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A new exhibition opening at the British Museum this month spotlights some of the finest trophies of British archaeology, as well as the people who found them.

BURIED TREASURE: FINDING OUR PAST' is the first major British archaeological exhibition at the British Museum in over twenty years, but unlike previous exhibitions, which have concentrated on finds from professional excavations, it celebrates the chance discoveries made by ordinary people, from farmers to metal detectorists.

It tells, for example, how Cliff Bradshaw, an amateur archaeologist and metal detectorist, unearthed a crumpled gold, round-bottomed cup in a field in Kent in 2001. The cup is only the second of its kind to be found in Britain and dams from c.1700-1500BC. Its discovery sheds new light on the early Bronze Age in terms of craftsmanship and burial patterns. The Ringlemere cup, as Bradshaw's find is known, is so significant that the British Museum raised the sum of 270,000 [pounds sterling] to acquire it earlier this year.

All the objects on display have come from the British Isles. 'This is an opportunity to put the "British" back into British Museum' says Curator Richard Hobbs. 'The BM in particular is probably perceived as the receptacle of the Parthenon marbles, Egyptian mummies, the Rosetta Stone. Good British material like the great tore of Snettisham, symbol of the Iron Age, often gets overlooked.' Other examples of such material highlighted here include two very different, remarkable discoveries made in 2000, the exquisite Iron Age jewellery known as the Winchester Gold, and a 550,000 year-old hand-axe, the earliest known artefact made by a human ever to be found in Britain.

The coming to light of increasing numbers of treasures like these has been aided by the Portable Antiquities Scheme, founded in 1996. This unique voluntary scheme, linked to local museums and archaeological services, encourages metal detectorists to report their finds, and has helped to bridge the gap between detectorists and archaeologists by stressing the importance of context and provenance. 'No other country in the world has a similar system for record-ing chance discoveries', says Richard Hobbs.

Today a staggering 90 per cent of treasure finds reported in England and Wales are made by members of the public. The figure reflects the growth of metal detecting as a hobby, the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and the modified Treasure Act, which replaced the medieval law of Treasure Trove in 1996. Treasure Trove defined Treasure as objects of gold or silver concealed with the intention of being recovered. Under Otis definition there was no incentive to report finds, leading to many being melted down in the past, or simply kept or sold by those who found them.

Under Treasure Trove, objects deliberately buried as offerings, or in graves etc. were not protected. Things made of non-precious materials that were buried with gold or silver treasure were not considered as an important part of the same find: a pot containing Roman coins, say, could be separated from the obviously 'valuable' contents and disposed of. The new law keeps finds together as they were originally laid in the ground.

All this is detailed in the exhibition, which questions broader definitions of 'treasure' and value judgements about the discoveries being made. Those who revere any material clues as a means of understanding the past may be surprised to realise that prior to the 1996 Treasure Act, almost all the medieval finds featured in the exhibition, apart from coins, would not have counted as treasure at a all and could easily have disappeared without trace.

Medieval finger rings are a case in point. About a hundred of these were declared under the terms of the Treasure Act between its implementation in 1997 and 2001. 'It does seem that the well-heeled were very careless in the Middle Ages, judging by the numbers of gold and silver rings that were lost', says James Robinson, Curator of Medieval Collections. …