Wednesday 19 February 2014

Some Loose Thoughts on Treasure Laws in the UK

One of the several "Anonymous"  commentators on the Andy Baines blog seem intent on getting my views on this that and the other. He or she asks: "So would you rather see a change in the current English/Welsh treasure act legislation, something along the lines of the Scottish act maybe?". I posted a reply, but for some reason it did not appear on the blog, so I'll answer it here.
I am not sure why you offer just one alternative, there are 180-something national legislations concerning dug-up antiquities (both local and imported) out there globally to compare with those of the UK, there are other variant forms to choose from and assess from various points of view.  Yes, of course Britain needs a total reform of the Treasure Act. It stands to reason that to define archaeological importance by the material something is made of is plain bonkers and highly atavistic. The Vindolanda tablets, Crosby Garrett helmet, Folkton Drums and Happisburgh handaxe are all excluded from protection by such laws as they are not gold or silver. I discussed this problem briefly in my PIA response to David Gill's piece. I said there that the logical way forward from what we have would be to give the Portable Antiquities Scheme legal status as part of the heritage management system and transfer to it (as an archaeological body) the responsibility and legal power to define what is and is not - for want of a better term - a "national Treasure" (let's modify that stupid name) as the starting point for a process to determine what should happen to it. I imagine the context of the question (on a UK metal detecting blog) was how I would see legislation affecting artefact hunting develop. I would suggest we could build on the pre-existing notions of collaboration and best practice, and the way artefact hunting done responsibly can be harnessed for the sustainable management of a threatened resource. There would have to be mechanisms in place to ensure that maximum public benefit is obtained from the responsible pursuit of an avocation and that the information obtained is suitably archived and made available for use. Again, this would involve a legally-strengthened PAS-like organization serving as the pivot around which such responsible artefact hunting engages with heritage professionals. More legal clout is needed for dealing with illegal artefact hunting. (Changes in the UK legislation involving material on the antiquities market (including dugup in other countries) need implementing too, but I understand this was not the questioner's concern.)

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