Rebecca Reynolds
English Russian
English Russian

The interview: Rebecca Reynolds, Phd in archaeology from the University of Nottingham and Barrister


Rebecca Reynolds holds a PhD in archaeology from the University of Nottingham. Following this she was called to the Bar of England and Wales in 2016 and is interested in combining her archaeological background into her legal practice to explore and ensure continued and improved protection of cultural heritage. She currently works as a freelance zooarchaeologist and cultural heritage consultant. In the interview she talks about efficiency of the Treasure Act 1996 and protection of archaeological heritage in the UK.

Treasure Act 1996
Treasure Act 1996

— Is “leisure archaeology” a threat to archaeology resulting in the destruction of cultural strata or a benefit resulting in new archaeological finds?

— This is a perennial problem that troubles most archaeologists working in England. The implementation of the Treasure Act 1996 changed the previous common law of treasure trove in which only objects composed primarily (roughly 50% or more) of gold or silver that had been deliberately buried with the intention of being found again could be declared treasure. This meant many items such as grave goods were not found to be treasure and therefore were returned to the finder and they could do what they wished with it. The Treasure Act widened the definition of treasure to include not just silver and gold artefacts but also other types of object when found as part of a hoard and since 2003 by order of the Secretary of State from a recommendation any object deemed important enough to ensure it remains available to the public. However, the main tenet of the Treasure Act remains that only objects made of precious metal can be treasure and are therefore property of the Crown. The potential of a reward when an object is declared as treasure cannot be discounted as one of the reasons for the large numbers of reported finds. While this can put a strain on museums to constantly find the funds to purchase these objects it is hoped that it serves as a deterrent to nighthawks and other looting of archaeological sites.

Since the introduction of the Treasure Act and the subsequent setting up of the Portable Antiquities Scheme which encourages the recording of all archaeological finds through a nationwide network of Finds Liaison Officers, regardless of their material, the number of artefacts being recorded and declared as treasure every year has far exceeded the estimates prior to the legislation coming into force. In its first year 201 finds were declared as treasure after reporting, in 2015 this number was 1040. Additionally, the PAS holds over a million records on its online database of recorded finds. Over 300 projects including PhD and large research projects make use of the PAS database and many an archaeological site has been discovered and/or excavated as a result of metal detected finds.

Portable Antiquities Scheme
Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS)

This increase in reported finds suggests that

communication and education play a big role in helping the general public and most detectorists understand the importance of detailed recording and proper excavation techniques in order to avoid the total destruction of context information.

The two main metal detecting societies – the National Council for Metal Detecting and the Federation of Independent Detectorists – have Codes of Conduct, though these do not necessarily have a strong archaeological focus. However, in 2006 a Code of Practice on Responsible Metal Detecting was endorsed by the main archaeological bodies and this emphasises the importance of recording the find spot in the field as well as recording and reporting all archaeological finds. Such recording practice is made all the more easy with modern technology (digital cameras, handheld GPS, many of the FLOs have a mobile phone listed on the PAS website). Some of the most important recent treasure finds were reported immediately such as the Staffordshire Hoard. However, there is no obligation for a metal detectorist to be a member of either of these societies and so there is no concrete method of regulating their activity and behaviour.

Metal detecting is a skill that takes many years to master successfully and their skill can be hugely beneficial to archaeologists. Metal detecting can be a useful survey tool alongside field walking. Both of these methods are most useful on fields that are regularly ploughed and if done regularly can avoid further damage being done to these buried artefacts. It is more efficient to ask an experienced detectorist to assist in surveying an area of land with archaeological assistance, this also benefits the detectorist in learning about the importance of correct archaeological methods and practice. Furthermore, it is important to bear in mind that most finds found with a metal detector come from ploughed fields and are already lying close to the surface, these artefacts have already been removed from their true archaeological context. The recording of the findspot enables archaeologists to investigate the surrounding area in case more lies beneath the surface and thus helps identify unknown sites susceptible to further ploughing damage.

— How does the UK archaeological society look at the UK legislation in the protection of archaeological heritage in comparison to that accepted in other countries?

— The Treasure Act is not a perfect piece of legislation and it does still limit the scope of objects that need to be reported, however, it has greatly improved the situation that existed prior to its enactment. Many still wish that there existed an obligation for all archaeological objects found to be reported and they then automatically belonged to the state. This would mean such a substantive change in the law of property in England and Wales that this is unlikely. Furthermore, most FLOs are currently unable to record all finds brought to them due to time and funding constraints. Imposing an obligation to record all finds would require a much bigger increase in funding for the PAS, many areas are struggling to keep what existing funding they have. In the current economic climate of England and Wales this is unlikely to change in the immediate future. Such a change would also require a wholesale change in the attitude and perception of archaeological heritage and steps to achieve this can only be made by working with the current situation and increasing the public’s knowledge and understanding of the archaeological past and the need to protect it.

Had metal detecting been licenced or regulated when it became popular in the 1970s, then enforcing a requirement to report all finds would be easier to put in place and make more acceptable now.

— The Treasure Act is relevant for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. What legislation exists in Scotland?

— In Scotland all archaeological finds must be declared as once found they become property of the Crown. Regardless of the material, composition or age (unless Victorian or younger) all archaeological finds may be declared Treasure Trove if they are deemed to be of cultural significance to Scotland’s past. The system of Treasure Trove in Scotland is based on Scots common law, the principle of bona vacantia or ownerless goods. This is different to the common law of treasure trove that existed in England before the introduction of the Treasure Act (1996).

