Naturenet: Treasure



Flint arrowheadeople have been living in the UK for several hundred thousand years and have cultivated land here for more than five thousand years. An enormous quantity of tools and other artefacts must have been discarded or lost during this period and it is thus hardly surprising that large quantities can still be found within the soil both in the countryside and within built-up areas.

Study of this material, which includes worked flint tools, pottery, coins and ornamental metal work, tells us how people lived and who was doing what when and where. It is a valuable educational resource which can lead us to a better understanding of our past. Such material is frequently observed in the ground by farmers, builders or gardeners during their work. If more than two or three items are found together, this might indicate a "site" and it is better that the archaeologists should be called out to examine the place before the objects are removed from the ground. Items found can of course be valuable, and there are laws concerning the discovery of such items, which can sometimes be defined as 'treasure'.

Metal Detectors

Metal detectingThe increased popularity of metal detectors in recent years has resulted in large quantities of ancient coin and metal work being found and reported. This in turn has led to a much better understanding of the history of sites where these finds are made. Although such finds very rarely fall within the definition of "treasure", archaeologists are anxious to examine and record all such finds. If you find something with a metal detector, you should take it to a local archaeologist for identification. In some cases it may be necessary for items to be sent to a national museum or a specialist for formal identification, but this does not normally take more than a few weeks and the depositor will be issued with a receipt. Finds are normally handled in confidence and are not revealed to other detectorists.

Note: The legal information on this page only refers to the situation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland - the system in Scotland is significantly different, and an explanation can be found from Highland Council Archaeology Service.

Treasure Trove

The Treasure Act 1996 abolished the previous law of Treasure Trove. Finders must report all finds of treasure to the coroner within 14 days after the day on which they realised that the find might be treasure (for example, as a result of having it identified). The obligation to report such finds applies to everyone, including archaeologists. It is a criminal offence not to report a find of treasure. In many counties this duty is delegated by the Coroner to the County Archaeologist, Museums Service or equivalent for all purposes concerned with the Treasure Act 1996. Any find which it is thought might be classed as treasure should be reported immediately to the Coroner or, if appropriate, County Archaeologist. These can usually be found in the phone book, or any local museum which includes archaeological exhibits will usually be able to advise.

The operation of the Treasure Act is explained in detail in The Treasure Act 1996; Code of Practice (Department of National Heritage 1997), summarised below.

Summary of Code of Practice

The following finds are treasure under the Act:

  1. Objects other than coins: any object other than a coin provided that it contains at least 10 per cent of gold or silver and is at least 300 years old when found.
  2. Coins: Roman coinsall coins from the same find provided that there are at least two and they are at least 300 years old when found (but if the coins contain less than 10 per cent of gold or silver there must be at least 10 of them). An object or coin is part of the same find as another object or coin if it is found in the same place as, or had previously been left together with, the other object. Finds may have become scattered since they were originally deposited in the ground.

Only the following groups of coins of coins will normally be regarded as coming form the `same find':

Single coins found on their own are not treasure regardless of material, and groups of coins lost one by one over a period of time (for example those found on settlement sites or on fair sites) will not normally be treasure.

  1. Associated objects: any object, whatever it is made of, that is found in the same place as, or had previously been together with, another object that is treasure.
  2. Objects that would have been treasure trove: any object that would previously have been treasure trove, but does not fall within the specific categories given above. These objects have to be made substantially of gold or silver; they have to have been buried with the intention of recovery and their owner or his heirs cannot be traced.

The following types of find are not treasure:

If there is any doubt, it will be safest to report the find.

The British Museum will be informed of finds which may be treasure and will be asked whether it or other museums would be interested in acquiring all or part of the finds. If no museum wishes to acquire a find which is believed to be treasure, then the find will normally be returned to the finder.

If a museum does wish to acquire part or all of a find, then the coroner will hold an inquest to decide whether it is treasure. If the find is declared to be treasure, ownership becomes vested in the Crown. The treasure will then be taken to the British Museum where it will be valued by the Treasure Valuation Committee, which consists of independent experts. The Committee will commission a valuation from experts drawn from the trade and will also consider valuations provided by the finder or by any other interested party.

When the valuation has been agreed, the museum can acquire the treasure and the Secretary of State will pay a reward based upon the valuation ands the following considerations:

This page is based on text written by David Motkin, formerly of the Isle of Wight Council's Archaeology and Historic Environment Service; reproduced with kind permission.

More information

Council for British Archaeology
Portable Antiquities Recording Scheme: this scheme has been set up to promote and co-ordinate the recording of archaeological finds in England and Wales.
Government page on treasure.