Treasure finds hit record high amid plans to amend legislation - Museums Association

Treasure finds hit record high amid plans to amend legislation

Definition of treasure to be broadened to include ‘significance rather than just substance’
Treasure
Victoria Miller
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Tudor coins from the New Forest, Hampshire
Tudor coins from the New Forest, Hampshire The Trustees of the British Museum

Treasure finds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland reached record levels in 2019, according to the latest annual report for the Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS).

The report showed that the number of treasure finds was 1,311. Hampshire recorded the highest number of treasure cases, with 104 items listed, followed by Lincolnshire, with 94 items listed.

Significant finds in the report include a 3,000-year-old solid gold bracelet, weighing just over 300g, found in the coastal village of St Bees in Cumbria.

Another reported treasure find was a solid gold coin of Roman Emperor Constantine I, found in Wanstrow, Somerset. It is the fourth such gold coin to be recorded through the PAS. The rare coins are thought to have been distributed by the emperor himself while visiting the area.

The annual report coincides with the announcement of plans to redefine what constitutes “treasure” under the terms of the Treasure Act 1996.

Currently, objects are classified as treasure if they are over 300 years old, made of gold or silver, or found with artefacts made of precious metals. The government intends to broaden that definition to include items of historical significance.

In the PAS’s first virtual press conference today, culture minister Caroline Dinenage said: “It is time to review what is considered treasure and worthy of additional protection [...]

“Some of the most important discoveries aren’t made of gold and silver at all. We are proposing, for the first time, that the definition is based on significance rather than just substance.”

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Dinenage said a new definition is required so that objects of historical value are “preserved for public access”.

The news was welcomed by the PAS. Michael Lewis, head of portable antiquities and treasure at the British Museum, which works in partnership with the PAS, said that “a way should be found to try and capture the most important archaeological findings no matter what their material composition is”.

He referenced stone and lead objects, which are “really important to the nation’s history and there should be a mechanism to ensure that they end up in museums”.

In addition to treasure finds, the number of archaeological finds rose by almost 20%, from 69,687 finds in 2018 to 81,602 finds in 2019. Metal detectorists were responsible for 90% of these finds.

Objects include a copper-alloy dodecahedron dating back to Roman Britain. The twelve pentagonal faced object was found in Hertfordshire and is the best-preserved example of this type of object. Its use is unclear but it may have been a measuring device or luxury household object.

A lead alloy seal shown from different angles
Lead alloy seal matrix of Bishop of St Andrews, David de Bernham, found at Dursley, Gloucestershire Courtesy of the British Museum's Portable Antiquities Scheme

All discoveries are added to the PAS database which, to date, now holds 1,514,990 objects. The PAS celebrated its 1,500,000th object listed in July of this year.

The PAS also reported on estimated figures for the number of archaeological findings for this year. Lewis said he believes that the scheme will record around 60,000 finds for year-end 2020.

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He attributed the lower number to the disruption that lockdown has had on metal detecting and the difficulties posed in people handing over their findings to Finding Liaison Officers (FLO).

While expecting lower numbers, the PAS did report an increase in the number of finds being discovered by people gardening, such as a rare collection of 63 gold Tudor coins. The last time such a discovery was made was more than 10 years ago.

The PAS, which is overseen by the British Museum, works in partnership with a network of national and local museums to promote archaeological understanding.

Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, thanked its network of museums, volunteers and FLOs, and the public, for the ongoing help and assistance this year.

He said their work “is a vital part of the British Museum’s national activities aiming to reach out to people across the country, protect culture and heritage and disseminate knowledge about the past”.

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