You may have heard something over the last few days about the discovery of a hoard of Viking treasure in northern England. It has been reported in most major news outlets, and the treasure has recently gone on display in the British Museum. More than 600 coins and 65 other silver and gold objects were found, including items acquired via trade or plunder from Scandinavia, Russia, Afghanistan, and France, among others. The hoard was discovered by a father and son who were prospecting with metal detectors. This news is a good example of the positives and negatives about Britain’s treasure trove law.
Without going into too much detail, the treasure trove law (as modified by the Treasure Act of 1996) determines the destination of objects that are found and for which no owner can be determined. Under British common law, if ownerless objects are merely lost (like change falling out of your pocket), they belong to the finder. If they are deliberately stashed (like the hoard in question), then they belong to the crown. The Treasure Act modifies this basic principle to ensure the finder receives just recompense even if title is not awarded. The effect is that if you find a valuable object or objects, you have to report them to a government official. If they are determined to fall under the category of treasure trove, the finder must offer them for sale to a museum, at a price set by a board of antiquities experts. Only if no buyer can be found can the objects be kept by the finder. Under British law the owner of property on which antiquities are found is considered the ‘finder’ in question, unless treasure seekers have come to an agreement with the owner to split the proceeds.
What are the advantages of the law? It provides an incentive for treasure seekers to report their finds and helps ensure that antiquities end up in the hands of public caretakers, who are presumably the most qualified to conserve and display the objects, so that all can benefit.
On the other hand, it also means that treasure seekers have an easy and legitimate avenue for realizing profit from their activities. While this is clearly preferable to illicit excavations of the kind I have reported on in the past, the fact remains that the two gentlemen who dug up the hoard were not archaeologists, and there was no controlled excavation. Depending on the nature of the find, invaluable archaelogical context may have been destroyed. In addition, one can expect the publicity of this find to encourage even more treasure seekers to go digging around the countryside, at unknown cost to archaeology.
Crossposted from Bad Archaeology