Definition of ‘treasure’, as found by metal detectors, about to change

By Geoff Harris

The government is planning to change the official definition of treasure, in one of the biggest changes to the Treasure Act since it came into effect 25 years ago.

‘Treasure’ is the term given to archaeological objects found by the general public and the changes reflect the steady growth in the popularity of metal detecting.

As part of the changes in the new law, the official treasure definition will not be based solely on the material qualities of an artefact. Under the existing definition, objects are designated as treasure if they are found to be over 300 years old, made of gold or silver or found with artefacts made of precious metals. ‘Treasure’ also includes groups of coins and prehistoric metalwork.

Once officially identified as treasure, artefacts become the property of the Crown and are available for acquisition by local or national museums to go on public display.

As things stand, if you find an object that isn’t defined as treasure, however rare, you have no obligation to report it and can sell it on the open market.

So, for instance, the recently discovered centrepiece of Henry VIII’s crown, recently unearthed after 400 years in Northamptonshire, is clearly classed as treasure as it was made from gold, a precious metal (the artefact is believed to be worth over £2 million). However, another rare object from the same period but made of a non-precious metal, such as bronze or copper, would be exempt from the definition, and therefore could be sold off.

The government cites the example of a bronze-enamelled horse brooch from between the second and fourth century AD which resembles earlier designs of the Iron Age period. Again, it is not currently designated as treasure. Fortunately, the brooch is on display to the public at the Collection at Lincoln, rather than being sequestered in some private collection belonging to a wealthy individual or academic institution.

Credit: Lincolnshire County Council

Another example which could have been easily lost to public view was a rare Roman figurine wearing a cloak known as the Birrus Britannicus. The figurine was found near Chelmsford in 2014 but, despite being an extremely unusual example of a British character in Roman portable art, the artefact was made from copper alloy – again, not a precious metal. It’s currently on display the Chelmsford City Museum.

Credit: Chelmsford City Council

Given these loopholes, you can see why the law is being tightened up. A specialist research project, scheduled to start this year, will inform the new definition and there will be opportunities for detectorists, archaeologists, museums, academics and curators to contribute to options in development.

As a result of the public consultation, the government will also introduce new measures to improve the treasure process which include a new time limit to streamline some stages of the process, limiting the number of times the Treasure Valuation Committee can review a case and developing a mechanism to return unclaimed rewards to museums.

“The search for buried treasures by budding detectorists has become more popular than ever before and many ancient artefacts now see the light of day in museums’ collections,” said Culture Minister, Caroline Dinenage. “However it is important that we pursue plans to protect more of our precious history and make it easier for everyone to follow the treasure process.”

Finders, landowners, museums and members of the public were invited to comment on the proposals in a consultation. The government claims the changes will bring the treasure process into line with other important legislation to protect cultural heritage and collections, including the listing process for historically significant buildings and the export bar system.

The proposed changes to the law have been welcomed by Michael Lewis, Head of Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) and Treasure at the British Museum. Since the PAS was set up by the British Museum in 1997 as a way of recording archaeological objects found by the public, details over 1.5 million items have been submitted.

“We are very proud that so many important archaeological finds have been acquired by museums across England, Wales and Northern Ireland for the public to learn about and enjoy,” he said. “We very much welcome working with the Department of Culture, Media and Sport as it takes forward its work to reform treasure law to protect our shared heritage and encourage best practice amongst finders.”

According to the latest report by the PAS, 81,602 archaeological finds were recorded in 2019, an increase of over 10,000 on the previous year. There has also been an increase in garden finds and in digital recording during the first two lockdowns, when metal-detecting was prohibited or restricted.

Rare finds include two significant coin hoards, as well as a unique Roman furniture fitting with the well-preserved face of the god Oceanus and a medieval forgery of a bishop’s seal matrix.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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