What happens to finds, and who owns them?
When an ancient artefact is discovered, such as a coin, brooch or pot, it is still the property of the person who
owns the land where it was found.
Newspapers and news programmes sometimes carry reports of people finding fabulous artefacts or hoards of ancient
treasure - metal detectorists, walkers, children or even dogs have been known to turn up gold coins, Roman silver
tableware or Bronze Age or Anglo-Saxon weapons. More often, less spectacular finds but which are equally
interesting to archaeology, such as copper coins, small bronze brooches, potsherds and flints are picked up.
Sometimes the impression is given that the finders can just keep what they have discovered, but this is far from
the case in reality.
The legal owner of all finds found on dry land above the coastal tide-line is the owner of the land upon which they
were discovered, except where the discovery comes under the terms of the 1996 Treasure Act. This says that anything
over 300 years old, and over ten percent precious metal or least ten in number counts as treasure (unless the finds
are coins and then two constitutes a hoard), or if less than 300 years old it must have been buried with the
intention of recovering it. Treasure then becomes the responsibility of the state, and landowners and/ or finders
may be paid a proportion of its value under the terms of the 1996 Act. Normally, many landowners are not too
bothered about members of the public keeping the occasional potsherd or flint picked up whilst walking along legal
rights of way (although it is always best to check this with them), but they can much more concerned about
material of greater quantity or value, especially when it is stolen or looted during unauthorised access to their
land. Archaeologists doing fieldwork or excavations should make a written agreement with the landowner which states
clearly what will happen to the finds - normally these are retained by the archaeologist for study, conservation
and publication before being sent to a museum.
When finds are offered by their owner to a local or national museum - this is a public-spirited gesture because the
objects will then always be looked after and available for anyone to study and research, even if they are kept in
store and not displayed. In other cases, they are sold on the antiquities market, when they mostly lose all
association with their find-spot and therefore forfeit most, or all of their significance to archaeological
research. The best place to go if you are unsure about what a find is, or who owns it, or whether it is likely to
be affected by the Treasure Act, is your local museum or contact the Portable Antiquities Scheme, which exists to
help people who have found something and who need further advice.
Return to Metal Detecting.