Fans of Indiana Jones and National Treasure may dream of one day finding immense wealth buried under their feet. However, in today’s world, not only is it unlikely to find such a treasure, it is also unlikely that the finder will get to keep it. Nations of the world have property laws for archaeological finds, and one such a nation is the United Kingdom. While the finders of wealth may get compensated for their finds in the UK, the treasure itself is often sold off to museums. A good example of the treasure laws that the United Kingdom uses is that of the Staffordshire Hoard. The Staffordshire Hoard is a unique find from a time that scientists do not know much about; even though it is important to study such a find, it should also be a source of pride for the local people and local museums.
The Staffordshire Hoard is a great example of the treasure laws in the United Kingdom because it is a relatively new find, so the new laws regarding treasure and property (known as Crown Property Laws) are in effect.
Sadly for many a treasure hunter, the privilege of ‘finders keepers’ has no basis whatsoever in law. Under the provision of the Treasure Act of 1996, any findings must be reported to the local coroner who will determine ownership. In the case of the Staffordshire Hoard, the findings were deemed to be treasure trove and, as such, to belong to the Crown. (Young 1)
The new law called The Treasure Act of 1996 came into being because of the vagueness of the previous medieval law of Treasure Trove, as part of common law in England and Wales.
[The medieval law of Treasure Trove] was a method of raising revenue and archaeology perhaps was not the priority at the time. The law of Treasure Trove required potential items of Treasure to be reported to a coroner. The definition of these items of Treasure were archaeological objects substantially made of precious metal and had been deliberately buried, not accidentally lost. Additionally the owner or heirs had to be unknown. The coroner would convene a jury to decide whether the items of potential Treasure had been originally lost. If the jury decided the item of potential Treasure had been purposely buried, this would determine the items to be Treasure Trove and thereby the property of the crown. (Bolton 1)
The old common law was also highly ineffective, “In reality the Treasure Trove law asked the jury, with specialists help to 'read dead minds' (Morris; 1996), to decide whether objects of precious metal had been deliberately buried or accidentally lost. This really was an unsatisfactory process.” (Bolton 1) There were several ideas posed on how to fix common law and in the end, the Treasure Act was proposed. The government also instilled another fix called the Portable Antiquities Scheme, in order to cover those finds that were not considered treasure on their own, but were archaeologically important and were buried along with treasure (such as broken pottery pieces.)
The reform of the Treasure Trove law only considered a small portion of the problem of loss of information to the archaeological record. In 1996, the Department of National Heritage published 'Portable Antiquities: a Discussion Document'. This document considered the need to 'improve the recording of all archaeological objects, not just those covered by the law of Treasure Trove' (DNH; 1996). A compromise was reached in the reform of the Treasure Trove law that gave way to the Treasure Act (1996) and the Portable Antiquities Scheme (Bolton 1)
For the Treasure Act and Portable Antiquities Scheme to be useful, the government presiding in England and Wales also had to redefine what they would consider “treasure,” because if there were a considerable amount of treasure, as part of the new Treasure Act, it would become crown property.
A summary of the definition of Treasure;
- Any object other than coins which was made of at least 10 percent of gold or silver and at least 300 years old when found.
- For coins, two or more, from the same find, made of at least 10 percent of gold or silver and at least 300 years old when found.
- Ten or more bronze coins from the same find at least 300 years old when found.
- Associated objects; any object, made of any material that is found in the same place or considered to be with another object that is treasure.
- Prehistoric metalwork, where there are two objects from the same find
- Objects that would have been Treasure Trove - these objects have to be composed of a substantial amount of gold or silver and have been buried with the intention of recovery.
Found objects not covered by this definition of treasure are covered under the Portable Antiquities Scheme.
