Antiquities and Archaeology
An embarrassment of riches
The UK’s Portable Antiquities Scheme is struggling to cope with the huge number of artefacts found by the public
By Cristina Ruiz. Web only
Published online: 29 November 2012
Archaeologists in England and Wales are struggling to cope with the number of artefacts discovered by members of the public. Nearly 100,000 finds were made last year and reported to authorities, the largest amount since in 1997, when a system for voluntarily recording objects found in the ground was introduced.
The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), now in its 15th year, processes items discovered by the public to which the State has no claim. Only finders of items classed as Treasure are legally obliged to report them so that museums can buy them if they are able to raise the funds (see box). But the number of people, in particular metal detector users, willing to report objects that are not Treasure has surprised archaeologists.
“The volume of material offered voluntarily for recording is our biggest problem. We are struggling to deal with all the finds that are coming in. We have 39 locally-based finds liaisons officers but we have enough work for twice that number,” says Roger Bland, the head of PAS and a Keeper at the British Museum, which administers the scheme with funding from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.
Metal detecting rallies, where hundreds of people congregate on a site at the same time, create a major challenge. “There’s no law against it but archeologically it’s very, very difficult to respond to the biggest events where there might be 1,000 people in one area over two or three days and our resources are very limited,” explains Bland. “Even if five of our people are able to go there for that weekend, we can never be confident that we’ve seen everything that’s been found. In an ideal world, we would have more regulation of these events.”
Despite these challenges, the voluntary recording system has allowed archaeologists to collect vast quantities of information that would otherwise have been lost. “The beauty of the English system is that the information from the finds is preserved,” says Trevor Austin, the general secretary of the National Council for Metal Detecting, who estimates that around 20,000 people are regular metal detector users in England and Wales. “In other countries, objects are still being found but they’re not being recorded. Surely that is wrong. You may as well get that information from people who do go metal detecting. It’s much better that a system exists that can promote good practice when things are removed from the ground.”
The information provided by members of the public over the last 15 years is available for all to see on the PAS database. This now contains around 810,000 items and spans objects dating from the Stone Age to Anglo-Saxon, Roman, medieval, and post-medieval times. Every entry includes archaeological information on the object in question, details of where it was discovered and often incorporates notes of scholarly interest. The database provides a historical snapshot of human settlement in England and Wales and is an awesome example of what can be achieved by harnessing the power of the public.
“It’s now a major academic resource,” says Bland. “There are 66 people using it for their PhDs and 140 other post-graduate students or undergraduates using it for their dissertations as well as around 12 major funded research projects [working on it], one of them with £150,000 from the Leverhulme Trust to allow us to analyse the factors underlying the data.”
PAS is now exploring ways of ensuring the database is kept fully up to date. “We’re looking at trying to get more capacity into the system… we have a facility on our database where people can record their own finds and we are submitting a bid to the lottery in December to see if we can boost that by bringing in more resources to train people in how to use it and to check the records they enter,” says Bland.
What is treasure?
The public is legally obliged to report the discovery of the following items, which will then be offered to museums at market value with the money split between the finder and the owner of the land where the item or items were found. If the objects are not sold, they are returned to the finder and landowner.
• Any metallic object, other than a coin, which is at least 300 years old provided that at least 10% of it is gold or silver. If the object is prehistoric it will be Treasure if any part of it is gold or silver.
• Any group of two or more prehistoric metallic objects of any composition that come from the same find.
• All coins from the same find which are at least 300 years old; if the coins contain less than 10% of gold or silver there must be at least ten of them.
• Any object, whatever it is made of, that is part of the same find as another object that is Treasure.
• Objects that are less than 300 years old that are made substantially of gold or silver that have been deliberately hidden with the intention of recovery and whose owners or heirs are unknown
Found by the public
The objects in the gallery below, which are not classed as Treasure, were found by members of the public and voluntarily reported to the Portable Antiquities Scheme:
Staffordshire Moorlands pan—a second-century AD Roman copper alloy pan inlaid with coloured enamel and with an inscription describing forts on Hadrian’s Wall. Discovered in 2003, it was acquired jointly by the British Museum, Tullie House Museum and the Potteries Museum, Stoke on Trent.
Crosby Garrett helmet—a bronze Roman cavalry helmet and face mask shaped as the head of a young man wearing a cap topped with a griffin. The helmet, probably intended for parade rather than combat, was found by a metal detector user in Cumbria in 2010. The Tullie House Museum was unable to raise enough funding to buy it in the time available and it was sold to an anonymous buyer at Christie’s for £2.2m. It is currently on view in the Bronze exhibition at the Royal Academy (until 9 December). The DCMS is expected to review the 1996 Treasure Act code of practice next year and consider whether the definition of treasure should be extended to include finds such as this helmet.
Monastic seal matrix—a large medieval cast copper alloy monastic seal matrix probably dating from the 13th century and depicting the Virgin Mary with the child Jesus on her left knee. A Latin inscription around the seal reads “The Seal of the Church of St Mary and St Wulfade, Martyr of Stone”. It was found in Cobham, Surrey in 2011 and is now on loan to the Stone Historical and Civic Society in Staffordshire while the group raises the funds to acquire it.
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