Treasure Trove in Scotland

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The Treasure Trove system in Scotland operates to protect portable antiquities and ensure their preservation in perpetuity for the benefit of the nation. A broad interpretation is taken of `portable antiquities', encompassing those items of past material culture to which archaeological, historical and/or cultural importance may be attached. Objects which are `museum-worthy' might be another way of expressing this, though `worthiness' applies not just to items with obvious display potential but also to those likely to reside in study collections as reference material.

Under the Scottish Treasure Trove system, unlike that which formerly operated in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (Palmer 1993) and now continues there under the Treasure Act 1996 (Bland 1998a; 1998b; Carleton 1997), there is no discrimination between objects on the basis of raw material--artefacts of bone, antler, wood, leather, stone, flint, bronze, iron, pewter, lead or whatever, as well of course as gold and silver, are equally included. Nor is there any specific discrimination in terms of age, though in practice very few items dating from recent centuries have been claimed.

`Portable' essentially means items which are not intentionally and/or are no longer earthfast (or wallfast), and are therefore capable of transportation. Since large objects can be involved, such as prehistoric cup-and-ring marked slabs, Pictish symbol stones and Roman sculptures (e.g. the 1.5-m long and 600-kg Cramond lioness: Hunter & Collard 1997), the definition of transportation includes the use of vehicles and cranes. `Preservation in perpetuity' is achieved by allocation of Treasure Trove items to museums accredited under the Registration Scheme administered by the Scottish Museums Council. Registered museums apply recognized and accountable standards for object care and security. `National benefit' accrues from the fact that objects remain in Scotland and are housed and cared for in museums with ready public access.

Treasure Trove is enshrined in the common law of Scotland. Under the regalia minora common law rights pertaining to the Crown, it is the prerogative of the Crown to receive anything in the land which is not otherwise owned. Any specific connotation of `Treasure' as concealed items of precious metal is in practice subsumed within the concept of bona vacantia, or ownerless goods, which is the real heart of the matter. The core maxim within Scots law is Quod nullius est, fit domini Regis--that which belongs to nobody becomes our Lord the King's (or the Queen's, as appropriate). This is all-embracing--all found items from anywhere in Scotland (and from above mean low water at the coast), which are not otherwise owned and are without any demonstrable heir, fall to the Crown and remain the property of the Crown unless and until the Crown chooses to relinquish its claim to them. Not to give the Crown the opportunity of acquiring found items, by declaring them through the Treasure Trove process, constitutes a potential criminal offence, and responsibility for declaration rests with the finder.

Historically, one of the earliest Treasure Trove cases recorded concerned a group of gold and silver coins and a gold chain found in Dumfries in 1615 (Bateson 1997: 81-2), but the first clear record of a Treasure Trove donation to a museum is from 1808, when a collection of 16th-century base metal coins was passed to the museum of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland--the predecessor of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland--by the Barons of the Exchequer (Christison et al. 1890: 6). In 1837 a single official, the Queen's and Lord Treasurer's Remembrancer (Q<R), assumed responsibility for Treasure Trove. The post of this official, still ultimately responsible for all Treasure Trove decisions, continues today as part of the duties of the Crown Agent in Scotland, the senior civil servant at the Crown Office (Milne 1957: 198-9). …