The Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme in England and Wales
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McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, University of Cambridge
Publication date: 2017-12-31
Wiadomości Archeologiczne 2017;LXVIII(68):3-11
This article describes the solution adopted in England and Wales to the universal problem of how to deal with objects of archaeological, historical or cultural importance found by members of the public. In most countries there is a legal requirement to report all objects of archaeological importance and normally the state claims ownership of them; there are mechanisms for paying rewards to the finders (although these usually fall short of the full market value) and there is usually protection for archaeological sites and controls over the use of metal detectors. England and Wales have adopted a different approach to this problem, in the Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme. Until 1996 England and Wales very unusually had no legislation governing portable antiquities. The old feudal right to Treasure Trove (under which the king claimed all finds of gold or silver that had been deliberately buried in the ground) had been adapted as an antiquities law in 1886 when the Government started paying finders rewards for finds of Treasure Trove that museums wished to acquire, but this was just an administrative act and no law setting out a sensible definition of Treasure Trove was ever passed. The UK Parliament finally passed the Treasure Act in 1996 (it came into effect the following year) and this provided a significant, but incremental change (R. F. Bland 1996; 2008). The Act came into effect in 1997 and applies only to objects found since September 1997. It has effect in England, Wales and Northern Ireland but not Scotland which has a completely separate legal framework governing finds: in Scotland there is, in effect, a legal requirement to report all finds. Under the Treasure Act the following finds are Treasure, provided they were found after 24 September 1997: a) objects other than coins at least 300 years old with a minimum precious metal content of 10%; b) all groups of coins from the same find at least 300 years old (if the coins have a precious metal content of less than 10% then the hoard must consist of at least 10 coins), and c) objects found in association with Treasure. Objects belonging to their original owner or his heirs are excluded, as are unworked natural objects (such as fossils) and wreck. The Act also contained a provision that allows for regular reviews, following which the definition can be extended. The first review in 2003 led to adding hoards of prehistoric base-metal objects to the categories of Treasure. A second review is now overdue. Any object that a museum wishes to acquire is valued by a committee of independent experts, the Treasure Valuation Committee, and their remit is to determine the full market value of the object in question. The impact of the Act has been dramatic: before 1997, an average of 26 finds a year were Treasure Trove and offered to museums to acquire; in 2016 1,121 cases were reported as Treasure, 95% of these found by amateur metal detector users. Treasure finds are only part of the picture: the great majority of archaeological objects found do not qualify as Treasure, but the information they provide can be just as important for our understanding of the past. The Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) was established in parallel with the Treasure Act to encourage amateur finders to report – voluntarily – all the coins and other archaeological objects that they find. This works through a network of locally-based 38 Finds Liaison Officers, who between them cover the whole of England and Wales. They have to cope with all types of archaeological finds and so are supported by five specialists, National Finds Advisers. All the finds are recorded onto an online database ( which is now the largest resource of its kind in the world, with details of over 1.3 million objects reported by over 14,000 metal detector users and others. These finds are returned to their finders after recording.
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