These objects, for example include shreds of pottery, worked flint and stone and bronze objects…The Treasure Act (1996) and the Portable Antiquities Scheme compliment each other and both contribute to the archaeological record and development of our knowledge... (Bolton 1)
In the case of the Staffordshire Hoard, and most finds in recent times, the crown typically auctions off the found objects to museums for the net worth of the objects and land and splits the profits between the landowner and finder of the treasure. (Young 1)
After the Staffordshire Hoard was declared treasure and valued at £3.285 million, a huge fundraising campaign to save the hoard for the nation was mounted by the Art Fund on behalf of local, regional and national partners. (“The Find” 1)
By save, this source means that rather than selling off the pieces to many museums across the world, they would keep all of the pieces together in the local museums. They mean saving as in keeping the objects locally in Staffordshire and maintaining local pride in having such an important archaeological discovery. It is really up to the crown whether to sell to the local museums, but many groups (from the average to the extreme) believe the items should remain local. A group called the Mercian nationalists’ (as in the former Anglo-Saxon kingdom) have gone so far as to say that the crown has no right to even own the pieces because it was found on Mercian territory.
'Mercians' declared themselves independent from the rest of the United Kingdom in 2003. They believe that the current political system is illegal and that the UK has no legal authority in the Kingdom of Mercia. Jeff [the convener of the Acting Witan- which is the name of an Anglo-Saxon parliament] has already written to the Queen twice to claim that the gold belongs to Mercia and that the British Crown has stolen The Hoard. (Heath 1)
Jeff Kent “told hundreds of people queuing to see the treasure [at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery]: ‘In accordance with The Constitution of Mercia, the law of the land, the Hoard belongs in Staffordshire, where it was found, and the Acting Witan hereby declares that this fabulous Mercian treasure will remain in the shire, freely accessible to all the citizens of the region and future generations in perpetuity.’” (“Hoard Belongs to Mercian Kingdom.” 1) This view may seem strange to those of us on the other side of the pond, but at the core of their views is one very important idea: that the hoard stay within the area.
“While the Mercian nationalists’ view is regarded a little extreme, it isn’t isolated and there is strong feeling within the area that the Hoard should remain within the Midlands. In consequence, a campaign has been launched to raise the money to buy the artifacts and place them on display in the cities of Birmingham and Stoke. Parts of the treasure were displayed at the Potteries Museum in Stoke-on-Trent and in Birmingham Museum, attracting huge local interest. Over 40,000 people came to see the hoard in Birmingham (the museum extended opening hours to accommodate them) and 50,000 visited the temporary display in Stoke: the exhibition was extended for a further month and is currently (March 2010) still running. In October 2009, in partnership with local authorities, the British Museum and the Portable Antiquities Fund (as well as a range of other bodies) the two museums set up an appeal to raise the £3.3 million required to secure the Staffordshire Hoard for permanent display in the Midlands. By late February, over £1m had been raised through public and corporate donations.” (Young 1)
Overall, this essential idea of keeping a local treasure in the area is met with agreement all around in Staffordshire, and currently both museums (the Birmingham Museum and the Potteries Museum) have raised enough to pay the £3.3 million, although they are raising another £1.7 million to continue the archaeological dig.
This controversial issue of whether or not to share archaeological evidence with the world is growing. Although the information to be gained by these finds may be spread worldwide, someday we may find that pieces of art will be contained locally and that we as individuals will have to travel to gain firsthand experience with ancient artworks. For today, though, the Staffordshire Hoard remains in the hands of the crown– or rather the museums that have bought it– and such a great find will hopefully bring more knowledge about the kingdoms of old.
Bolton, Angie. “The Portable Antiquities Scheme: Treasure Act 1996” Worcester City Museums. Web. November 26, 2012. http://www.worcestercitymuseums.org.uk/archaeo/pant/tact.htm Updated web link: https://finds.org.uk/treasure
Heath, Chris. “Gold Hoard at the Potteries Museum.” February 26, 2012. BBC: Stoke and Staffordshire. Web. November 26, 2012. http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/stoke/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_8539000/8539011.stm
“The Find.” City of Stoke on Trent. Web. November 26, 2012. http://www.staffordshirehoard.org.uk/
Wood, Michael. In search of the dark ages. New York City and Oxford, England: Facts on File Publications 1987. Book.