Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Portable Antiquities Conference Report

Rick Witschonke, a well-known collector of Roman Republican coinage, has reported on a British Museum program about how different European countries deal with portable antiquities. The conference was publicized on this blog previously here:

Here is Rick's report in its entirety:

On Monday, 7 September, I attended a one-day Conference at the British Museum entitled: "Recording the Past: How Different European Countries Deal With Portable Antiquities". The Conference consisted of lectures by representatives of ten (largely Northern) European countries on their government's legal and administrative approach to recently discovered portable antiquities. France, Spain and Italy were invited to speak, but did not. There was time for some Q&A after the talks, and an opportunity for mingling during breaks and lunch. No proceedings will be published, but the presentors' PPTs are to be made available on In addition to archeologists and interested members of the public, the UK metal-detecting establishment was well represented and quite supportive. The anti-detecting/collecting lobby did not seem to be present. Overall, the Conference was very informative, and the contrasts in approach and effectiveness quite telling.

After a welcome by Andrew Burnett (BM Deputy Director), Roger Bland, head of PAS, led off with an excellent summary of the progress of PAS in England and Wales since the 1996 Treasure Act. Bland estimates that there are 9-10,000 detectorists, and that they account for 92% of Treasure finds, and 81% of the non-Treasure objects recorded on the PAS database (which recently recorded its 400,000th object, and has become an important scholarly resource). And of the detectorist finds, 90% are from cultivated land, meaning that their stratigraphy has already been disturbed, and that they are vulnerable to further deterioration or loss if not recovered. Reported Treasure finds have increased from c. 25/year during the 1989-1997 period to over 800/year in 2008. In contrast, Scotland, which has a different scheme, has seen no increase over the same period. Bland conceded that there were still problems. Although the recent Nighthawking Survey showed a reduction in illegal metal-detecting, suspicious items still show up on eBay, and eBay UK has refused to require revelation of findspot, unlike eBay Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Another problem is the long delay between the reporting of possible Treasure and the payment of a reward (sometimes as long as a year). This is to be addressed by legislation before Parliament which would allow objects to go directly to the FLOs, and appoint a single national coroner for Treasure. Clearly, the keys to the success of the TA/PAS system are the credible market-value reward system, and the outreach program by the 37 regional FLOs.

Alan Saville (Nat. Museum of Scotland) described the Scottish Treasure Trove system. Reported finds are either "claimed" by a museum, or returned to the finder/landowner. If claimed, a panel decides on the amount of the reward and its allocation, but how this is done is unclear. And the entire program has a staff of only two, so there is little outreach, and the number of reported finds is declining.

Cormac Bourke (Ulster Museum) explained the Northern Ireland approach. There is no state ownership of finds, but, by law, all excavators must be licensed, all finds reported, and metal detecting is illegal. Not surprisingly, illegal metal-detecting is prevalent, and only c. 2 finds per year are reported.

Eamonn Kelly (Nat. Museum, Dublin) reported on the situation in the Republic of Ireland. In Ireland, archeological finds are state-owned, excavators must be licensed, finds must be reported, and it is illegal to metal-detect, or own or trade in unreported antiquities. Rewards are paid, but are discretionary (the largest ever paid was e300,000). Kelly claims that illegal detecting is not a real problem (both because the Irish are law-abiding, and because there are few Roman coins to be found), but the presence of Irish material on eBay calls this into question.

Johan Nicolay (Univ. of Groningen) reported on the situation in the Netherlands. Finds are not claimed by the Government, but must be reported. There are 5,000 metal-detectorists and 100,000 finds/year. These are currently reported on three separate data bases, but these are to be combined. Unreported finds are still a significant problem, and an outreach program is contemplated.

Martin Segschneider (Archaeologisches Landesamt) covered the approach in Schleswig-Holstein (in Germany, each of the 16 States has its own antiquities laws). Here, objects must be reported, and may be claimed as Treasure Trove, in which case a reward is given, but this occurred in only 2 cases last year. Metal-detecting is legal with a permit, which requires a five-day certification course, and is limited to a specific search area. These finders do not receive rewards, but are acknowledged upon publication. It is estimated that there are 1,000 illegal searchers.

Mogens Bo Henriksen (Odense Museum, Denmark) explained that metal detecting is legal, but finds must be reported. There is a detectorist outreach program under the auspices of the Association of Danish Amateur Archeologists. "Danefae" (Treasure) can be claimed by the government.

Andrej Gaspari (Slovenian Military Museum) explained that objects are claimed by the state, but a new law provides a one-year amnesty for the reporting of existing collections, and rewards for retained objects. It is not clear what the impact on looting has been.

Gabor Lassanyi (Aquincum Museum, Budapest) stated that, in Hungary, there are 50,000 archeological sites, all finds must be reported and are the property of the state, and metal-detecting is illegal. There has been a substantial increase in detecting starting in the late 1990s.

Aleksander Bursche and Marcin Rudniki (Arch. Institute, Univ. of Warsaw) covered the situation in Poland. Finds are state property, metal-detecting is illegal, and rewards are not guaranteed. There is a large illicit trade, and only one successful prosecution last year. However, some archeologists and detectorists are cooperating, and there is a private website where some finds are recorded.

Clearly, if the proper recording of finds is the objective, those systems which most closely follow the TA/PAS approach of credible market-value rewards and outreach are the most successful.

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