Buried Treasure at the British Museum: A View from Abroad

By Price, Neil | Antiquity, June 2004 | Go to article overview

Buried Treasure at the British Museum: A View from Abroad


Price, Neil, Antiquity


Treasure seems to be a popular subject in Britain at the moment. The BBC was first out with the television series Hidden Treasure, controversially focussing on the monetary value of archaeological finds, to the predictable and appropriate dismay of archaeologists. The programme is supported by an accompanying book (Faulkner 2003) and website (www.bbc.co.uk/history/archaeology/treasure) that fortunately both take a more balanced view. A professional offering on the same subject appeared almost simultaneously, in the shape of a conference at the British Museum and what the same institution has described as the first major exhibition of national archaeology for fifteen years.

Its predecessor, Archaeology in Britain Since 1945, was a relatively traditional affair--though none the worse for that- efficiently presenting the latest discoveries in familiar chronological sequence around the country (Longworth & Cherry 1989). Buried Treasure opened in November last year with a very different approach, and must be almost unique among flagship exhibitions at national museums in that it is based around the presentation of government heritage management policy.

The background to the exhibition lies partly in the 1996 Treasure Act, a long-overdue attempt to reform the existing laws of so-called Treasure Trove. This amalgam of somewhat arcane regulations, with roots in medieval times and the evolving Common Law, previously governed the fate of gold and silver objects discovered by members of the general public and archaeologists alike. The Act has now broadened the list of finds categories that must be reported to the authorities, and embraces groups of prehistoric base-metal objects, anything more than 300 years old containing at least 10 per cent gold or silver, and any artefacts found in association with the above. Special regulations have been produced for numismatic finds, which come under the Act when two or more coins of gold or silver, or at least 10 of base metal, are found together (the latter context is further defined as relating to hoards, small groups of coins--from a purse, for example--and votive or ritual deposits). Finds from the same place, though discovered at different times, are also considered to have an "association" under the terms of the Act.

The sheer quantity of finds made by the public should not be underestimated, and for non-British readers may require some explanation. In England and Wales, anyone may use a metal detector to search for archaeological artefacts provided that the site is not a scheduled ancient monument, and provided that they have obtained the landowner's permission. The gist of the problem was that while 'Treasure', as defined in the terms of the Act, would have to be reported by law, all other chance discoveries carried no such obligation. In other words, the countless thousands of" Roman and later finds (and individual discoveries of prehistoric base-metal objects) made each year by detectorists and others were going largely unrecorded. The government initiative taken to address this problem forms the second focus of the exhibition.

The Portable Antiquities Scheme began operating in parts of England in 1997, funded in a series of pilot projects through the state lottery. It has been slowly spreading throughout the regions of England and Wales since that time. Set up to "to promote recording of archaeological objects found by the public and to broaden awareness of these finds for understanding our past" (Resource 2003), the Scheme is essentially a voluntary system to catch at least some of the artefacts missed by the Treasure Act, in a manner that is intended to include, rather than exclude, their finders. Finds are brought in to regional Finds Liaison Officers, recorded and photographed, and then returned to the finders. In some cases, local museums may begin negotiations to buy them. A national database of the resulting artefact catalogues has been set up, and can be accessed on the Scheme's excellent website at www. …

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