Finding the New Rome
Voting for archaeology
Editor Simon Denison
From treasure to public good
Our legal concept of 'treasure' works against the public interest, says George Lambrick
Up until about 15 years ago there was little love lost between archaeologists and metal detectorists - or treasure hunters as they were usually referred to. But a few archaeologists, notably the late Tony Gregory in Norfolk, saw the value in working with them, recording what they found and enlisting their support in excavations.
In 1995 the CBA published an influential report on the relationship between metal detecting and archaeology, which together with a number of causes célèbres helped to prompt the reform of the medieval law of Treasure Trove (except for Scotland). It was a long and complex tussle, but eventually the Treasure Act, promoted by the Surrey Archaeological Society with CBA support, was passed in 1996.
As an essentially pragmatic compromise it fell short of the CBA's ideal of full reporting of portable antiquities. But several aspects of its operation - including the definition of 'treasure' and what rewards might be given to finders - were left subject to review. Two annual reports have now been published by the Government on the operation of the Act, and consultation on a review of the Act's first five years ended last month. So, how is it working?
It has long been recognized that the primary public interest in finds whose original owner is unknown is their archaeological value. Despite this, 'treasure' - which must be reported under the Act - still basically means only objects of precious metal. In Northern Ireland and Scotland there are other legal requirements to report all archaeologically significant objects, leaving only England and Wales with no general requirement to report.
Retaining the term 'treasure', and offering full market value rewards for finds claimed by the Crown, has perpetuated the idea of treasure hunting for financial gain. The legitimacy of this approach is highly questionable. According to the recently ratified Valetta Convention, 'excavations made solely for the purpose of finding precious metals or objects with a market value should never be allowed'. But as currently implemented, the Treasure Act explicitly legitimises the removal of gold and silver antiquities from the ground for their market value. It is even arguable that the valuation process creates, rather than reflects, market prices.
The two reports on the Treasure Act if anything reinforce this. In addition to good archaeological descriptions of the finds, they give details of individual valuations, so they read like - and are doubtless valued as - up-market dealers' catalogues. This approach gives a very mixed message, as was all too clear from the press coverage of the latest report published in January. Many newspapers highlighted the size of financial rewards, treating them as a kind of lottery jackpot. The Independent suggested that the report might encourage hordes of treasure hunters to go around pillaging archaeological sites in pursuit of valuable rewards. But the public interest angle of the archaeological stories that particular finds told was also well covered by some papers, giving good publicity for finders who report their discoveries.
Another shortcoming of the Treasure Act reports is that they fail to consider why the levels of reported 'treasure' seem to be highest in areas that have a long-established history of liaison schemes between detectorists and archaeologists - most notably in East Anglia. Although other factors may also be at play, it looks as though the existence of a good liaison scheme is a substantial inducement for 'treasure' to be reported. This may mean that 'treasure' is significantly under-reported in areas lacking established liaison schemes. It may also suggest that financial reward is not the only incentive that encourages reporting.
Many detectorists have a real archaeological interest in their discoveries, and have a knowledge of artefacts that would put a lot of archaeologists to shame. Others are increasingly scientific in their methods, and some make donations of artefacts to museums. But helping to develop such archaeological interests takes time. The history of liaison between detectorists and archaeologists shows that this is a long game with no quick fixes.
The operation of the Treasure Act may actually be relying heavily on the Portable Antiquities Scheme, currently funded by DCMS and the Heritage Lottery Fund. The future of this non-statutory pilot project for England and Wales is precarious. Yet this kind of scheme is the only vehicle through which a substantial change in culture from treasure hunting for personal gain to fully responsible reporting of portable antiquities in the public interest will be made. To achieve this, the scheme should be put on a permanent footing forthwith, whether or not new legislation is needed.
George Lambrick is Director of the CBA
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005