Archaeological finds must be reported to the Treasure Trove Unit in Edinburgh with pictures and details of where the object was found, preferably with GPS coordinates. The object should then be deposited with the local museum or local authority archaeologist who will send the object to the Treasure Trove Unit. If the object is determined to be Treasure then the most appropriate museum will be contacted in order to acquire the find at a price based on current market value. The finder is paid their finder’s fee after the museum has paid it to the Crown Office and the object is transferred from the National Museum of Scotland to the museum that has acquired the find. In this respect, the process of Treasure Trove in Scotland is very similar to the process of declaring treasure in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Many finders are encouraged to waiver their finder’s fee which saves the museum needing to raise the funds.

Many archaeologists in England wish that a similar system to that of Scotland were to replace the current Treasure Act as this would allow for all manner of finds to be declared as treasure, even those that are not made of precious metal. However, the concern with this would be the administration involved, the areas of archaeological potential are much smaller in Scotland than they are in England, Wales and Northern Ireland as a whole and the current economic climate means many small archaeological museums and much of the organisation of the Portable Antiquities Scheme are focussing on securing what funding they have available rather than demanding more.

Treasure Trove Unit
Treasure Trove Unit

— What other measures, besides legislative, exist in the UK to protect archaeological heritage?

— The main method of protecting archaeological heritage is legislative and guidance to these pieces of legislation. Other ways of ensuring protection of archaeological heritage is through raising awareness of its importance. This can be done through education and public outreach programmes. The PAS encourages finders and detectorists to bring all artefacts found, metal or not, to the FLO to be recorded and many of these can then be sold or transferred to the local museum where the object was found. the Council of British Archaeology, through its membership helps raise awareness of archaeology and encourages people to be advocates for heritage. It also runs the Festival of Archaeology in which museums, universities, local societies, heritage organisations and community archaeologists organise events and open up archaeological excavations to the public to encourage education.

Council for British Archaeology
Council for British Archaeology

The Historic England assessed the various types of heritage crime that take place in England and from this have sought to establish how to tackle it through the Historic England Heritage Protection Plan. One way is working with local police forces to reduce heritage crime. Part of the exercise is to reduce the perception that heritage crime is low-risk and that nobody cares, especially the police and the state. The British Museum and Metropolitan Police Service check eBay for unreported items of potential Treasure or objects of archaeological origin with no clear or definitive provenance. Of course, all they can do is monitor eBay and request further provenance information from the seller, they cannot oblige the seller to remove the listing or declare it.

Historic England
Historic England

— How effective is the UK legislation in the protection of archaeological heritage in practice?

— Under the Treasure Act failure to report finds can incur a period of imprisonment not exceeding 51 weeks and/or a maximum fine of £5000. To date, there has only been one conviction for failure to hand over an archaeological object to the coroner. This conviction has divided specialists, with some hailing it as a landmark showing the success of the Treasure Act and that the police and the coroners’ service are taking heritage crime seriously. On the other hand, the public was less convinced and much of the media, including various metal detecting magazines, portrayed the defendant as being a victim of a trivial and unnecessary police investigation and believed it to be a waste of police resources. Many went so far as to say that they would prefer not to bring objects to the attention of FLOs and then the coroner, for fear of prosecution.

Nighthawking, the term used to describe people who use a metal detector illegally (i.e. without permission from the landowner), and do not report their finds to a FLO or coroner if it could be treasure, remains a problem. A report commissioned in 2006 by English Heritage (published in 2009) identified that between 1995 and 2008, 240 sites were affected by nighthawking. The previous survey, conducted in 1995, the year before the Treasure Act came into force, show that the more recent figures indicate a decrease in nighthawking. The risk of prosecution under the Treasure Act may be deterring nighthawking, but it is also equally likely that the education around archaeological finds and contexts as well as the various outreach initiatives and the PAS have helped reduce the degree of nighthawking activity. Nevertheless, nighthawking remains a problem in some parts of the country. This may be because there are very few instances of prosecution because they are difficult to catch and this propagates the belief that this is a low-risk crime. The monitoring of eBay by the Portable Antiquities Scheme has revealed many metal-detected finds with little or no provenance, this is not conclusive evidence that they are the result of nighthawking but it does raise suspicion.

While there has only been one incident of conviction under the Treasure Act, other aspects of heritage crime are a serious problem in the UK. Thousands of incidents of heritage crime are reported every year, these range from the theft of lead from church rooves to graffiti on scheduled monuments and protected sites. In January 2018 the storage facilities of the Canterbury Archaeological Trust were burgled. Among the items taken were a large number of Anglo-Saxon glass beads and various replicas for teaching. Luckily, the majority of what was taken was found again but this incident highlights the misconception that all portable archaeological finds are valuable and can be sold at a high price. The most effective long term solution to tackling heritage crime and ensuring the continued protection of archaeological sites is through education and reducing the belief that all archaeological finds, both metal and non-metal have a high market value.


Recommended

Protection of archaeological heritage in Russia

Kovalev, Alexey Anatolyevich – research associate of the Russian Academy of Science, the Institute of Archaeology, Russian Academy of Science, member of the St. Petersburg Legislative Assembly, the vice-president of the Scientific committee on Archaeological Heritage of the National Committee ICOMOS of Russia – talks about Russian legislation on the protection of archaeological heritage. Alexey Anatolyevich was a member of the working group, which drafted Federal Law No. 245 “On the amendments in the legislative acts of the Russian Federation on combating illicit activity in archaeology”.

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