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Hetty Gleave provides current law and best practices for would-be treasure hunters

  • May 16, 2019
  • By Hetty Gleave, Partner

Hunting for Treasure – Treasure chest or Pandora’s Box?

The topic of treasure hunting has recently been in the press highlighting both the risks and rewards of metal detecting.

On 30th April the Metro in London reported that a man had discovered an item thought to be a Bronze Age piece of jewellery which “could be worth £10,000 to £20,000” if declared treasure, suggesting that he could be in line for a “handsome payout”. Prior to that, in April, Cadburys, doubtless well intentioned, advertising campaign encouraging children to “grab a metal detector” and dig for treasure in the country side was withdrawn after intense criticism from experts and heritage groups alike.

Any activity intended to hunt for “treasure” must take into account the stringent law and Codes of Practice that apply to archaeological finds in England and Wales.  The Cadbury’s campaign website listed various archaeological sites as potential targets and referred to the monetary value of finds, as did the Metro, rather than emphasising their value historically, educationally and scientifically.

For those would be Bounty hunters (get it..) a summary of the current law and best practice is as follows:

Before you start

  • Familiarise yourself with the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Treasure Act 1996 Code of Practice.
  • All archaeological finds should be recorded through the Portable Antiquities Scheme and if an object is thought to be treasure (per the definition in the Treasure Act 1996) https://finds.org.uk/treasure/advice/summary/ then it must be reported to the coroner within 14 days of its discovery.
  • Metal detecting is permitted in England, Wales and Scotland but would be treasure hunters should contact the National Council for metal detecting (https//www.ncmd.co.uk) and the federation of independent detectors (fid.org.uk) to obtain a copy of their Code of Practice which sets out what responsible detecting involves and encourages best practice.
  • Reports of finds are made to the local Finds Liason Offer, an archaeologist in the area, and detectorists should have their contact number available should they need to report any finds to them.

Do not trespass

  • Anyone intending to search for treasure, whether with a metal detector or not, must get the permission from the landowner before they step foot on the land. Land (including paths, public open spaces, beaches and foreshores) always belongs to someone. Treasure hunters should check that the person giving permission has authority to do so; for example tenant farmers cannot give permission on behalf of the land owner and any finds discovered will normally be the property of the land owner rather than the tenant farmer.
  • Get permission in writing as trespass is actionable whether or not the person entering the land knows that he is trespassing. Further, the occupier of the land does not have to show that he is suffered any loss or damages as a result of the trespassing in order to pursue a claim.
  • If going to search on the foreshore (that is the land between the mean low and high water marks) check with the Crown Estate Foreshore and Estuary’s map as much of this land is owned by the Crown Estate. (http//www.thecrownestate.co.uk/rural-and-coastal/coastal/metal-detecting/terms-and-conditions)
  • If searching the Thames foreshore, a permit much be obtained from the Port of London Authority PLA and a fee must be paid (https//www.server1.pla.co.uk/assets/fn0920version15new.pdf). Objects found on the foreshore must be reported to the Museum of London and suspected treasure must, in addition, be reported to the Coroner
  • Treasure hunters intending to roam the countryside should take note of the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 which allows the public a right of access to the countryside in England and Wales subject to a long list of restrictions which including anyone who “uses or has any metal detector” or “intentionally removes the damages or destroys any plant”. This may protect someone from alleged trespass if they discover, by chance, an artefact lying on the service of any known path, but it is unlikely to protect and who is a deliberately searching and digging for artefacts without permission.
  • Written permission should be obtained not just to enter land to search for artefacts but also to search and dig for artefacts. If a metal detector is used that should be disclosed and agreed.
  • The written agreement should set out who is to keep any items of non-treasure found on the land as a wrongful refusal by the finder to hand over any objects found to the landowner on the landowners demand may amount to a civil claim if the object was “attached to” or “under the land”.

It is a criminal offence to use a metal detector in a “protected place” without prior permission from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

A “protected place” is a place which falls within one of the following four categories:

  1. A Scheduled Monument as defined by the Schedule of Monuments complied and maintained by the Secretary of the State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (https//historicengland.org.uk/listing/2wales).
  2. Any monument owned by the Secretary of State, a Local Authority or Historic England;
  3. Any site or monument under the guardianship of the secretary of State, a Local Authority, a National Park or Historic England by virtue of Section 12 of the 1979 Act.
  4. A place situated in an area of archaeological importance as defined in the Act.
  • Sites of Special Scientific Interest (known as SSSI) may also be subject to restrictions on the use of a metal detector and detectors are advised to check before digging up and damaging flora, fauna or monuments.
  • Details of Scheduled Monuments and local SSI’s in England and Wales can also be obtained from local Finds Liaison officers.

During the treasure hunt

  • Context and condition is everything. If you find something that is clearly of archaeological importance then stop digging and alert the Finds Liaison Officer. Record the find spot as accurately as possible (GPS devices are good for this) and avoid damaging surrounding earth deposits as they may contain important archaeological information. Do not attempt to clean the object before reporting it as it may damage the object and important archaeological information it may contain.
  • Finders are often entitled to keep objects of non-treasure items which are found on the surface and not attached to the land, but this is subject to debate. Clear and written agreements are therefore advised.
  • If the object found is declared as treasure by the Coroner then, regardless of the circumstances in which it was found, or the land in which it was found, it will automatically belong to the Crown. The finder who believes, “or has reasonable grounds for believing” that the object is treasure must notify the Coroner of the district in which the object was found within 14 days of the find or, if later, the day on which the finder first believes or has reason to believe that the object is treasure.  Failure to notify the Coroner is an offence and liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for term not exceeding three months, a fine or both.
  • If a museum wishes to acquire from the Crown an object that has been declared as treasure then it is possible that a reward may be paid to the finder and/or landowner. However the reward can be subject to a reduction if the find has been deliberately or recklessly damaged (including cleaning) in the process, or the Treasure Act Code of Practice has not been complied with in some other way.
  • A finder might also be guilty of theft if he fails to report likely treasure to the Coroner and, whether treasure or not, to the landowner on whose land it was found.
  • Anyone digging up and trafficking unlawfully removed cultural objects could face prosecution under the Theft Act and Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.

Responsible metal detecting accounts for over 95% of treasure finds in this country which means that these items of important historical and archaeological value have been preserved for public collections and future generations.  If this is to continue it is therefore important that anyone intending to take up this hobby familiarises themselves and abides by the laws and Codes of Practices that apply.

Responsible detectorists may not always find a pot of gold coins, chocolate or otherwise, but the reward should be the discovery of objects of historical and archaeological importance for the benefit of the nation.

Cadburys have rightly removed the campaign and are directing families to museums “where existing treasures can be found”.

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