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Digging Into U.K. and U.S. Archaeological Laws

digging into uk us archaeological laws blog

While metal detecting farmland close to his home in Staffordshire, England, Terry Herbert, an unemployed metal detecting enthusiast, stumbled on the largest, most jaw-dropping discovery of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork ever found, anywhere in the world.

U.K. Treasure Act of 1996

In accordance with the Treasure Act of 1996, Mr. Herbert reported the “Staffordshire Hoard” to the Portable Antiquity Scheme’s Finds Liaison Officer for Staffordshire and the West Midlands. The Treasure Act legally compels relic hunters in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland to report and relinquish ownership of gold and silver “treasure” to the crown. In turn, the relic hunter and landowner are financially compensated at the treasure’s market value.

Staffordshire Hoard

From top left to bottom right the items are: Part of helmet cheek piece (left) “Fish and Eagles” (above and right of cheek piece), sword fitting or dagger hilt (right of cheek piece), folded cross (top right) mount with entwined pattern within rectangle (above strip), hilt piece with inlaid intertwining pattern (middle), pyramid-shaped mount or sword fixing (above strip), pyramid-shaped mount or sword fixing, stud with checkerboard pattern, folded band with Latin inscription (lower left), small round stud horse-patterned rod (lower right). Lower left, the folded gold band is inscribed with the Latin inscription surge d[omi]ne [et] dispentur inimici tui et fugent qui oderunt te a facie tua which could be translated as “rise up, o Lord, and may thy enemies be scattered and those who hate thee be driven from thy face.”

Speaking of the “Staffordshire Hoard,” remember that unemployed metal detectorist? Well, the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery acquired the hoard for a cool £3.285 million in 2010. The treasure proceeds were split by Mr. Herbert and the landowner of the Staffordshire farm field where the treasure was discovered. To see more items from this amazing collection, click here.

U.K. Portable Antiquity Scheme

While the Treasure Act was created to protect culturally significant archaeological finds, it fell short of creating a system that furthered the archaeological record of England and Wales. To account for the items that were not classified as treasure, the Portable Antiquity Scheme was created.

Portable Antiquities Scheme

A screenshot of the Portable Antiquities Scheme’s database interface.

Managed by the British Museum, the Scheme (program) encourages relic hunters to work with archaeologists; who in turn, record the hunter’s finds into the official archaeological record. Once the object has been recorded, it’s returned to the finder along with additional information and the history of the object. Since 1999, finds have been stored in an online database that is accessible to the public. At the time of this publication, the database contained 1,224,554 objects within 774.355 records.

Partnerships in Archaeology

In addition to growing the archaeological record, the Portable Antiquities Scheme is also focused on building a long lasting, fruitful partnership with the public, especially those in the metal detecting community. In order to deliver on their partnership building objectives, the Scheme:

  • promotes the maximum public interest and benefit from the recovery, recording and research of portable antiquities;
  • promotes best practice by finders/landowners and archaeologists/museums in the discovery, recording and conservation of finds made by the public
  • in partnership with museums and others, raises awareness among the public, including young people, of the educational value of recording archaeological finds in their context and facilitate research in them
  • creates partnerships between finders and museums/archaeologists to increase participation in archaeology and advance our understanding of the past
  • supports the Treasure Act, and increase opportunities for museums to acquire archaeological finds for public benefit.

Such positions are in sharp contrast to those put forth by the archaeological professionals in the United States.

Archaeological Laws of the United States

The Archaeological Resources Protection Act, otherwise known as ARPA, became law in 1979 at a time when the Federal Government was having difficulties enforcing the outdated Antiquities Act. ARPA created severe penalties (felonies & fines) for the illegal excavation, collection, or sale of archeological resources from public land or Indian land. ARPA also further defined what constitutes an “archaeological resource,” closing many of the legal loopholes afforded by the Antiquities Act.   

The law was presented as a way to accomplish two things: (1) protect archaeological resources and sites on public lands and Indian lands for the benefit of present and future Americans, and (2), to foster increased cooperation and exchange of information between governmental authorities, the professional archaeological community, and private individual…

For those who search for, recover, collect, trade, or buy/sell artifacts know all too well that the latter half of that statement is downright laughable. ARPA does nothing to create a cooperative environment between the government, professional archaeologists, and the public. In fact, it discourages it.

The law has stirred controversy, confusion, and a deep distrust of the federal government among collectors. While reputable relic hunters, collectors, and dealers support the enforcement of laws that protect sacred land and artifacts, there have been controversial cases of its enforcement.

One can point to the 2009 federal raid that occurred in Utah as an example. More than 150 armed agents raided the homes of 16 residents that were accused of looting, collecting, and selling Native American artifacts. Such a show of force alarmed locals; who in their own right, were also long time collectors of Native American artifacts—many of which had collected artifacts for generations.

Indian Vessel

Recovered by federal agents in the Utah raid, this vessel dates from A.D. 700 to 1400. Image courtesy of Smithsonian.

ARPA also spawned a rash of state and local laws that govern the excavation, removal, and trade of artifacts—many of which are conflictive, leaving relic hunters and metal detecting enthusiasts confused and vulnerable to criminal prosecution.

Import British Archaeological Programs?

This begs the question; could the United States implement a program similar to the one-two punch of U.K.’s Treasure Act and the Portable Antiquities Scheme? It’s an interesting question. My gut instinct is that such laws and programs, as currently composed, would be difficult to enact in America.

First, Anglo-Saxon gold hoards aren’t being recovered in Nebraska farm fields. The vast majority of artifacts recovered by hobbyists are lead musket balls, buttons, arrowheads, pottery, and glass. Most of which would not carry the kind of monetary reward that would incentivize one to share their finds with the government.

As for an American equivalent to the Portable Antiquities Scheme, that too would be a hard sell. American’s are naturally skeptical of government oversight and very individualistic—think “finders keepers” and “no trespassing.” Those cultural norms don’t bode well for the sharing and/or forfeiture of property for the betterment of American archaeology.

Starting Point

The reward system established in the U.K. Treasure Act of 1996 and the archaeological partnership program of the Portable Antiquities Scheme should serve as inspiration for American archaeology and its laws. While they aren’t an exact fit America, the foundational principles that inspired their creation should be studied and adapted to address the needs of American archaeology. Besides, America has a history of stealing great ideas from Britain, why should this be any different?

 

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