is a recognition that the hobby has a right to exist and a role to play.

It is the first time landowners, archaeologists and the detectorists themselves have been able to agree a common code.

Finds as spectacular as the Ringlemere Cup are vanishingly rare, but thousands of items, many mundane, and many not metal, are reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme – based at the British Museum – every year.

In 2004-5, about 40,000 finds were reported and this rose to more than 60,000 last year. Most are not precious metals, but many are significant to archaeologists and historians in some way.

Code of conduct

Before their first spot of detecting, searchers are warned to get the agreement of landowners, and establish how rewards for a find will be split, as well as making sure they know the rules on protected sites.

The code says the detectorists should confine their activity where possible to ploughed land, or areas otherwise disturbed, and to minimise any further disturbance through the use of appropriate tools.

They must record accurately where finds are made, to at least a 100m square area. Most importantly they must notify the authorities – the PAS or local finds liaison officers – as soon as possible.

Modern ploughing has been blamed by some for damaging antiquities such as the Ringlemere Cup.

Michael Lewis, deputy head of the PAS at the British Museum, says liaison with detectorists is the way to ensure vital evidence was saved for posterity.

“About 90 percent of all archaeological finds come from ploughed land. In effect people doing metal detecting are recovering these items before they’re smashed to bits.”

And the force of detectorists, estimated to be 30,000 strong, provide two other avenues of help for archaeologists.

Dr Lewis says most digs now use metal detectors, and some chose hobbyists to operate them because of their proficiency with the kit.

And the random nature of detectorists’ sweeps offer “different sort of finds where archaeologists haven’t normally been to provide clues about new sites”.

Glimpse of past

Bob Baldock, vice-chairman of the National Council for Metal Detecting, says his members have helped build up a map of finds.

“In my local club we are trying to paint a picture of Warwickshire. Archaeologists finds are selected sites, castles, villas, but some of the best information is from the random finds, random losses from the population in the past.”

But archaeologists do know the consequences of rogue treasure hunters armed with metal detectors descending on a valuable site.

In the 1980s details of a find of coins at Wanborough became public and sparked a frenzy. The site – believed to be a Romano-Celtic temple – was left a patchwork of holes by treasure hunters who stole up to 10,000 coins. Police only recovered about 1,000.

Since 1996, the legal position has been easier for detectorists. That year’s Treasure Act makes the legal position for gold and silver over 300 years old absolutely clear.

The finders and landowners can expect to be paid market value for their discovery which has led to some big rewards and given a great incentive for the most valuable finds to be reported.

But for most the pleasure of finding something historic is all they need. Mr Baldock says his favourite item was a Bronze Age axe head.

“It was 4,000 years old, and finding it was a great thrill. There is no value in the item, except it is one of the oldest metal items around.

“To find an axe from the Bronze Age is pretty exciting, and sharing it with the other club members, everybody having a look and a feel of it.”

This weekend the metal detectorists will be continuing their work, whatever the weather.

As Mr Baldock says: “I’ve seen people going out in snow and wind and rain. Nothing stops us.”


Crackdown launched on rogue treasure hunters
Tue May 2, 2006 1:28 PM BST12

By Jeremy Lovell

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain launched a crackdown on rogue treasure-hunters on Tuesday in an effort to protect the country’s ancient heritage.

Faced with a growing number of priceless artefacts appearing for sale on Internet, museums, metal detectorists and archaeologists in England and Wales have agreed a new code of conduct.

The voluntary code comes after massive looting of a Roman-Celtic temple at Wanborough in Surrey in the mid-1980s and as customs officers seize ever more antiquities being smuggled out of the country.

“This code represents a major step forward,” said Mike Heyworth of the Council for British Archaeology.

“Most detectorists are only interested in finding and preserving local antiquity … and to make a positive contribution to our historical knowledge,” he told reporters at the British Museum.

“There are just a few illicit detectorists motivated solely by profit.”

In recent years, amateur metal detectorists have unearthed invaluable artefacts like the Bronze Age Ringlemere Gold Cup, the Winchester Hoard of Iron Age jewellery and the bronze Roman Staffordshire Moorlands Pan.

But Roger Bland, head of the portable antiquities scheme at the museum, said unscrupulous detectorists were arriving from the Netherlands and the United States to search illegally for buried treasure which was then offered for sale on the Internet.

“Most detectorists are highly responsible, getting permission from the landowner to search and reporting the fact and exact location of their finds,” he said.

“But just a few aren’t, and they are the ones doing the damage,” he added, stressing that ignorance of correct procedure was as much to blame as the deliberate flouting of it.

Under the code, detectorists must get permission to search, join a recognised detectorists’ club, log the precise location of any find and report it to the landowner — who has a share in any valuation — and to the portable antiquities scheme.

Steve Critchley, head of the National Council for Metal Detecting, estimated there could be between 20,000 and 30,000 detectorists in the country.

“While the archaeologists go for the big cherries, we detectorists tend to operate in the periphery and what we find adds significantly to the sum of knowledge — which is why it is so important to log it precisely,” Critchley said.

“Every find adds to the picture. The danger is the lack of recording,” he added.

Bland estimated that currently as many as half of the artefacts found — ranging from belt buckles to plates — might not be being declared.

© Reuters 2006. All Rights Reserved.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0.0/5 (0 votes cast)

Possibly related articles

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URL

Leave a Comment

We want to hear your views. Be as critical or controversial as you like, but please don't get personal or offensive. Remember this is for feedback and constructive discussion!
Comments may be edited or removed if they do not meet these guidelines. Repeat offenders will be blocked from posting further comments. Any comment deemed libellous by Elginism's editors will be removed.
The commenting system uses some automatic spam detection and occasionally comments do not appear instantly - please do not repost comments if they do not show up straight away