Debate on the Portable Antiquities Scheme (UPDATE)

The domestic legal and policy framework for portable antiquities in England and Wales is unique, and differs from the typical approach. Three things set it apart from most other nations of origin. First is the limited state ownership of undiscovered antiquities, the second compensation to finders of the full price of their finds if the find is acquired legally, and perhaps most importantly is the legalization of indiscriminate digging in many areas.

Metal detecting is legal in the UK, and is only prohibited in specially designated areas, known as scheduled ancient monuments.

Only limited classes of objects become the property of the crown when they are discovered. This includes objects composed of at least 10% gold or silver, multiple ancient coins, and prehistoric base-metals, which are objects such as bronze. Pottery and carved objects become the property of the finder.

All other objects become the property of the finder, and in some cases landowners and finders share the value of finds. Finders of objects encompassed under the Treasure Act are entitled to the full market value of the find, as estimated by an evaluation committee.

The PAS is a voluntary scheme which fills the gaps left by the treasure act. There exists some confusion about the scheme, as a lot of commentators incorrectly talk about the scheme as shorthand for compensating finders of antiquities. Such a measure already exists outwith the PAS. However, the PAS is a voluntary network, organized by a national network of finds liaison officers. They speak with metal detecting groups about good practice, conduct community outreach programs, and most importantly record finds. They are often based in local museums or archaeology departments. In some cases, museums approach finders and purchase these objects.

One of the most positive impacts of the scheme is its database, an impressive accumulation of information, with over 300,000 objects recorded.

The scheme has led to a dramatic increase in the number of objects being reported, and a dramatic increase in objects which finders have always been legally-required to disclaim.

This begs the question: should the approach of England and Wales to Antiquities be adapted to other nations? I think the national network of FLO’s has been tremendously successful, and setting aside the issues of cost and implementation, would ideally be implemented everywhere. In England and Wales, nearly 90% of finds take place on cultivated land, where industrial farming practices and chemicals can potentially damage objects near the surface.

The question of whether the limited state ownership of undiscovered antiquities, the compensation to finders of the full price of their finds, and the legalization of indiscriminate digging can be adapted to other nations remains in some doubt. It should be noted that the legal prohibitions on antiquities digging in England and Wales are far more lenient than in nearly every other nation. The policy sacrifices archaeological context without question.

If we compare Scotland, which has an ownership interest in all undiscovered antiquities with England and Wales the data would seem to lend support to the notion that declaring an ownership interest of only limited classes of objects, and only prohibiting digging in limited areas has produced better results. Between 1998 and 2004, Scotland reported an average of just over 300 finds. During the same period, an average of just over 300 objects which qualify as treasure were recorded, but there was an average of nearly 40,000 finds reported by the portable antiquities scheme per year.

The scheme resulted in a dramatic increase in the reporting of treasure. A small portion of this increase may be explained by the widening of scope of the treasure act. However, I think we can draw two conclusions from the scheme:

First, if individuals are compensated for finding antiquities they will look for them, and find them, in some cases this damages the archaeological context of course.

Second, as the specter of increased criminal investigation of the antiquities trade and seems increasingly likely, with massive investigations coming to light in recent days in both Italy and here in California I think certainly the trade itself will have to find ways to justify its continued existence. Should the antiquities trade continue to exist in some form, the approach in England and Wales would seem to offer an interesting, and inarguably a successful model.

It should be noted that legally sanctioning digging, or funding digging would be politically unpopular in many nations with a strong cultural identity, such as Italy. I think cultural policy makers should approach any strategy which might incentivize digging with great caution.

There’s a couple of interesting items on the Portable Antiquities Scheme blog, and I’d like to boost the signal a bit and post them here. First is a video of Peter Twinn, a metal detectorist and archaeology student at Bristol Universtiy, who was interviewed in a brief piece on the BBC.

In addition, this afternoon at 4.30 GMT, there will be a half-hour debate in Westminster Hall on “The Future of the Portable Antiquities Scheme”, and you can watch it live here on Parliament TV. I’ll be watching, and I’ll comment here later on today.


Essentially the debate was a bit of a letdown. It’s available here. It extolled the virtues of the scheme, but amounted to an argument about whether freezing the funding amounted to a de facto decrease in funding its operations.

I was struck again at how universally popular the scheme appears to be (though funding does not appear to share a correlation with popularity). There were no criticisms that it was perhaps incentivizing the looting of sites, but rather that it was as the Culture Minister Margaret Hodge claimed open to everyone from a secondary school student to doctoral dissertations. That seems the be the tremendous benefit of the scheme. I wonder if such a debate were held in Italy, or Iraq, or another source nation if there would be a similar kind of support for the program, or if its popularity may be a peculiar combination of cultural pride coupled with how and where objects are found in the countryside in most of England and Wales. I’ll confess I haven’t made my mind up on that question.

Questions or Comments? Email me at

4 thoughts on “Debate on the Portable Antiquities Scheme (UPDATE)”

  1. Dear Derek – I find myself agreeing with many of your points, though I disagree with the suggestion that this system may not be able to be replicated elsewhere, particularly in wealthy EU member countries like Italy, Greece and Cyprus.

    In that regard, I suspect you may be wrongly assuming that a similar program would be “politically unpopular” in such countries. Such an assumption is based on another assumption that the views of the cultural bureaucracies in these countries and their allies in the archaeological establishment are identical to the views of the general public.

    In any event, if the goal is being fair to members of the public interested in the past and recording and preserving as much material as possible from the ravages of building projects and damage brought on by the widespread use of agricultural chemicals, then adopting a system similar to the PAS and Treasure Act is a “no brainer.” Those who suggest that such a system encourages the destruction of context wrongly assume there are enough archaeologists around to investigate everything and enough museum storage available to preserve all such items found in the ground. This simply is not the case.

    Isn’t it a “win-win” situation to allow the public to in effect act as “scouts” for the archaeological community by providing information that can be used to ascertain if there is a site worthy of archaeological investigation? Isn’t the goal of preserving artifacts better served by encouraging state authorities to only retain what artifacts they can reasonably be expected to preserve, display and study?

    If so, how about making adoption of such a scheme as that in the UK a quid pro quo before the US enforces foreign cultural patrimony laws domestically? As it is, one cannot assume that such laws were drafted with fairness in mind and/or were passed by duly constituted legislatures. Foreign states need to be “incentivised” to do the right thing.


    Peter Tompa

  2. I would like to make two points, one in response to Derek’s article, and the other to Peter Tompa’s comment.

    1. You are right to say that the PAS has broad support. But that does not mean everyone is comfortable with the direction it is leading. In his article defending the PAS, Colin Renfrew hints at the unease many archaeologists feel about sanctioning unsystematic treasure hunting. This is no criticism of the PAS staff, who have indeed built an excellent and important resource. But there are still lots of questions that remain unanswered. Specifically is the idea that you should sanction treasure hunting for personal gain, even if the results are sometimes reported (about a third of the time is the generally accepted figure). Treasure hunting is un archaeological. It encourages an artefact-centric view, where the only things worth investigating are metal – a false, and extremely retrogressive approach.

    Now these scraps of information provided by treasure hunters are useful. I have used them in my own research. But unsystematic treasure hunting also distorts the archaeological record so that future surface artefact surveys are severely limited.

    2. To address the issue of whether this should be introduced in other countries. On one hand we might get a bit more reporting of finds from petty looters, but changes to the strict antiquities laws in, say, Italy, could give a carte blanche for the bigtime looters. It would also take away the concept that looting is socially unacceptable (and making looting socially acceptable is another unfortunate consequence of the PAS).

    I am all for metal detectorists working on well organised, pre-defined archaeological projects which have a high standard of reporting. But finding out about the past is not what most treasure hunters are interested in. They are interested in the thrill of finding treasure. Just the same as most villager petty looters in Mediterranean countries.

    If I understand both Derek and Peter correctly, you seem to be saying that looting can only be defined legally, not morally.


  3. These are both some very interesting comments. As t to legality v. morality, ideally every legal system would unite the two, but that is not always the case. I think that other nations may want to consider a similar cultural policy, but it would have to be carefully structured in a way that precludes looting on a large, commercial scale, prohibits it on certain protected monuments, etc.

    Certainly, we don’t want Italian diggers to have a field day on the Palatine hill in Rome for example. However, farmers find other objects, and I see benefits in allowing so-called amateur treasure hunting in these areas which were never going to see a professional excavation. The difficulty is effectively differentiating the two.

    To make a truly informed decision, there are a lot of facts about finds and looting which we don’t know, and are unknowable. What portion of new antiquities are found, and what are looted? You mention 30%, and that may be a good starting point, but we just don’t have an answer.

    What I found most striking, is the views of archaeologists who have legitimate questions about the operation of the scheme have been absent from the discussions regarding the funding of the scheme.

    Perhaps the thought is that the scheme would adopt a more archaeology-centered approach when its folds under the umbrella of the British Museum?

  4. “precludes looting on a large, commercial scale”

    But when you add it up, all looting is on a large scale. The bands of looters in the south of Iraq, for instance, are just a cog in a much larger scheme, which in the end will entirely destroy archaeological sites in that region. You could say the same about metal detectorists in England.

    And it is not just about digging. You say treasure hunters cover “areas which were never going to see a professional excavation.” But more and more archaeological field work involves surface artefact surveys, not site excavations. Can we really expect that metal detectorists are going to retrieve, record and report all archaeological traces? Hardly!

    You’re right – it is difficult to draw the line between the “farmer” who finds a few artefacts on his land, the “treasure hunter” who looks for the stuff as a hobby, and the “looter” who looks for stuff as a business. Total prohibition will not work, but further decriminalisation will make the current situation worse. What ought to happen is a campaign to make treasure hunting socially unacceptable, in coordination with a more progressive rethink of the Treasure Act.

    I do think that the enthusiasm and expertise of metal detectorists could be a major asset to archaeology. But if metal detectorists are genuinely interested in investigating the past, they have a duty of care to ensure that they carry out the same standards of project planning, completion and reporting that archaeologists do. So in Britain, I see tighter regulation, perhaps in the form of licences or permits, as the way forward.

    W. Anderson

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